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J.D. Salinger: The Lost Bar Mitzvah Boy


JD Salinger Image by Kurt Hoffman

The myth about J. D. Salinger I like best is this: Well into his 80s, the famously frugal author would often arrive early for the $12 roast beef dinner at First Congregational Church, in Hartland, Vermont, and would always sit in the same seat, as close to the pies as he could get. This little tale both amused and jolted me, as I imagined the recluse hovering over his horde of pies like a little king in corduroy.

Salinger died in 2010 at the robust age of 91, and 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. Overpraised and undervalued at the same time, Salinger is one of the most misunderstood authors of the 20th century. My own life seems to intersect with the start of his career in a curious way.

A wild child from the South Bronx, I still managed to pass the entrance exam for Music & Art, one of New York’s elite high schools, because, back in 1951, M&A had an overabundance of girls and was on the lookout for young male students with a modicum of talent. I wore my muscle T-shirts to school, but my biceps made little impression on the middle-class princesses from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The princesses often came to school with the latest issue of The New Yorker under their arms, and kept the magazine cradled in their laps during class, while they flipped from page to page and read rapaciously. It took me two whole years to land a date with one of these princesses — call her Jessica — and only after a complete makeover in my manner of dress. I arrived at my princess’s apartment on West End Avenue in white bucks, flannel trousers and a crew cut.

Jessica’s mom and dad peered at me in a pensive way. “Darling,” Jessica’s mother said, “doesn’t he look just like Jerry, with Jerry’s big ears?”

“Jerry” was Jerry Salinger, of course, the iconic writer of the Upper West Side. His best stories had appeared in the The New Yorker, and that’s why Jessica and all the other princesses at M&A had carried that magazine to class, so that they could be the first ones to read Salinger’s latest selection. His novel “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951), about the peregrinations of a prep school boy, was a worldwide success, but I couldn’t latch on to Holden Caulfield and his little rebellions; that’s how far removed they were from my own rebellious nature.

However, Salinger’s “Nine Stories,” published in 1953, did appeal to me. The stories were about some disturbing loss that was difficult to decipher, since, as a reader, I wasn’t prepared for Salinger’s artful tricks. Yet my resemblance to Salinger and his big ears was my one bit of luck. Jessica’s parents “adopted” me.

A red hunting cap.

Image by Kurt Hoffman

Born January 1, 1919, Salinger lived on the Upper West Side until 1932, attending local public schools like P.S. 165, a castle on 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue mentioned in one of the nine stories, “The Laughing Man” (the same weather-bitten castle still stands). Jessica’s father confessed to having been Jerry Salinger’s counselor at Camp Wigwam, a summer playground in Maine for affluent Jewish children.

“He was interested in athletics and acting,” her father said. “Jerry could play any part. Boy or girl, dowager or king. No one could compete with his talent. It was uncanny. He was 10 or 11, tops. And there he was, tottering like an old man.”

There was some confusion, you see. My first name was Jerome, or Jerry, like Salinger’s. So I became Jerry Jr. in that West End Avenue household, and Salinger was still Jerry, or J. D., since David was his middle name. But my courtship with Jessica didn’t last. She was ambitious, and I didn’t have Yale or Harvard in my horoscope. I went to Columbia, lived at home, and became a reader of books. My professors mocked Salinger, every last one, and I had to settle for Sophocles and Kafka, as Salinger substitutes. I almost didn’t graduate. I’d been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, but I never finished my science requirement. I’d taken one semester of geology, but I couldn’t bear studying rocks for another four months. So, I put the dean of students into a dilemma: He’d have to deny a diploma to someone who had already been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This had never happened once in nearly a 100 years.

My poor immigrant mother was summoned to the dean’s office. Half blind at 48, she still had a Tartar beauty and managed to charm the dean and all his delegates.

“He studies hard,” she said, in an accent that revealed her Tartar heritage. “But sometimes he grows confused and thinks he’s Raskolnikov. Please forgive him.”

And the dean did. I received my diploma without the burden of studying rocks for another day.

While others went on to graduate school, I worked for the Department of Parks & Recreation as a playground director and lived in a closet in Washington Heights, hoping to “discover” my talent as a writer. I published my first novel at the age of 26; taught at Stanford, Princeton and Rice, and later lived abroad. Meanwhile, I clung to my copy of Salinger’s “Nine Stories.”

My favorites are still “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” and “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” all published in The New Yorker between 1948 and 1950, and all with a common theme. They are war stories without a single act of war, except Seymour Glass’s suicide in “Bananafish,” which results from a breakdown suffered while he was still a soldier.

Though none of the three stories takes place in Manhattan, most of the characters sound like refugees from the Upper West Side, lost in some operatic postwar America of endless chatter that is likened to hell. There’s another death, though accidental, in “Uncle Wiggily.” One of Seymour’s younger brothers, Walt, a soldier in the Pacific, was putting a little Japanese stove in a box for his colonel to take home, when it blew up in his face. There’s a third fatality, in “For Esmé,” though not an actual death. The nameless narrator of the story bears a striking resemblance to Salinger himself. Like Salinger, he was stationed in England in 1944, attached to a British Intelligence school in Devon. In the second half of “Esmé,” the narrator morphs into Sergeant X, who’s billeted in Bavaria a few weeks after the Germans’ unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. Sergeant X has suffered a nervous collapse. He’s just come back from a two-week stay in a hospital in Frankfurt. His hands are shaking so violently that he can’t insert a piece of paper into the roller of his portable typewriter in order to write a letter to a pal of his in New York. And, like Salinger, he will never really recover from the horrors he witnessed during the war — from the landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, to the relentless hand-to-hand combat in the hedgerows of Normandy, to the “Green Hell” of Hürtgen Forest, which is a vast crib of wild land without a ray of sunlight among the white pine, where the enemy could pursue a soldier without ever being pursued, to the Battle of the Bulge, and the first Allied entry into Kaufering IV, one of the Bavarian death camps, where corpses were piled like cordwood, and boneless men wandered about in philosophers’ caps and striped pajamas.

Still, I stayed away from Salinger. He’d become the most celebrated recluse of the 20th century, living in rural New Hampshire, writing in a bunker, courting younger and younger women, driving like a lunatic on country roads in his Willys jeep. He’d converted to Zen Buddhism, or so it seemed. But I couldn’t get involved in his saga of the Glass family. “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them,” novelist John Updike wrote in The New York Times Book Review (“Anxious Days for the Glass Family,” September 17, 1961). “He loves them too exclusively,” leaving little place for the reader. He’s left us out of the saga. We marvel at the seven Glass children and their individual genius, but they are, Steven Marcus reminds us in The New York Review of Books (“Seymour,” February 1, 1963), curtailed and cut off from us by their own “stricken sensitivity.” They have become an inbred circus of brilliant clowns. And Seymour, their progenitor, patron saint of the Upper West Side, practices his own version of “Jewish Zen.”

Perhaps that’s why Jessica’s parents seemed so remarkable to me. They could have been characters straight out of Salinger’s corpus, with their West End Avenue style of vaudeville, their combative prose that sounded just like Salinger. Certain critics believe that he was influenced by Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald, but I would argue that the melodies of speech that he captured from the Upper West Side and learned to mimic are what shaped him as a writer. And that’s why it’s always painful for me to read “Nine Stories”; they evoke a time and a place that no other writer has quite been able to conjure. He had his own fall from paradise at 13, when he moved with his older sister, Doris, and his parents to 1133 Park Avenue.

Except for “Nine Stories,” I stopped reading Salinger 60 years ago. Still, I was curious about the manuscripts he had squirreled away inside his bunker, manuscripts that would supposedly descend upon us like magical flowers a few years after his death; none of these magical flowers has yet to appear. I suspect they never will. No matter.

Something seemed to shift when the Public Broadcasting Service presented “Salinger” in its American Masters series, a documentary that Shane Salerno had labored over for 10 years. It revealed Salinger’s wartime Calvary and his involvement with the Counterintelligence Corps. We’ve all heard of Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS, spies and saboteurs who penetrated the enemy lines and were mythologized in films such as “13 Rue Madeleine” (1946) and “Cloak and Dagger” (1947). But it’s John Houseman, who in “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) plays a senior CIA analyst and Donovan’s cohort and accomplice during World War II, who best expresses the poetic power of the OSS. “I sailed the Adriatic with a movie star at the helm,” he intones like some latter-day Ulysses. That movie star isn’t even a fictional portrait; it’s based on actor Sterling Hayden, who did sail the Adriatic as a member of the OSS.

Salinger’s Counterintelligence Corps had no such visibility; its exploits were rarely written about, and the CIC itself was funneled into other agencies and faded soon after the war. It was a band of secret soldiers, mostly sergeants and corporals who seldom displayed their rank, yet they could order about colonels in matters of counterintel. Salinger was attached to the 12th Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Division. He could live in a foxhole one day and a castle the next. He was both a rifleman and an interrogator, and he spent a good part of the war riding around in a jeep with his own driver. In none of the numerous biographies about him do we have an accurate portrait of what he actually did during the war. For example, did he land with the first or second wave of soldiers on D-Day, or with the fifth, when his own regiment arrived? It’s never been made clear. What part did he actually play in the mock invasion at Slapton Sands, on April 28, 1944, when more than 600 combat troops and engineers either drowned or were blown to pieces by a squad of German torpedo boats that appeared in the English Channel like a ghost patrol? The casualties were taken to several field hospitals in Devon, and it was the job of the CIC to stand with fixed bayonets and make sure that none of the wounded GIs blabbed to civilian personnel about this mock invasion. It’s hard to imagine Salinger with a stone face and a fixed bayonet. Yet he was there, with his CIC armband. And the details of this murderous escapade surrounding Exercise Tiger, as the pre-invasion plan was called, were hidden for almost 50 years. Salinger never talked about what happened at Slapton Sands, nor about his role in it. But it isn’t hard to imagine how Salinger must have felt when he watched military doctors have to pretend that their patients weren’t patients at all, but mysterious elements they had to mend.

And Salinger went from Normandy to the final surrender, with ambiguities deepening around him every day. One critic, Eberhard Alsen, who did extensive research on the CIC in “J. D. Salinger and the Nazis” (2018), claims that Salinger never fired a gun. Yet Salinger did receive five bronze battle stars, and other dogfaces witnessed him rooting about in various foxholes in Hürtgen Forest, saved from the ravages of trench foot by his mother Miriam Salinger’s supply of woolen socks. Yes, he visited Papa Hemingway at the Ritz, getting through Papa’s rough gang of irregulars with the cachet of his CIC armband. But he spent a miserable month in the Hürtgen, in the howling dark. And he survived the war with one permanently deaf ear, his fingers stained with nicotine and his handwriting growing more and more indecipherable, like a secret code he couldn’t even crack. He checked himself into the psychiatric clinic of the municipal hospital in Nuremburg in July 1945, during the American Occupation. He avoided a military hospital — he didn’t want a medical discharge. It isn’t apparent how much solace or salvation he received. He checked himself out after two weeks and didn’t return to the States with the Fourth Division. He remained with the CIC, even after his discharge that October. He signed up for a six-month stint as a kind of civilian detective and Nazi hunter in Nuremburg. That was a curiosity I couldn’t seem to unravel. What was the real motive for his attachment to the CIC? He was no Dashiell Hammett. Why was he so reluctant to return home?

He’d been in love with Oona O’Neill, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s dark-eyed teenage daughter; she went to Hollywood in 1942 and married Charlie Chaplin, who was thrice her age and even more celebrated than her father. Salinger couldn’t seem to recover from Oona’s “betrayal”, but he did find his own war bride in the autumn of 1946, perhaps marrying out of self-destructive spite. Sylvia Welter was her name, and she was a medical intern. They seemed to have some mysterious attraction that was never made clear. He could have gone to jail for marrying a German national, so he used his skills as a CIC agent to forge a French passport for her.

He purchased a Czech sports car, adopted a schnauzer named Benny, and settled in with Welter in an apartment outside Nuremburg, attached to CIC headquarters.

He returned to America with his wife and dog in May 1947 and made the catastrophic decision of moving back in with his parents at 1133 Park Avenue. There was some talk that Welter may have been a Gestapo informant, and that Salinger had interrogated her himself. Alsen believes none of this. Still, the Salingers didn’t get along with Welter and did believe she was a Nazi. She returned to Europe after a month. Salinger claimed he hadn’t written a word while he was married to Welter, but she seems the victim of some perverse mythology Salinger had been slowly building around himself — the loner, the isolato.

I grew more curious about him. I read whatever I could. There was one bizarre detail that appeared in several biographies without any adornment. Jerry Salinger — or Sonny, as he was called — had gone through the rituals of a bar mitzvah. Was the service at a local synagogue? That synagogue is never mentioned. Who had rehearsed him in the Torah? Was it some rabbinical student? He was still living on the Upper West Side, in a vast apartment with his parents and his sister, near the American Museum of Natural History. His father, Sol, or Solomon, Salinger was the son of a rabbi who had become a medical doctor. And the bar mitzvah, it seems, was meant to impress upon his own father that he still believed in the tenets of Judaism, even though he was the vice president of a company that imported ham. The bar mitzvah must have been something of a farce, though perhaps Sonny saw himself as a young King David, a poet-warrior of sorts. That epiphany didn’t last very long.

A month after Sonny’s bar mitzvah, in February 1932, the Salingers abandoned the Upper West Side and moved to 1133 Park Avenue. Sol announced that Miriam, née Marie, Salinger wasn’t Jewish and that the Salingers, with their Park Avenue address, were no longer a Jewish tribe. Jerry was plucked out of the public school system, and enrolled at the McBurney School, which was affiliated with the YMCA, with and had its own Christian chapel. It was Doris who noted how disturbed her brother Sonny was. Reading Torah, he must have believed in the Hebrew God and his own rite of passage into manhood. And now he was bereft. Young David had lost his lyre, and the power of song, and remained a perpetual adolescent — like Holden Caulfield.

Alsen described the Salingers as a “Jewish” family. But they weren’t Jewish at all, at least not after 1932. From this point on, Salinger is described as being “half Jewish,” which I suspect meant very little to him. He would embrace a kind of mystical Catholicism for a little while and then turn to the practice of Zen and Vedanta Hinduism, populated with migrating souls. Yet if his spiritual crisis began right after his bar mitzvah, and a sadness settled into his eyes after he discovered that he wasn’t Jewish, as his sister suggested, then his journey as a writer might have begun at that very moment. He had to fill the void. He failed miserably at the McBurney School and was tossed out. The family decided to send him off to the Valley Forge Military Academy, a minor-league West Point in Pennsylvania. His mother accompanied him to the interview at Valley Forge, not his father; Sol Salinger looked too Jewish during a time — it was the late 1930s — when most private schools had a quota of Jews it accepted in its ranks. Jerry Salinger was enrolled at Valley Forge and seemed to thrive under its military discipline. He entered as a corporal and finished up as a sergeant major. He studied French and German; enrolled in the drama society, Mask and Spur, where he excelled in both male and female roles, and he began writing stories in bed, under a blanket, with the help of a flashlight. He was not popular among his fellow cadets, but he did manage to graduate; a feat he would never again accomplish.

He flunked out of New York University after one semester, and his father sent him on a junket to Europe to improve his German and French and prepare him for a job importing ham and cheese. Having just turned 18, he resided for 10 months in Vienna’s Jewish quarter. There he had a clandestine romance with the daughter of his host, who was already engaged to a rabbinical scholar and left the young voyager high and dry. Like a prideful Yankee Doodle, he went on to Poland. There he learned the hog butchering business from a madman who went about in a wagon after midnight with a shotgun, slaughtering birds and wild pigs in the forest and shooting at light bulbs in the local abattoir. Salinger himself was half insane when he returned to New York.

He enrolled at Ursinus College in rural Pennsylvania for one semester and then simply declared himself a writer. With his usual wanderlust, he took classes at Columbia in 1939 with Whit Burnett, editor of Story, the most distinguished literary magazine of its era. Story would introduce the work of Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams — and J. D. Salinger.

He soon had a literary agent, Dorothy Olding of Harold Ober Associates, and after some initial rejections he began publishing stories in The Saturday Evening Post, and even had a story accepted by The New Yorker about a peculiar young man who happened to be Holden Caulfield.

Meanwhile, Jerry Salinger was falling in love with Oona O’Neill, who attended Brearley, the swankiest prep school in Manhattan, and was also Debutante of the Year at the Stork Club. Jerry Salinger would wait for O’Neill outside Brearley, on the Upper East Side, and then accompany her to a museum or to a showing of “Potemkin” at the Stanley, a theater on Seventh Avenue that specialized in Soviet films. He had become her culture maven. All the other girls at Brearley were envious of O’Neill’s new beau, who was tall and darkly handsome, and a published author at 23. He would arrive with her at the Stork Club and wander into the exclusive Cub Room, where the couple was welcomed at Table 50.

This was columnist Walter Winchell’s domain. He presided over the Cub Room, a guy with his own presidential power. A white-haired gnome, Winchell could make or break anyone’s career with a few choice words in his syndicated column. He dubbed O’Neill “New York’s New Yorkiest debutante,” and that’s what she had become. Whenever one of the Stork’s female photographers entered the Cub Room, Winchell would replace her flute of champagne with a glass of buttermilk, and she turned into the Stork Club’s Cinderella, innocent and voluptuous at the same time.

Salinger despised O’Neill’s nightclub circuit, with its air of peacocks displaying their splendid plumage. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t hold Oona in his grasp. After Pearl Harbor, Salinger wanted to enlist, but he was rejected because of a heart murmur. As the United States needed more and more troops, Salinger was reclassified and sent to Fort Dix, while O’Neill went to Hollywood to seek a film career. She found Chaplin instead; she married him once she turned 18, and Salinger remained bitter about her for the rest of his life.

Cut to VE-Day. Salinger isn’t out celebrating the end of war with his CIC companions or fellow members of the Fourth Division. He’s alone in his room, like Sergeant X in “Esmé.” In a letter he wrote to his friend Elizabeth Murray (May 13, 1945), he wonders what his relatives might think if he fired a .45 into the palm of his left hand, and how long it would take him to relearn to type with that mutilated hand. The letter suggests a kind of ritualistic suicide. Salinger is deep in the dumps. Perhaps he’s been that way for a very long time. But it makes Seymour Glass’s suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” much less of a shock.

Jerry Salinger never got along with his father; they battled all the time, with his mother or sister acting as a kind of referee. But it was Sol Salinger who introduced the family to Daytona Beach, and who first told his son the cryptic tale of the bananafish when Jerry Salinger was a boy walking in the sand. The history of the bananafish is a history of defeat. The fish swim into a hole looking for bananas. Once inside the hole, they can’t stop eating. And they grow so fat from eating bananas that they can’t swim out of the hole. They die of banana fever. This was the defeat that would define Seymour, and Seymour’s suicide seems like a substitute for Salinger’s own. He returned from the war a dead man, like some of the dead men he discovered in Kaufering IV who could still breathe. He dressed in black and wrote about the dead.

In “Last Day of the Last Furlough” (The Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1944), one of the characters mentions that Holden Caulfield is missing in action. Thus, “The Catcher in the Rye” is really a ghost story — a tale told by a dead man who didn’t come back from the war and is reliving his own phantom adolescence. Salinger did have two children and three wives, but he neglected them all and spent most of his life living in a bunker on his property in Cornish, writing about the Glasses, a family of ghosts who had sprung out of his own childhood.

The family patriarch, Les, and matriarch, Bessie Gallagher Glass, are paradigms and pastiches of the Salingers themselves, rendered as cartoons perhaps, but Sol and Miriam Salinger often behaved like vaudevillians at home, and they migrated to the Upper East Side, like Les and Bessie, who had their own professional vaudeville act, Gallagher and Glass, on the Pantages Circuit.

The seven Glass children are part Jewish, part Irish, and part Minotaur, according to the family chronicler, Buddy Glass. Born in 1919, like Salinger himself, he is a part-time English instructor at a second-rate college near the Canadian border. All seven Glasses, including Boo Boo, Zooey, Franny and the twins, Walt and Waker, were whiz kids at one time or another on a radio show, “It’s a Wise Child.” Whatever we think of them, they are a formidable brood. And they seem born out of a kind of despair. Salinger’s older sister, a fashion buyer at Bloomingdale’s and a divorcee, doesn’t seem part of this entourage. She’s an orphan, a child left behind. It’s not out of neglect; Salinger did love his sister. But she isn’t one of the Glasses.

Published in 1948, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” brought Salinger instant fame and success. The bananafish seemed to create their own aura, like Gatsby’s green light. And with Seymour’s suicide, the saga of the Glasses is set in motion, like seven genii escaping from a bottle that can never again be corked. What lasting effect will these child prodigies, nourished by Salinger, with their descent into the ravages of adulthood, ultimately have? It’s hard to tell. Will their wizardry continue to enchant us or will they fall by the wayside? It may not even matter. Salinger insinuated himself into the 20th century. He lived his life like a counterintelligence agent, a secret soldier, with invisible stripes on his shoulder. His reclusiveness only made him more coveted, and his very best fiction has a sense of immediacy that few other writers can match. Perhaps for many readers, particularly fans of “The Catcher in the Rye,” he will remain the author of frozen adolescence, one more lost bar mitzvah boy in search of a manhood that will never come. And that may be his particular beauty, the lament of his own personal song.

Jerome Charyn is the author, most recently, of “The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King,” about Teddy Roosevelt. He is currently writing a novel about J. D. Salinger.

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