Vol. 3, Ep. 7 "Salinger" (2010)
A Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors (Vol 3, Episode 7)
From the New York Times, by Katie Zezima (reprinted without permission)
CORNISH, N.H. — His most famous character, Holden Caulfield, said it was impossible to find a place that is “nice and peaceful,” butJ. D. Salinger may have found something close for himself in the woods of this tiny town.
Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store and wrote a thank-you note to the fire department after it extinguished a blaze and helped save his papers and writings.
Despite his reputation, Mr. Salinger “was not a recluse,” said Nancy Norwalk, a librarian at the Philip Read Memorial Library in Plainfield, which Mr. Salinger would frequent. “He was a towns- person.” And last week, after his death, his neighbors would not talk about him, reflecting what one called “the code of the hills.”
“Nobody conspired to keep his privacy, but everyone kept his privacy — otherwise he wouldn’t have stayed here all these years,” said Sherry Boudro of nearby Windsor, Vt., who said her father, Paul Sayah, befriended Mr. Salinger in the 1970s.
“This community saw him as a person, not just the author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ They respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.”
The curious constantly descended on Cornish and the surrounding area, asking residents for directions to Mr. Salinger’s house. Instead of finding the home, interlopers would end up on a wild goose chase. How far afield the directions went “depended on how arrogant they were,” said Mike Ackerman, owner of the Cornish General Store. Mr. Salinger, he said, “was like the Batman icon. Everyone knew Batman existed, and everyone knows there’s a Batcave, but no one will tell you where it is.”
Cornish, a town of about 1,700 on the banks of the Connecticut River, has two general stores, a post office, a church and miles of pines, oaks, farmland and rolling hills. The town has long been a summer haven for artists and writers, a solitary escape in the woods.
By all accounts Mr. Salinger loved the area. He would, until recent years, vote in elections and attend town meetings at the Cornish Elementary School, and he went to the Plainfield General Store each day before it closed. He was often spotted at the Price Chopper supermarket in Windsor, separated from Cornish by a covered bridge and the now ice-jammed river, and he ate lunch alone at the Windsor Diner. Mr. Salinger was also said to have frequented the library at Dartmouth College and to have attended the occasional house party.
In the 1950s, Mr. Salinger would socialize with students at Windsor High School, residents said, meeting them at Nap’s Lunch, a soda fountain. Mr. Salinger and his wife, Colleen O’Neill, were “very generous” to the town of Cornish, said Keith L. Jones, a selectman and owner of Cornish Automotive. Ms. O’Neill, who married Mr. Salinger in the late 1980s, is a blue-ribbon quilter and is active in town issues. She is also a preservationist who bought tracts of land throughout the area that were threatened with development. This summer Ms. O’Neill preserved an old barn on the couple’s property, which is said to overlook Mt. Ascutney and the Vermont landscape. “She would say, ‘Jerry just wants me to tear the barn down, but I want to keep it,’ ” said Stephen Taylor, a local resident.
Over the past few years Mr. Salinger made fewer trips out of his home, but “he loved church suppers,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Salinger was a regular at the $12 roast beef dinners at First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vt. He would arrive about an hour and a half early and pass the time by writing in a small, spiral-bound notebook, said Jeannie Frazer, a church member. Mr. Salinger usually dressed in corduroys and a sweater, she said, and would not speak. He sat at the head of the table, near where the pies were placed. Mr. Salinger last went to a supper in December, and Ms. O’Neill picked up takeout the past two Saturdays. Mr. Salinger was one of the few who gave the children who waited on diners a few dollars. “Not everybody tipped,” said Stuart Farnham, whose son received a $2 gratuity from Mr. Salinger.
Merilynn Bourne, chairwoman of the Cornish Board of Selectmen, bought a home from Mr. Salinger’s former wife in the late 1970s. It had a tunnel that led from the garage to the main house for privacy. Ms. Bourne said she was fixing a leaky pipe in the kitchen soon after she bought the house when she heard a voice boom, “Who is in here?” from another room. It was Mr. Salinger, wondering who was in the home.
She explained herself, and he left. The two never spoke again.
A few years later Ms. Bourne moved to a home closer to Mr. Salinger. Mr. Salinger would stop in his beige Toyota Land Cruiser and make small talk with Ms. Bourne’s children, who played in the front yard, asking about their day at school and toys. In the winter, the children would knock on Mr. Salinger’s door, asking if they could sled down his hill, and he always obliged. “I could understand why, after years of being pursued, why adults were suspect but kids were not,” Ms. Bourne said.
Peter Burling, a Cornish resident and former state senator, grew up near Mr. Salinger’s home and remembers him as a friendly neighbor quick with a hello. Years ago Mr. Burling built his young son a red, painted bus stop at the bottom of their hill. Web sites instructed those looking for Mr. Salinger’s house to turn at the stop. Mr. Burling later sold the bus stop to another resident, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German who passed himself off as a Rockefeller and was later convicted of custodial kidnapping. The curious would instead end up at Mr. Gerhartsreiter’s home, Mr. Burling said. “People would turn into his driveway, demanding to meet J. D. Salinger,” Mr. Burling said.
Mr. Salinger did not approve of all the trappings of a New England life. Generations ago, towns appointed hog reeves — people who caught livestock that ran away — each year at a town meeting. In Cornish, for fun, newly married couples are appointed honorary hog reeves each year. In the 1950s Mr. Salinger and his second wife, Claire, were given the honor, Mr. Taylor said.
“By all accounts, he was not amused,” Mr. Taylor said.