Telling on Dad

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2000

NEW YORK - Why can't we just leave J.D. Salinger alone?

With the publication next week of Margaret A. Salinger's memoir, "Dream Catcher" - a dark strife-with-father portrait of a bedeviled life, the world will again lift the rock and turn a flashlight on the strange, seclusive writer.

The book has just about everything you'd look for in a Salinger story. Clear writing. Edgy characters. A dash of death. A pinch of sex. A dollop of loneliness. And lots and lots of weirdness.

Like: a sadistic uncle, a torpedoed ship full of children, Viennese friends killed in concentration camps, kidnapping threats.

At one point Peggy's mother, Claire, was so despairing, she laid out a plan to murder her daughter and commit suicide. She left Salinger instead. Another time, Peggy says, Claire may have started a fire that burned down the house.

Like: many references to Salinger's interest in young, pure-as-snow girls.

Like: his refusal to allow visitors into the house or Peggy into his closet or bathroom. His office and bedroom were locked and off-limits.

Like: eruptions of violence and wrath and constant belittling of those he loves.

Like: the tragic notion that Salinger was more loving and giving to his fictional characters than to his own children. "Unlike me," Peggy writes, "his ten-year-old characters, my fictional siblings, were perfect, flawless, reflections of what my father likes."

Today Peggy Salinger, 44, looks nothing like a little girl.

Slender and toothy, she wears a red jacket, red blouse, gray slacks, ruby shoes and a gold watch on her left wrist that doesn't work. She has Prussian blue eyes, high cheekbones and a new Halle Berry-like haircut.

She is a mother, a singer and a newly published author.

She lives in the Boston area with her husband, Larry, and her young son, who is in grammar school.

"My life is so delightfully normal," she says.

Well. As normal as life can be if your last name is Salinger. Many people she meets - telephone repairmen, airline ticket clerks - ask her if she is related to the man who wrote "The Catcher in the Rye," the book that changed their lives.

People look to her father hoping that he will understand them, she explains. "To be their catcher in the rye."

She's staying at New York's Plaza Hotel under an Irish alias. Outside her fourth-floor fountain-view window the sun is shining. And it's raining. And children are laughing and rushing past their parents into FAO Schwarz.

She doesn't want to talk about her son or her home. She has hired a "threat management" company to help her deal with potential crazies who might come out of the woodwork.

She doesn't talk to her younger brother, Matthew, an actor and producer in California. She hasn't seen or spoken with her father since he found out that she was writing this book.

"I knew he'd be furious at the idea of it," she says. "Our family doesn't confront things."

He's profoundly deaf, she says. But he's still in good shape.

And, she adds, "my dad can be really scary when he yells."

Unlike her father, Peggy does get out of the house a lot. She sings with the Tanglewood chorus and serves as a volunteer chaplain at several hospitals. She is just one internship away from a Harvard divinity degree.

"One thing I regret," she says, is that the book might not illustrate "how funny and loving and charming he can be."

Part of the problem, she says, is that she can't quote from his letters. Another writer, Ian Hamilton, tried that technique a few years back and was sued by Salinger. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that letters belong to the person who wrote them. There are photos in the book. Her father did not take the pictures, she explains.

His humor, she says, is hard to translate. It's old-time Jewish humor. Vaudeville shtick. For example, she says, he referred to his first wife, whose name was Sylvia, as "Saliva." And he used to put water on his hand, flick it on the back of Peggy's neck and pretend to sneeze.

He lit up a room when he entered, she says.

Except when he didn't.

"I'm so sick of me and my story and my family," she says.

She's scheduled to be on the "Today" show twice next week talking about those very things. She's bound to be complicated. She's J.D. Salinger's daughter.

Why are we so curious?

OK. So he wrote a novel in 1951, "The Catcher in the Rye," that has become a handbook of high school angst, an American anthem of isolation and alienation, a story in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, wants to spend his days catching young people before they go over the side of a crazy cliff. And Salinger batted out a batch of mostly downer short stories - about suicide and pain - that appeared in The New Yorker. But he hasn't published anything fresh since 1965.

In fact, it is Salinger's expressed desire to live as a hermit in the hills of New Hampshire. There the 81-year-old shares a home with his third wife, Colleen, a nurse who is half a century his junior. He walks. He maintains an exotic health diet. He writes stories that are to be published only after he dies.

So why can't we leave the guy alone?

We all have our reasons. Professors keep celebrating him to students because he speaks to the loneliness of adolescence. Yale professor Harold Bloom once said that the sensitivity of "The Catcher in the Rye" "fits the sensitivity of young people who are going to develop a consciousness and a distrust of the adult world."

JoAnne Lanouette, who has taught "The Catcher in the Rye" at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., says: "You get hooked right into Holden's world and his perspective. The book is about loss. That never gets old."

She says: "You don't get the feeling that his parents love him. He wants to be loved. That desire and wish to be loved is also an ageless desire."

And: "He's scared of moving out of childhood into adulthood. He sees adulthood as a very scary thing - full of sex and people who talk of mundane things."

Perhaps like Peter Pan, Michael Jackson and countless others, Salinger is holding on to childhood. He is arrested, Peggy suggests, in his adolescence.

Psychotics are drawn to Salinger's work. Assassins and would-bes Arthur Bremer, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley and Robert Bardo (who shot TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer) were all carrying copies of "Catcher."

Biographers can't leave him be. For one thing, there's money to be made from a wildly curious public.

Paul Alexander, author of "Salinger," suggests that Salinger may have "ensured he would remain famous for being a recluse. In short, whether he contrived to or not, Salinger has stayed in the public eye by withdrawing from it."

And now along comes Peggy with a book that will not make her father - or her family - seem less bizarre.

This book tells us a lot about Salinger. And not enough.

After all, Peggy lived with him only until she was 12. Then she was packed up and shipped to boarding school.

But when it comes to mysterious icons, we take whatever we can get.

We learn about his childhood as the son of a Jewish businessman and Irish Catholic mother on the Upper West Side; as a student at military school; and as a soldier. He was in counterintelligence during World War II. He saw some heavy combat. He helped liberate a concentration camp, but since he and Peggy are not speaking, she has not asked him the name of the camp.

He arrested a member of the Nazi party, named Sylvia. Then he married her. "Sylvia hated Jews as much as he hated Nazis," Peggy writes.

From "Dream Catcher," we now know that Peggy believes her father expects her to live by a special code:

"Thou shalt not do anything unless it's perfect, thou shalt not be flawed, thou shalt not be woman, thou shalt not grow up."

And it's taken her 44 years, countless hours of therapy and now a memoir to come to terms with it, she says.

Throughout the book, as in her life, Peggy turns to her father's fiction for answers.

"My father's early work," she writes, "is concerned with chartless young men searching for mooring in the purity of a child."

The accent is on purity.

She refers often to his novel and to his short stories. She sees herself in some characters. Her father and mother in others.

He rails against Ivy League collegians, as in the story "Franny." To him, the only kind of friend to have in life is the equivalent of what Yiddish calls a landsman, an immigrant with ties to a home town in Europe. "His search for landsmen led him increasingly to relations in two dimensions: with his fictional Glass family, or with living 'pen pals' he met in letters, which lasted until meeting in person when the three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood presence of them would, with the inevitability of watching a classic tragedy unfold, invariably sow the seeds of the relationship's undoing," she writes.

"My father," she writes, has "on many occasions told me the same thing, that the only people he really respects are all dead."

When he was 31 he fell in love with a 16-year-old girl named Claire Douglas. A few years later, he moved into his house in Cornish, on the property where he still lives. Claire, then a student at Radcliffe, spent long weekends with him.

He tried to get her to drop out of college and marry him. When she refused, he disappeared. "Claire was not a person with her faculties intact," Peggy writes, echoing the ending of his story, "For Esme - With Love and Squalor." Her mother is a major source for the memoir. "When he left, she collapsed. She was hospitalized with a long bout of mononucleosis complicated by a rather dubious appendectomy."

Claire also jumped into marriage with another man that lasted only briefly.

When Salinger came back into her life, she tried to please him in any way she could.

"The whole world was your father," Claire explains to Peggy, "everything he said, wrote, thought."

Just before she graduated from college, Claire dropped out and she and Salinger married. Salinger grumbles, Peggy says, that he's never forgiven a couple of his friends for not speaking up and for "letting him go through with such an obvious mistake." The marriage ended in divorce in the mid-1960s.

Over the years J.D. Salinger has gotten swept up in various spiritual pursuits, including Scientology, Christian Science, speaking in tongues, the teachings of Edgar Cayce and yoga. In 1954, he and Claire traveled to Washington to sit at the feet of Swami Premananda. On the train home, she tells Peggy in the book, "Jerry and I made love in our sleeper car. It was so nice to ... we did not make love that often, the body was evil. ... I'm certain I became pregnant with you that night."

We also learn about Peggy. Sometimes in more domestic detail than we want to know.

Like: how she eats Life Savers. "My system for eating the roll was red, yum; green, yuck, give it to Matthew ..."

Like: She believes in otherworldly things. She once saw a house fairy. "She was as tall as my hand and like a ballerina in stage lights."

She has had premonitions of fire and of a friend's suicide attempt. "Children who grow up in potentially psychotic households develop particularly good antennae," she says. "Or you don't develop."

She was born in 1955, the same year that "Franny" and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" were published in The New Yorker. Salinger wanted to name her Phoebe, the name he gave Holden Caulfield's little sister. But Claire insisted that she be called Margaret Ann.

Peggy can be a hard-working reporter. We learn, for instance, about the world at that time. "I found that the Salingers' lack of religious attendance was not unusual. In 1929, approximately 80 percent of Jewish youth in New York City were found to have had no religious training at all."

She uses other books and her father's letters and old family tax documents to re-create her past. "I'm a historian at heart," she says.

Claire told her that once she had become pregnant with Peggy, Jerry's attraction turned to "abhorrence."

Claire became a virtual prisoner in her own home. From the fourth month of pregnancy, no visitors were allowed in the house.

The couple had very narrow interests. Salinger doesn't enjoy gardening, Peggy says. He has no use for flowers, or for art, that she knows of. He hardly ever listened to music, save for some jazz and the occasional soundtrack.

If there was music in the house, it was his music - singing, whistling. If there was art, it was his art as a writer. He was like a cult leader, Peggy says. "There is something monstrous about human beings who would be God."

This was his dominion and Claire and the children were the sheep of his pasture.

Her mother read to her. Salinger did not. "God help you if you were reading a book he didn't think was a good one," she writes. He did make up stories and he showed movies to his kids. Hitchcock and Hollywood musicals. His favorite, it seems, was "Gigi."

"He's kinky about it," Peggy will say about her father's affinity for teen-age girls.

In the book she recalls meeting Joyce Maynard, an 18-year-old whom Salinger met in 1972 and began dating. Salinger was 53. In 1998, Maynard published the book "At Home in the World," about their romance. To Peggy, who was about the same age, Maynard looked like a 12-year-old girl.

"In the place of a potential stepmother," she writes, "here was this bizarre little sister of sorts. It was so weird. When she got dressed, she was wearing these little Mary Jane-style sneakers, straps and everything ..."

"Bleccch!" she says today and turns her head away at the thought.

She adds quickly, "He was good about my friends." He never acted strangely toward them, she says. "But you don't want to think about some old guy ..."

"Women in his life are walk-on characters," she says, "projections of what he sees, wants to see."

Asked about Maynard, she will only say that she learned a lot about her father from reading Maynard's book. Maynard's story and Claire's story, Peggy says, were virtually identical.

Today Claire is a psychologist in California. (Neither she nor Salinger could be reached for comment.)

Salinger's present wife, Colleen, "hasn't written umpteen memoirs yet," Peggy says. "Thank God."

Since she decided to write the book, she has not spoken with her father. It's been two years.

So why did she write this book, exactly? Why did the daughter of the most private father on Earth decide to fly in the face of that privacy?

"I'm just not playing by those rules anymore," she says, choosing words carefully. "I totally respect and uphold privacy. But not an unhealthy secrecy."

She says she has long had a burning desire to put her life in perspective. "I now understand what I feel I need to understand."


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