Salinger and me

My excellent adventures with the author of "The Catcher in the Rye."

Published July 6, 1999 3:10PM (EDT)

I had just finished "The Catcher in the Rye" and I really liked it. I wanted to call the author and tell him how much I liked it. But I didn't have his phone number. So I called his publisher.

"Hello, can I have J.D. Salinger's phone number?" I asked them.

"What for?"

"I just want to call him and tell him how much I liked his book."

There was a pause on the line. "You're not some kook, are you?"

"Oh no."

"OK then." The woman gave me the number. It was (603) 947-3309. I dialed the number. A man answered. "Yes?"

"Is this J.D. Salinger?"

"Yes. Who's this?"

"Um ... You don't know me, but I just finished 'The Catcher in the Rye' and I wanted to tell you how much I liked it."

"Yeah? Wow. That's really nice of you."

There was a pause. I wasn't sure what else to say. "Yeah, well, I really liked it."

Another pause. This was getting kind of awkward. I heard Salinger clear his throat. "So ... um ... Would you like to come up for a visit?"

"Gee, I don't know, Mr. Salinger. I wouldn't want to intrude."

"No no, come on up. Do you know how to get to Cornish, N.H.?"

"I'm sure I can find it."

"OK. I'll pick you up in front of the post office on Thursday at 3 p.m."

"Great. Wait a minute -- how will I recognize you?"

"I'm a big guy with a happy face."

"Yeah? Funny, that's just how I pictured you."

On Thursday I went up to Cornish and waited in front of the post office. But there was no Salinger.

Finally, a huge gray Lincoln Navigator pulled up and a tall guy in Levi's and a red plaid shirt got out. "J.B.?" he asked.

"That's me."

"Sorry I'm late. I was on the phone with a bunch of New York editors."

"They're all a goddam bunch of phonies," I said.

"You're telling me."

J.D. had to do some errands in town, so I accompanied him while he bought some magazines (Vanity Fair, Premiere, Seventeen, YM and Homeopathic Monthly) and rented some videos from the Cornish Video Shack ("Roman Holiday," "Baby Doll" and "Lolita").

On the drive up to his house we talked about stuff. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. "My name is made up of initials too," I observed.

"Yeah, it's better that way," said J.D. "It's different."

Two black Labradors, Franny and Zooey, greeted us at the house, a surprisingly unassuming two-story Colonial style filled with piles of books, papers, magazines, burning incense, scented candles and old movie posters tacked to the wall. "Gee, what a mess," I said.

"Yeah, I know," said Salinger. "I keep meaning to clean it up."

That evening Salinger cooked up a bucket of boiled wheat germ, and we ate it while watching the videos. We didn't talk much.

Between a couple of films I tried to make some conversation.

"So, uh ..."

Salinger was trying to put the video in the VCR the wrong way. I helped him. "I bet a lot of people call you up like I did, huh?"

"No, actually, you're the first. It's been kind of surprising. I think people are just scared to bother me. But I get kind of lonely up here."

After a couple of weeks I started cleaning up the house, sorting out the piles, throwing stuff out. I was making a lot of long-distance phone calls, calling this chick I knew in France who refused to believe I was staying with J.D. Salinger. "You don't believe me? I'll put him on." I shouted to the den where Salinger was working. "Hey, Jerry!" No answer. "JERRY!"

"What is it? I'm working."

"Get on the phone, I want you to talk to my friend."

"I'm kind of busy here, J.B."

"Just get on the phone, this won't take a second." Salinger picked up the phone in the den. He talked with the French chick for a while. "The French are a bunch of phonies," he finally said and hung up.

The next morning at breakfast Salinger seemed a little tight-mouthed. "I think you should leave," he said. Apparently I'd thrown out some papers he'd wanted to hold on to. Also, all the long-distance calls. I decided to cheer him up by feigning some interest in his work.

I went into his den. There were piles of pages everywhere. "These are my manuscripts," he explained, following me into the room nervously. He showed me a 2,000-page novel he'd been writing called "Glass House." "I've been working on it for 35 years."

"Can I take a look?"

"Well, I really don't ..."

I grabbed the manuscript and started reading it. It was pretty funny. I was laughing. Salinger was trying to look over my shoulder at what I was laughing at. "Which part are you reading?"

"Where Zooey gets his foot caught in the trash compactor."

"Oh yeah." He chuckled. "That really happened." I marvelled at all the pages, painstaking typed, with a myriad hand corrections on each page. I looked around the room. No computer.

"You still use a typewriter?" I asked him.

"I find it's the only way I can think. I compose on the typewriter." He patted the old Underwood affectionately. I noticed the dust between the keys.

I opened the window to air out the place a little. A sudden gust of wind tore through the blinds, blowing the stack of pages around the room. "Oops." I knelt down to pick them up, accidentally knocking a candle onto the floor.

By the time the fire department got to the house, it was a mass of charred ruins. J.D. was sitting on a stump by the frog pond. He was whimpering a bit, staring into his hands.

Just then a car drove up. Out stepped the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen: tall, thin, with alabaster skin, chiseled features and fine, golden hair. She ran over to Salinger. "Hey, Dad!"

Salinger wouldn't look up. "Hi, Phoebe."

"Wow, what happened here?"

But Salinger couldn't answer. He fell on the ground and began coughing, and we called an ambulance.

After we'd made sure Salinger was safely delivered to the hospital, I took Phoebe out for lunch in Cornish and tried to explain what had happened. Salinger had been trying to cook some soy muffins when the oven had caught fire and it quickly spread through the house. I managed to pull him out of the flames, but everything else got lost in the fire. The firemen came soon enough, but it was too late. Phoebe hugged me. "Those firemen are a bunch of goddamn phonies," she mumbled.

We were married in the spring. Salinger was too sick to attend the wedding. He'd become a weird recluse. Rather than have Phoebe change her name to mine, I decided to change mine to hers. J.B. Salinger.

We have eight kids: Phoebe, Zooey, Booboo, Walter, Walker, Holden, Buddy and Franny. We were going to call the last one Seymour, but we thought that'd be kind of cruel. And anyway, it was a girl.

Last month we moved to Hollywood. We're angling for a family sitcom, something like "The Brady Bunch," but "real." I've been talking to a few producers, trying to put together a deal, but it's tough. The town's full of goddam phonies.

By J.B.Miller


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Books J.d. Salinger