J.D. Salinger Biography


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Birth Name: J.D. Salinger
Born: 01/01/1919
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA
Death Place: Cornish, New Hampshire, USA
Died: 01/28/2010


Born on New Year's Day in 1919, Salinger was raised with his older sister, Dorothy, by his father Sol, a Polish Jew who sold kosher cheese, and his mother, Miriam, whom he thought was also Jewish until he learned otherwise following his bar mitzvah. After attending public schools on Manhattan's West Side, he spent ninth and tenth grade at the private McBurney School, where he exhibited a talent for acting in school plays despite objections from his father. He left McBurney and New York City proper to attend the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, PA, where he started writing for the school paper while secretly penning his own short stories. Salinger spent his freshman year of college at New York University, studying to enter the special education field, only to drop out the following spring. Instead of attending another university, however, Salinger was sent by his father to Vienna, Austria, to work at a meat-packing plant. But as luck would have it, he spent only a month in the country and left right before Nazi Germany annexed the national in March 1938.

For a semester, Salinger went to Ursinus College in the aptly named Collegeville, PA, then left to attend an evening writing class at Columbia University. Though indistinguishable from the other students, Salinger separated himself from the herd near the end of the semester, impressing professor Whit Burnett with his final three short stories. Burnett, who had been the longtime editor of Story magazine, published Salinger's vignette about aimless youth, "The Young Folks," in a 1940 edition of the magazine. Following his debut as a published writer, Salinger maintained a mentorship and correspondence with Burnett for several years. Meanwhile, as the war raged in Europe and in the Pacific, Salinger began dating Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona, a self-absorbed socialite who began seeing Charlie Chaplin, whom she later married. In 1941, Salinger began working as an activity director aboard a Caribbean cruise ship, all the while continuing to churn out short stories. He attempted to have his work published in The New Yorker, only to find himself routinely rejected. Finally, the magazine accepted "Slight Rebellion off Madison," which first introduced the anguished teenager, Holden Caufield. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the magazine decided the story was not publishable.

Salinger had to wait until 1946 for the story to finally appear in the pages of The New Yorker. In the meantime, he was drafted into the Army in 1942 and saw combat with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, with whom he fought at Utah Beach during the D-Day Invasion and later at the Battle of the Bulge. Also during the war, Salinger sought out the friendship of Ernest Hemingway, who at the time was a war correspondent in Paris. Impressed with Salinger's talent, Hemingway maintained a correspondence with Salinger following the war. Before his time was over in Europe, Salinger worked in counter-intelligence, interrogating prisoners of war, thanks to his fluency in French and Germany. He was also one of the first soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp, which left an indelible impression on his psyche. In fact, Salinger was deeply traumatized by the war and became hospitalized for several weeks for battle fatigue following Germany's defeat. Though he soon recovered, Salinger was permanently distressed from his experiences, which was evident later in his work.

While serving in the war, Salinger continued to write, publishing several stories in magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, while maintaining a steady stream of rejection letters from The New Yorker. After Germany's defeat, he continued his counter intelligence duties, helping with the Denazification process immediately following the war. He married Sylvia Welter, whom he brought to the United States, only to see their marriage fall apart in less than a year. With the help of mentor Whit Burnett, Salinger was set to publish a series of short stories through Story's own press, but was rejected by the publisher, leading to the two becoming estranged. He finally broke through with The New Yorker when they published "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," a darkly comic tale about the suicide of a disturbed man that earned Salinger instant acclaim and a first-look deal with the magazine. The story also introduced the world to the Glass family, a group of fictional characters who would go on to be the subjects of several more short stories.

In need of money, Salinger reluctantly agreed to selling the rights to his story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" in 1948 to independent producer, Samuel Goldwyn. But instead of staying faithful to the source material, Goldwyn turned the story into a melodramatic drama called "My Foolish Heart" (1949), starring Dana Andrews, Susan Heyward and Kent Smith that was blasted by critics, despite a few individual Academy Award nominations. As a result, Salinger refused to sell his work to Hollywood again, making "My Foolish Heart" the only authorized adaptation of his work. In 1951, Salinger entered the pantheon of American literature when he wrote and published The Catcher in the Rye a simple narrative about expelled prep school teenager, Holden Caufield, who narrates his experiences in New York City following his expulsion. Full of profanity and rampant sexuality while telling the story of an angst-ridden teenager who becomes a classic example of an unreliable narrator, The Catcher in the Rye met with mostly positive reviews while becoming an enormous hit. So popular was the book that it was reprinted eight times in just two months following its release.

Over the years, The Catcher in the Rye became one of the most influential novels of all time, though sometimes to ill effect, while being challenged repeatedly in courts of law for its supposed vulgarity. Though controversial, the novel was held in high regard, often being cited as one of the best to be published in the 20th century. Having been translated into just about every language imaginable, The Catcher in the Rye sold over 65 million copies over the decades since first being published, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. But in the wake of the novel's success, Salinger grew increasingly reclusive, first moving to Cornish, NH in 1953, where he remained social with the locals, particularly with the students of Windsor High School, whom he often invited over to play records and discuss their problems. One student, Shirley Blaney, persuaded Salinger to be interviewed for the school's paper, The Daily Eagle. Following the interview appearing in print, Salinger cut off all contact with the students, offering no apparent reason for his sudden action. Meanwhile, he published Nine Stories, a collection of previously published stories from The New Yorker, which remained a New York Times bestseller for three months and only added to his popularity and subsequent seclusion.

In 1961, Salinger published Franny and Zooey, a two-part mythical love story that ruminated on his interest in Zen Buddhism and other eastern religious philosophies that was originally published as two short stories in The New Yorker, "Franny" (1955) and "Zooey" (1957). Salinger followed up with another two-part novella, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), which focused again on the Glass family, particularly Buddy Glass, who remembers his brother, Seymour, who committed suicide in Salinger's 1948 short story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Meanwhile, Time magazine devoted a 1961 cover story about Salinger, which profiled his work and life as a recluse. While the magazine triumphantly declared that he intended on turning the Glass family chronicles into a trilogy, Salinger instead published the short story, "Hapworth 16, 1924" in The New Yorker, which marked an end to his publishing career. He spent the last remaining decades of his life battling would-be filmmakers and biographers while trying to maintain a tight grip on his self-imposed seclusion. He entered into a relationship with Joyce Maynard, an 18-year-old writer and student a Yale University, who forewent her scholarship to move in with Salinger at his Cornish home, only to have him, according to her, abruptly end the affair.

In 1974, Salinger gave a rare interview with The New York Times, in which he stated that he continued to write even though he had stopped being published. According to Maynard, he had material enough for two full novels by that point, perhaps indicating that the world had not seen the last of his work. Meanwhile, Salinger struggled to maintain his anonymity despite fans and students from nearby Dartmouth College making pilgrimages to Cornish in hopes of catching a glimpse of the author. Upon learning that British writer Ian Hamilton intended to publish In Search of Salinger: A Writing Life (1935-65), a biography that included numerous personal letters he had written, Salinger unleashed his lawyers to prevent the book's publication. But the book did eventually reach publication in 1988, though the contents of the letters were paraphrased due to a court decision. Meanwhile, A Catcher in the Rye continued to sell around 250,000 copies per year, while maintaining a profound influence on both the culture and individuals, though sometimes to ill effect. In 1980, Mark David Chapman was found carrying a copy while shooting Beatle John Lennon to death. He later said that the book could explain his perspective and even read a passage in court during his trial. The association with Chapman would unfortunately taint the book as some kind of manifesto for the emotionally disturbed.

Though obsessed with Jodie Foster from her "Taxi Driver" (1976) days, would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley, Jr., was also carrying a copy of A Catcher in the Rye in March 1981 when he nearly fatally wounded the president outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. In 1989, obsessed stalker Robert John Bardo, inspired by Mark David Chapman, brought with him his own copy of Salinger's book when he shot and killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer in her Los Angeles apartment. Despite the negative connotations associated with the book, including a fictional depiction that the FBI tagged buyers of the book in Richard Donner's "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), Salinger maintained his silence. Meanwhile, some details of his life came to life when Maynard published At Home in the World: A Memoir (1999), which divulged in detail her relationship with Salinger and contained the letters they exchanged before she moved in with him. Also, Salinger's daughter, Margaret, published Dream Catcher: A Memoir (2000), which did much to dispel the many myths surrounding her father.

As he continued to fend off numerous Hollywood suitors hoping to be the one he would sell to, Salinger amassed a body of unpublished work that his daughter claimed had a detailed filing system on what and how to publish in case of his death. He also continued to battle the unauthorized publication of his work; this time in the form of a relatively unknown Swedish author who penned a sequel to A Catcher in the Rye called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which featured a Holden Caufield-like character musing about his escape from a nursing home. The case remained on appeal in 2009. The following year, news broke that Salinger had died on Jan. 27, 2010. According to his son, Matt Salinger, the author passed away of natural causes in his Cornish, NH home. He was 91. Despite the loss of a literary giant, some hoped that the massive body of work he was alleged to have written would finally see the light of day. As Salinger, himself, put it: "I hope to hell that when I do die, somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddamn cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."