A different perspective on the secret Salinger
SLIGHT Rebellion off Madison, the short story that would become JD Salinger’s iconic novel Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1941. This first incarnation of Holden Caulfield appeared in The New Yorker flanked by ads for the joints the disillusioned young man might frequent. The Dorset, off Fifth Avenue, featuring Fred Witmer “and his piano suavities”; the “leisurely serenity” of the Barclay Dining Room.
In the story, Holden, home from prep school, gets drunk after dancing with his girl Sally at the Wedgwood Room. Holden’s style, Salinger tells us, “was long, slow side steps back and forth, as though he were dancing over an open manhole”. This is an augury, and Holden will soon lay bare his disaffection, begging Sally to run away to Vermont or Massachusetts: “I’m in bad shape. I’m in lousy shape. Look, Sally. How would you like to just beat it?”
Much has been made of the link between Holden’s hatred of New York life, of “phonies”, and his creator’s distaste for the publicity that followed the success of Catcher in the Rye. In 1953 Salinger fled that city where he was born for an increasingly reclusive life in New Hampshire. His final work, a long story, Hapworth 16, 1924, was published in 1965 and widely panned.
Salinger’s resolve never to publish again appeared to be waning in 1996 when the small Or- My Salinger Year By Joanna Rakoff Bloomsbury, 272pp, $27.99 chises Press proposed to publish Hapworth as a novella. Salinger’s delicate, precarious negotiations over this ill-fated deal — a side-stepping dance not unlike Holden’s — are described in Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year.
Rakoff, a college graduate in “neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath”, briefly worked as an assistant to Salinger’s agent, Phyllis Westberg, at New York’s venerable Harold Ober Associates. “Jerry”, as Salinger was known in their hushed, lamplit offices, is one of a stellar client list that includes Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.
Rakoff’s memoir vibrantly details the oldeworld agency with its Rolodexes “of enormous magnitude” and pedal-powered Dictaphones, a place without computers or photocopiers, where letters were carbon copied in “a paper sandwich” on “pulpy yellow paper”. Rakoff is tasked to type form letters to Salinger’s fans and fob off his endless flow of invitations. It was Salinger’s wish that no correspondence or calls be forwarded to him.
Westberg, a cross between “Don Corleone and Lauren Bacall”, arrives at work “swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses”. She instructs Rakoff never to call Salinger and warns, “He doesn’t want to read your stories. Or hear how much you loved The Catcher in the Rye.” When Rakoff claims she has no stories, Westberg is pleased. “Writers,” she says, “always make the worst assistants.”
Perhaps because this woman, with her “low patrician voice”, is so enigmatic, Rakoff catalogues her every mannerism. At times this