Latest Salinger biographer slams New York publishers

They're all cowards, he claims.

Published July 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

July 15 marked the publishing date of Paul Alexander's "Salinger: A Biography" -- the first book-length portrait of the reclusive and litigious author since Ian Hamilton's ill-fated 1988 biography. Salinger managed to have the earlier book banned in the United States, yet as of Monday he hadn't dispatched his lawyers. So what's the secret of Alexander's success?

For better or worse, his publisher, Renaissance Books of Los Angeles, kept publicity to a minimum, sending out very few advance galleys in the hope that the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" wouldn't gag the book, as he had Hamilton's, before it reached the shelves. (Hamilton wound up writing a book about the whole ordeal: "In Search of J.D. Salinger.") Yet so far only a handful of newspapers -- most notably the Washington Post -- have reviewed it. "The book's in a weird lull," Alexander told Salon Books.

Right now it's hard to tell whether to attribute the quiet reception to the tepid publicity drive or the book's failings. The Post's review, by Wendy Law-Yone, was lukewarm: "Alexander furnishes a faithful if unimaginative overview of Salinger's eccentric career," etc. But while Alexander doesn't break any explosive news, he does come up with some entertaining anecdotes, and he gives the lie to the notion of the author as a dirty old man preying on teenagers.

One bit has a smitten Salinger sending mash notes to "Dynasty" star Catherine Oxenberg -- the same method with which he conquered the heart of Joyce Maynard. ("I'm J.D. Salinger, and I wrote 'Catcher in the Rye'" is how he opened his letter to Oxenberg. She did not respond to the overture.) Unlike the teenage Maynard, Oxenberg was in her 30s. Elaine Joyce, another woman Alexander writes about, went to live with the author in 1981 -- at the age of 36.

"I've written three books and I know how to write convincing nonfiction. This book has solid primary and secondary sources," says Alexander, who wrote the bestselling 1994 biography "Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times and Legend of James Dean." Alexander has written for a bevy of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, George and Rolling Stone, and he believes that his journalistic experience -- especially a highly publicized piece he wrote for the March 9, 1998, issue of New York about Salinger's girlfriends -- helped him avoid the legal trap that ensnared Hamilton. "He was not a journalist. He didn't know how to handle that material," Alexander remarked, referring to the unpublished Salinger letters on which the author based his case against Hamilton's book.

Last year Alexander's original publisher, Doubleday, dropped the Salinger project but allowed him to keep two-thirds of his $150,000 advance. The company's chief spokesman, Stuart Applebaum, said that the "first draft was not substantive." According to Alexander, the rejected biography then made the rounds in New York with no success -- because, he thinks, New York publishers were too timid to take on the book. "It's a whole industry of cowards," he says.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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