J.D. Salinger, Failed Recluse

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June 29 1999 3:00 AM

J.D. Salinger, Failed Recluse

Hey, Jerry, want your privacy? Take a few lessons from Thomas Pynchon.

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J.D. Salinger is inevitably described as "the most private man in America" (Esquire) or "the most private of literary figures" (the New York Times). In the introduction to his just-published Salinger biography, Paul Alexander calls the Bard of Cornish the "one figure in the twentieth century who didn't want his biography written." Yet Salinger has already been the subject of two biographies.

If Salinger really wants to be left alone, he is going about it in a very strange way. He doesn't live in a gated community. He summons perfect strangers into his hideaway. He sues people, and then phones the media to spread the story.

Maybe Salinger should take a page from Thomas Pynchon, American letters' other famous recluse, who really wants to be left alone. Two years ago, a London Sunday Times hireling bearded Pynchon on the streets of Manhattan and nearly got his head bitten off: "Get your fucking hand out of my face!" Pynchon bellowed.

Here's the Tale of the Tape in the Battle of the Hermit Divas:

1. Location

Salinger: Salinger has lived on the same Cornish, N.H., property for over 30 years. Other than a "No Trespassing" sign, there is no particular barrier to entry, from the fictional Ray Kinsella of Shoeless Joe to the notorious stalkerazzi photographer Paul Adao of the New York Post, no one has ever had much trouble finding the place. Up until recently, Salinger used to chat casually with his doorsteppers--unless they were journalists. The next generation of visitors won't even have to interrogate the locals, as Alexander provides directions in his new book.

On the one hand, it's churlish to suggest that Salinger should move just to protect himself from his public. On the other hand, people have moved for less.

Pynchon: Until recently, no one was really sure where Pynchon lived. Seattle? Mexico? Northern California? Probably all of the above. Much ink has been shed in proving that Pynchon spent several years in California's Mendocino County researching his novel Vineland and writing letters to the local newspaper under the name "Wanda Tinasky." But that may have been a hoax.

2. Litigation

Salinger: In 1974, Salinger sued the editor of an unauthorized collection of his stories and 17 bookstores that stocked the book. Lest his filing go unnoticed, he phoned New York Times reporter Lacey Fosburgh to alert her to the case. He made Page One.

In 1986, he sued to block publication of Ian Hamilton's biography, In Search of J.D. Salinger, and forced the biographer to remove many quotations from the published work. This kept his name in the papers for months, and forced him to give a six-hour long deposition to Hamilton's lawyer, a portion of which appears for the first time in Alexander's book. In 1996, Salinger's agent forbade a nonprofit Catcher in the Rye Web site from using quotations from the novel, garnering the usual rash of publicity.

3. Lady Friends

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Salinger: In 1972, the 53-year-old Salinger wrote the notorious fan letter to the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard, who had just written a New York Times Magazine cover story about herself. The rest is herstory. Salinger wrote similar letters to other young female writers. He also had a fascination with actresses. At age 62, he wrote a "fan letter" to the 36-year old actress Elaine Joyce, whom he had seen in the TV show Mr. Merlin. That resulted in a long-running affair. A few years later, he developed a fascination with the comely Catherine Oxenberg, then starring in the TV show Dynasty. Salinger traveled to California and "had shown up on the set," according to biographer Hamilton. "He had to be escorted off."

Pynchon: As befits a man guarding, as opposed to flaunting, his privacy, Pynchon has kept his private life private. Past girlfriends have spoken with journalists, mainly to report that Pynchon was charming and a tad eccentric. In the early '70s, Jules Siegel, a college friend, wrote an article for Playboy titled: "Who Is Thomas Pynchon and Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?" The story praised Pynchon as "a wonderful lover, sensitive and quick with the ability to project a mood that turned the most ordinary surroundings into a scene out of a masterful film ..."

For almost a decade now, Pynchon has been married to his literary agent and keeping to himself. Cunningly, Pynchon is hiding in plain view. He lives in Manhattan and escorts his son to and from school many days of the week. A friend of mine says he's active in children's activities and has even been written up in the school newspaper. "The mothers love him," he says. Local literati know where he lives and they leave him alone.

Why? Why is Pynchon left alone and Salinger harassed? Theories abound. Some people feel that Pynchon is a cerebral writer, and his fans are mature in age and temperament. Salinger's great classic The Catcher in the Rye is about an adolescent and has visceral appeal to adolescents of all ages. John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, and Ronald Reagan's would-be killer, John Hinckley, were both major Catcher fans.

Another major difference is that Pynchon has continued to publish. "Unlike Salinger, people have been able to access Pynchon, and his evolution as a writer," explains Ron Rosenbaum, who has followed both writers' careers closely. In 1997, Rosenbaum published an Esquire cover story lauding Salinger's self-imposed Wall of Silence as "his most powerful, his most eloquent, perhaps his most lasting work of art."

But I wonder: Is the wall really art, or is it an act? And has the act now supplanted the art?

Two years ago, Salinger announced plans to publish a 32-year-old story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," as a book. After some negative publicity, he changed his plans. "The way Salinger handled the publicity he said he did not want was a bit too contrived to get attention itself," Paul Alexander concludes at the end of his new biography. He continues: "Salinger became the Greta Garbo of literature, and then periodically, when it may have seemed he was about to be forgotten, he resurfaced briefly, just to remind the public that he wanted to be left alone. The whole act could have been cute or whimsical; only, it felt as if it were being put on by a master showman, a genius spin doctor, a public-relations wizard hawking a story the public couldn't get enough of."

Alex Beam is a columnist at the Boston Globe. His e-mail address is beam@globe.com.