The little known (but long rumored) affair between J.D. Salinger and Julia Child is alleged to have taken place in March of 1952, just after The Catcher in the Rye came out at the same time Julia Child was gathering material for her landmark 1961 classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
It was inevitable the two would meet, given Salinger’s fondness for coq au vin and Child’s cynical despair at the depths to which humanity had sunk in World War II. The historic meeting occurred in the apartment of Arnold Plotkin, a young ambitious literary agent who tried to put together a deal with Knopf guaranteed to produce a blockbuster best-seller featuring two of the hottest sure-fire names in publishing, which includes six rejected Child short stories with four of Salinger’s favorite vegetarian recipes.
Plotkin’s book is expected to capitalize on the glut of Salinger and Child memoirs. The explosive Salinger-Child rendezvous is revealed at last in the memoir, which tells of the sizzling two hours that Salinger and Child spent together in Plotkin’s Greenwich Village apartment in August 1959.
When Jerry Met Julia, as Plotkin’s book is called, is expected to create a sensation when it hits bookstores next week. Meanwhile, this reviewer has managed to procure a copy of the memoir and can report that the long-awaited book reveals new sides of both the brooding novelist with a surprising flair for ragouts and the cheery French chef whose jolly laugh masked a disdain for all the phony wannabe sauciers and sommeliers she met at the Cordon Bleu cooking academy.
Their unlikely fling, when both were married, was brief but torrid. Child was drawn to Salinger, a tall person not unlike herself (Julia’s husband Paul was devoted to her but also much shorter), by the reclusive writer’s interest in learning how to make a decent cheese omelette. As Salinger wrote in his diary, he was mad for Child’s way with a whisk.
Their opposite but complementary natures merged after Salinger, at Plotkin’s urging, telephoned Child and asked if she might give him a few private lessons in braising and poaching, areas he felt deficient in. Salinger suggested they meet at a mutually convenient locale — Plotkin’s Bank Street apartment. She agreed and the romance ignited that afternoon, recalls Plotkin, who was hiding in the hall closet.
As he writes, “When they sat down to dine, it was clear that there was immediate chemistry between the two. Julia told Jerry how much she admired his short story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’ which inspired the lunch she had prepared for them: sautéed bananafish with portobello mushrooms, a duck pate and avocado salad and a mature but not overbearing Reisling.”
Salinger was instantly smitten, recalls Plotkin, and Julia was not unprepared for his suggestion that they take their dessert, a raspberry-walnut tartlet, into the living room, where they ate it side by side on a chaise lounge “looking longingly into each other’s eyes,” according to Plotkin. When she whispered to Salinger, “Where do you get all your ideas?” reports Plotkin, “Jerry just melted. He replied, ‘The same place you get your inspired sea urchins in aspic.’ She promised, ‘I’ll make you a sorrel mousse next time if you’ll read to me from ‘To Esme, with Love and Squalor.’”
Plotkin recalls, “Jerry happened to have a paperback copy in a jacket pocket and, as Julia cleared off the table, he read a few paragraphs from the story.” The author goes on: “When they finished lunch, Julia said she wanted to take off her apron and toque and slip into something more comfortable. When she ducked into my bedroom, Jerry followed her inside, gently closed the door and — well, I guess the rest is literary and culinary history.”
The memoir’s author, now 96, says he was forced to spend five hours in his closet until the disheveled pair finally emerged from the bedroom and left. “As I recall, Julia and Jerry shared a cab uptown, where they said goodbye at Grand Central. Jerry mumbled an abrupt goodbye before grabbing a train to New Hampshire and Julia sadly boarded an express to Boston, the last time they ever saw each other, much to her dismay.
Julia later wrote Jerry asking him to explain “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” but he never responded. She was crushed. Salinger’s taste in French cuisine was short-lived and possibly superficial, notes Plotkin. He became a full vegetarian not long after that.
Plotkin concludes, “It’s hard to say for certain how that afternoon may have influenced their later work, but critics have found that Child’s seafood recipes took on a darker tone after their meeting, while Salinger’s taste in all food declined markedly. He never again mentioned bananafish in his fiction — make of that what you will.”