There were hundreds of us, thousands of us, carefully dressing in the grey morning light of Brooklyn, Queens, the Lower East Side, leaving our apartments weighed down by tote bags heavy with manuscripts. We read as we stood in line at the Polish bakery, the Greek deli, the corner diner, waiting to order our coffee to take on the train, where we would hope for a seat so that we might read more before we arrived at our offices in midtown, Soho, Union Square. We were girls sharing floor-throughs with other girls like us, assistants at literary agencies or houses or the occasional literary non-profit.
All day we sat, our legs crossed at the knee, on our swivel chairs, answering the call of our bosses, ushering in writers with the correct mixture of enthusiasm and remove. This was my first job, at what had been described to me as “an old, venerable agency . . . The job is with an agent who’s been in the business a long, long time.” The placement agent paused. “Some assistants have found her a bit difficult to work for but others love her. I think you’d be a good match.”
At the time I was reading Jean Rhys and fancied myself akin to her impoverished heroines, living for weeks on nothing but the morning croissant and café crème provided by their residence hotels, the rents on which were, in turn, provided by their married ex-lovers, as compensation for ending their affairs. “My mother’s kind of difficult,” I told the headhunter. “I’m sure it will be fine.”
I didn’t even have a bank account in New York yet. I had so little money there seemed no point. At lunch I would simply buy a cup of coffee and an apple. A couple of dollars, at most. Turkey on a hard roll if I was feeling reckless. One day back at my desk, I set down my sandwich and slipped off my coat. As I pulled out my chair to sit down, my boss appeared in the doorway to her office. “Oh, good, you’re back,” she said. “Come in and have a seat. We have some things to talk about.
“So,” she said, settling in her own chair behind the vast expanse of her desk. “We need to talk about Jerry.”
I nodded, though I had no idea who Jerry was. “People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number. They’re going to ask you to put them in touch with him. Or me.” She laughed at the ridiculousness of this. “Reporters will call. Students. Graduate students.” She rolled her eyes. “They’ll say they want to interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what. Producers will call about the film rights. They’ll try to get around you. They may be very persuasive, very manipulative. But you must never” – behind her huge, heavy glasses her eyes narrowed and she leaned across the desk, like a caricature of a gangster, her voice taking on a frightening edge – “never, never, never give out his address or phone number. Don’t tell them anything. Don’t answer their questions. Just get off the phone as quickly as possible. Do you understand?”
“Never, ever, ever are you to give out his address or phone number.”
“I understand,” I told her, though I wasn’t sure I did, as I didn’t know who Jerry was.
As I left her office, smoothing my skirt, I happened to glance at the bookcases directly to the right of her doorway, on the wall opposite the side of my desk that held the typewriter. I’d been staring at that bookcase all day, staring at it without seeing it, so focused was I on my typing. Books so ubiquitous I barely noticed them: The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories.
Salinger. The Agency represented JD Salinger.
I’d reached my desk before it hit me. Oh, I thought, that Jerry.
. . .
My parents owned most of these Salinger paperbacks but I had read around them. Why? Why had I skipped Salinger? Partly due to happenstance. My high school English teacher never assigned Catcher. No older sibling put a copy in my 14-year-old hands and said, “You have to read this.”
And then my Salinger moment – the window between 12 and 20 when everyone in the literate universe seems to go crazy over The Catcher in the Rye – had passed. Now I was interested in difficult, gritty fictions, in large, expansive novels, in social realism. I had no interest in Salinger’s fairy tales of Old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world. I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey. I didn’t want to be entertained. I wanted to be provoked.
And just as my boss had told me they would, people began to call for Salinger.
Some of the callers were simply old – Salinger’s peers – and perhaps didn’t understand the extent of Salinger’s self-enforced isolation from the world. Often, they had a personal matter to discuss with Salinger: they thought a character in one of his stories was based on their cousin. Or they’d lived down the street from him in Westport in 1950.
Equally harmless were editors of textbooks and anthologies, guilelessly hoping to include “Teddy” in their collection of stories on marriage and divorce.
And then there were the letters. My colleague Hugh, a man of indeterminate age with wolfish eyes and straight ash-brown hair, came by and dropped a bundle of letters in front of me. I looked at him questioningly. I was getting used to the long silences of the office.
“These are the Salinger letters,” he said.
“Oh?” I asked.
“Fan letters. To Salinger.” He sighed and shifted the bundles in his arms. “We need to answer them.”
“OK.” I took a sip of coffee. “Does it matter what I say?”
Tersely, Hugh nodded. “There’s a form letter. Somewhere. I’ll find it.”
Hugh could, to my continual amazement, pull anything one needed from the mountain of paper on his desk. A few minutes later, he returned bearing a disintegrating sheet of the yellow paper used for carbon copies, its edges faded and frayed and soft with handling.
Dear Miss So-and-So:
Many thanks for your recent letter to J.D. Salinger. As you may know, Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him. We thank you for your interest in Mr. Salinger’s books.
The date at the top of the carbon: March 3 1963. It was now 1996.
“So I just send this, verbatim? I just retype it?”
Hugh nodded. “Yep. You don’t need to keep a carbon and you can toss the letters, too.”
“Really?” Nothing was tossed at the Agency. Every bit of correspondence was meticulously copied and filed. I couldn’t believe they’d throw out anything to do with Salinger, in particular.
I took the rubber band off one packet and sifted through the letters, which bore postmarks from all over the world: Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, any number of Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands, everywhere.
Quietly, I began slitting open the envelopes with my thumb, unfolding the letters inside. They were long, far longer than I expected, though what had I expected? I’d never written such a thing myself. What did I know? One contained a friendship bracelet, woven of embroidery thread; another a photo of a small white dog; another, inexplicably, some coins taped to a sheet of ripped, dirty paper.
Many letters came from veterans, confiding in Salinger about their experiences during the war. Now, like Salinger, they were in their seventies and eighties, and they found themselves thinking more and more about the friends who’d died in their arms, the cadaverous bodies at the death camps they’d liberated, the despair they’d felt when they returned home, the sense that no one understood what they’d undergone, no one except Salinger.
What else? Who else? There were what I came to think of as the Tragic Letters: missives from people whose loved ones had found solace in Salinger during their long struggles with cancer, who’d read Franny and Zooey to their dying grandfathers, who’d obsessively memorised Nine Stories in the year after losing their children or spouses or siblings.
And there were the Crazies, ranting about Holden Caulfield in smudged pencil, a dirty lock of hair falling out of the creased paper on to my desk.
But probably the largest group of fans were teenagers, expressing a sentiment that could be summed up as “Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me. And you, Mr Salinger, are surely the same person as Holden Caulfield. Thus, you and I should be friends.”
Schoolgirls professed their love for Holden. “My mother says you won’t write back,” wrote a Canadian high schoolgirl, “but I told her you would. I know you will, because you understand what it’s like to be surrounded by phonies.”
These young people deployed language that I knew derived from The Catcher in the Rye. The repeated use of “goddam” and “crumby” and “as hell” and, of course, “phony”. The boys, I suppose, inclined more toward such imitation than the girls, for the boys wanted to be Holden.
One letter caught my eye:
I’ve read your book “The Catcher in the Rye” three times now. It’s a masterpiece, and I hope that you’re proud of it. You certainly should be. Most of the crap that is written today is so uncompelling it makes me sick. Not too many people have anything to write that even approaches sincerity.
The flat-out nerve of this kid – who was from Winston-Salem, North Carolina – impressed me. Who writes to possibly the most famous living American writer to inform him that his beloved, best-selling book is a masterpiece and he should be proud? Amazing. But the boy’s brio came straight from Holden. He was hoping to impress Salinger with his likeness to Salinger’s hero.
I was finishing this letter – eventually, he gets around to seeking romantic advice from Salinger (“I used to get nervous as hell around girls”) – when Hugh returned, materialising at my desk so silently that I started, as if he were a ghost. “I just realised,” he began. “You should actually read them.
“They’re mostly harmless but occasionally we’ll get a death threat. Back in the 1960s, Salinger got some pretty scary letters. Threatening him. And his kids.” He grimaced.
I gestured to my desk, the letters piled on it, robbed of their envelopes. “I’ve been reading them,” I said. “I was curious.”
“Great,” said Hugh, but he didn’t leave. Did my face, my tone, betray something? Some sentiment of which I wasn’t even aware? “Don’t get too caught up in them.”
One day, I pulled open the drawer to add a few more letters and found it filled to capacity. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed a few letters off the top. Ah, there he was: the boy from Winston-Salem.
I think about Holden a lot. He just pops into my mind’s eye and I get to thinking about him dancing with old Phoebe or horsing around in front of the bathroom mirror at Pencey. When I first think about him I usually get a big stupid grin on my face. You know, thinking about what a funny guy he is and all. But then I usually get depressed as hell. I guess I get depressed because I only think about Holden when I’m feeling very emotional. I can get quiet emotional . . . Most people don’t give a flying hoot about what you think and feel most of the time, I guess. And if they see a weakness, why for God’s sake showing emotion is a weakness, boy, do they jump all over you!
Rolling a piece of paper into the typewriter, I began tapping out the form letter. “Thank you for your recent letter to JD Salinger. As you may know, Mr Salinger does not wish to see his fan mail, so we cannot send your kind letter – ” Kind letter? I stopped there. Could I at least bring the form letter into the modern era? Give this kid a bit of hope? “Quiet emotional?” With a rip, I pulled my letter out of the Selectric and tossed it in the trash can.
. . .
Friday, at the beginning of April, I picked up the phone and heard someone shouting at me. “HELLO? HELLO?” Then something incomprehensible.
“HELLO? HELLO?” More gibberish. Slowly, as in a dream, the gibberish resolved into language. “It’s Jerry,” the caller was shouting. Oh my God, I thought. It’s him. I began, slightly, to quiver with fear, not because I was talking to – or being shouted at by – the actual JD Salinger, but because I so feared doing something wrong and incurring my boss’s wrath. There was no risk of my asking him to read my stories or gushing about The Catcher in the Rye. I still hadn’t read it. “WHO IS THIS?” he asked, though it took me a few tries to understand. “It’s Joanna,” I told him, nine or 10 times, yelling at the top of my lungs by the final three. “I’m the new assistant.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne,” he said, finally, in something akin to a normal voice. Hugh explained later that his wife had set up a special phone for him, with an amplified receiver, but he refused to use it.
Where did these reports of his tyrannical behaviour come from? He was never anything but kind and patient on the phone. More so than plenty of people who called the Agency. More so than plenty of his fans, for that matter. We spoke many more times over the year, and somehow, he figured out my name, or an approximation of it.
I had been told that I would not meet Salinger. That he would not come in, that he had given up New York. The city – the site of his childhood, the setting for most of his stories – exhausted him. The city had prevented him from working after Catcher’s release, when he’d lived in an apartment on Sutton Place, its walls painted black. The city had allowed his second wife, Claire, to abandon him, their baby in tow, on a three-day visit from Cornish, where she spent 12, 14 hours alone with that baby, in a snow-blocked house, while Salinger sat in a shed out back and wrote. One small, sad voice inside me wondered if his removal from New York hadn’t ultimately silenced him, left him without a subject. “I have a question for you,” he often said when he called. But I had questions for him, questions that had accumulated over this year in which I’d tried to console, assuage and calm his readers, in which I’d tried to stay true to his intentions, his ideas, his desires.
On a blustery November afternoon, a tall, slender man strode slowly through the finance department, glancing around with confusion. He wore a pressed flannel shirt tucked into jeans that, too, appeared to have been pressed and his silver hair parted deeply on one side, combed and Brylcreemed in the style of the 1950s and 1960s. No, I thought, though even from afar I could see that this man had large, dark eyes and truly enormous ears, the sort of ears I now knew he’d also bequeathed to poor, doomed Seymour Glass. He was making slow, steady progress towards me, a look of mild panic on his face. I stood up with the intention of running over to Salinger – for that had to be who this was, though his visit had not been mentioned to me – and guiding him to my boss’s office, then froze, hovering over my typewriter.
“Hello, hello,” he said, taking my hand in one of his own and holding it as much as shaking it. His hands were extraordinarily large and warm and dry. “We don’t really need an introduction. We’ve spoken on the phone many times.” In person, his speech was less garbled, his voice less loud. He looked at me, dark eyes shining, as if for confirmation. “We have,” I agreed.
“Well, it’s wonderful to finally meet you.” He still had my hand in his.
“It’s wonderful to meet you, too,” I parroted back, idiotically, resisting a strong and inexplicable urge to hug him. It was easy to imagine my boss, briefing her next assistant: “No matter how close to his work you feel, you are not to embrace him.”
I was also thinking about those letters in my desk. There were, at that exact moment, three half- drafted responses sitting in the drawer with the fan letters. Irrationally, I feared that Salinger might somehow open the drawer and discover them, this breach of policy, of his instruction.
In my desk lay the letter from Winston-Salem, two neatly typed pages, and ending:
I’ll write you again soon. I can hardly wait. Anyway, my line of thought is this: if I was the guy who put myself on to paper and I came out in the form of “The Catcher in the Rye”, I’d get a bang out of the bastard who had the nerve to write me a letter pretending (and wanting) to be able to do the same thing.
I’d read this letter a dozen times now, unsure of how to respond. Wouldn’t it be better to simply pass the note on to Salinger and let him decide?
My boss’s door remained closed for a long time, while she talked to Salinger, long enough that I eventually slipped out to buy my sad little salad. When I returned, the door was open and they were gone. An hour later, she returned alone.
Since I left the Agency, more than a decade ago, I’ve reread Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters annually, Catcher every two or three years. My Salinger paperbacks are falling apart, pages crumbling, covers taped together.
I never wrote back to the boy from Winston-Salem but I still have his letter, its creases soft from wear. I keep it pinned to the corkboard above my desk, a talisman, a reminder. In some ways, I wish I’d taken them all. The thought of those letters, those documents of so many people’s lives, just tossed away, grows more unbearable as the years pass. I could have saved them and I didn’t.
This is an edited extract from ‘My Salinger Year’ ©2014 by Joanna Rakoff, published by Bloomsbury on June 5.
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