I first met Jerry just after he had dumped poor Joyce Maynard and I tried to comfort her. She may not recall it today, because she was so distraught, wandering on a lonely road in Cornish, New Hampshire, lugging a suitcase when I pulled up in my VW and asked if she needed a ride. Tearfully she told me what had just happened, that after a year Salinger had dumped her — just told her to move out that night, without warning. I dropped her off at a Trailways depot, got her phone number and we parted, but I vowed to confront Salinger on her behalf. That was the last I ever saw of her.
None of this, I’m pretty sure, is in either of the two new books (and movie) on J.D. Salinger just out, so maybe it’s a good time to fill in a few of the blanks about the time I crossed paths with Jerry. You want revelations? I’ll give you revelations!
Joyce gave me directions to Jer’s house, perched on a remote hillside and hidden by trees and overgrown brush that several other journalists had braved to ring his doorbell, only to be ordered to leave the premises as two pit bulls growled. I tried a different tack. I appealed to Jerry’s spiritual side and said I was a Jehovah’s Witness. He opened the door wider, put the dogs back in their cages and we chatted on the porch swing about religious matters, which I neatly faked, but somehow he bought it.
Jer dropped his defensive manner and invited me in for a cup of seaweed tea and a plate of poppy seeds, served us by a pert teenage girl in cut-offs he introduced as Esme. “It’s always nice to have company,” he said. “It can get pretty darn lonely up here.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, winking.
The living room was strewn with pillows (no chairs) and he was wearing a tatty silk bathrobe and slippers, shuffling about like a man much older than he was then — 56. He came to life when I pointed to an old Underwood typewriter and asked what he was working on. “I’m doing a polish for a Brooke Shields movie,” he said. He had a serious crush on Brooke, he confessed (she was then about 15) and said he hoped to meet her when he went to Hollywood in a few weeks to take a meeting with the director.
“I had no idea you were writing movies,” I said. “I’d heard you were working on your latest unpublished work” — “The Catcher in the Barley.” “Nah, we just put that out there to tantalize people,” he chuckled. He indicated a publicist in an adjoining room whose job it was to grind out releases about Salinger’s supposedly reclusive life. “It drives the press crazy,” he said, “but it also drives up demand for my screen work.”
He said he had done several film script rewrites for everything from E.T.: The Extraterrestrial to Animal House and a couple of Hobbit movies; he did un-credited work for a few early Woody Allen films. His TV credits include several Dynasty’s, a couple of early Law and Orders and Rhoda. He said he had also contributed some stuff to Buddy Hackett and Joey Bishop.
“That was just to pay the bills,” he shrugged. His real work was a Holden Caulfield mystery set at a prep school where one of the teachers is found murdered and Holden and his kid sister Phoebe set about to find the culprits. “I like to think it’s a little in the style of Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. Holden is a tipsy amateur detective and Phoebe is his wisecracking partner. They drink a lot of rye whiskey while trying to catch the bad guys — it’s sort of a play on Catcher in the Rye, which some people may not get. My agent is crazy about it. So even if Little, Brown turns it down, Arnie says it’s a natural for a PBS mystery.”
Jerry was hardly a hermit, writing madly day and night — again, part of the myth that has paid off handsomely over the years to fan sales of his handful of books. He said he wasn’t that interested in writing, but did enjoy knocking out limericks for friends’ birthdays. He told me he got out of the house a lot, usually in disguise — a goatee, monocle and Fu Manchu mustache. “I look like a very tall Toulouse-Lautrec. Nobody ever recognizes me when I’d go into New York for a weekend on the town.”
He usually took in a few musicals (Cats was a special favorite) and dined at one of his favorite restaurants — the Second Avenue Deli, Grey’s Papaya on 72nd Street and a Burger Heaven near Saks. He was also partial to carmelized nuts on sidewalk carts.
“I love to shop,” he confessed. “I can spend hours in Bloomie’s.” He also liked to poke around the Strand looking to see how much his books were selling for used. For his own reading he favored Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel. “That usually surprises people,” he told me, “but I like to see what the real people are reading, not what Kakutani, Maslin and that bunch are going gaga over.”
I asked him if he ever visited the duck pond in Central Park anymore, and he said, “Nah, that got old real fast, but I always try to stop in at Tavern on the Green when I’m up that way.”
Jerry dated a lot and met women much the way he met Maynard, spotting their photo on a magazine cover and then writing them a short sensitive note. He met Carol Lynley that way, when she was a Noxzema model, also Ivory soap’s Marilyn Chambers, but he says she dumped him for Norman Mailer. “It’s a neat way to meet chicks,” Jerry said, but he would also hang out at a local singles bar in Cornish. “I’d ditch the disguise, of course, and I did OK for a middle-aged guy. Met a hot meter maid I kept company with for a spell.”
Jer said he also would visit Lourdes every few years to seek out what he called “spiritual type gals,” and also held writing seminars at his home. “A lot of local Cornish housewives are thwarted novelists I’d help if I could. They never knew who I was, at least not until about the third date. I didn’t like to trade on my name at first. Some of them mixed me up with Pierre Salinger. Pierre, that old roué, used to go around saying he was me.”
I only saw Jerry a few times after that. We’d usually meet in the Village, at the old Lion’s Head tavern, a favorite writers’ hangout. Pete Hamill, Bill Sheed, and Breslin were always there, but they were too busy shouting at each other even to recognize Salinger. It was the ideal place for him to go incognito. Jerry didn’t drink but he liked the atmosphere, and one time a cute waitress caught his eye but he couldn’t get anywhere.
“Betcha can’t guess who I am,” he said slyly. She had no idea. “I’m J.D. Salinger — you probably read me in high school.” The girl shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said.
“What time do you get off?” he asked. Jer was nothing if not a persistent bloke.
“I don’t date writers now. My first night here I met this one guy, Philip Roth. That was plenty for me. Would you gentlemen like to see our dessert menu?”