Biography avoidance techniques of the rich and reclusive

Wanted: Brilliant biographers who won't write about Howard Hughes and J.D. Salinger. Bullies need not apply.

Published October 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Howard Hughes and J.D. Salinger are (or were) two of the most famous recluses in America. They only came out of hiding when someone tried to write about them -- at which time they would send out a noisy cavalry of lawyers waving cease-and-desist orders.

Hughes, it was said, lived on the top floor of a hotel he owned in Las Vegas, grew his hair and fingernails to Chinese Mandarin lengths and downed massive doses of codeine. However, when a fake autobiography was published, he and his lawyers let the world know that he was very much alive.

Salinger apparently lives in a tiny town in New Hampshire and only comes out of his shell when he sees a picture of a sexy young girl on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, or when someone has the bad taste to dig up his old stories out of the Saturday Evening Post -- dreadful World War II short stories with names like "The Last Day of the Last Furlough." As in Hughes' case, at times like these Salinger's lawyers surface, letting us all know, at the very least, that he's still alive and kicking.

Many years ago, my mother read "The Catcher in the Rye." She was appalled by the school life that it depicted. She asked me what I thought of the book. "I thought it was very funny," I said. And it was. The horror of Pencey Prep was lost on me and on most of my friends, because we were right in the middle of it.

The story of how one of the students at Pencey was driven to suicide by his peers went over my head because at the school I went to, rough hazing was so commonplace that we didn't even feel the need to comment on it. It's like asking a very poor person what it feels like to be poor. Since they are dealing with it every day, the question becomes meaningless. "We were so poor that we didn't even think about being poor," is the way they react to such a question.

This torturing of students was very democratic. I remember one afternoon coming down the stairs of Hamill House and in the hallway Ed Lawson, the captain of the wrestling team, was beating up on Nicolas Kulukundis. For some reason I paused and told Lawson that he should stop doing whatever he was doing to Nicolas, a very shy and very awkward Greek. Lawson paused in his work, told me that if I didn't shut up, he was going to pound my head "into that wall over there." I shut up.

Kulukundis' father, I found out later, owned most of the shipping fleet in postwar Greece and, to this day, I often catch myself hoping that Nicholas will one day remember fondly how I had saved him from mayhem and reward me with a tanker or so.

Salinger was a writer who made many of us feel not-so-alone in the drear, dry '50s. We knew we had what he called "craziness" -- a bit juvenile, a bit Zen -- and, in our bleak post-pubescence, he was a writer who talked to us: talked our language, with characters like Holden, and Franny, and Zooey, and Esmi. A spare and very funny language it was, too.

Paul Alexander, the humbug who cranked out "Salinger: A Biography," reminds me of Ed Lawson -- a bully, one who's always trying to "get" someone -- but in this case, a word bully. Lawson just can't seem to figure out that Jerome David Salinger is a person who prefers being left alone. He isn't interested in appearing on "Oprah" or "The Tonight Show" to talk about his life and his loves. Many of us admire Salinger greatly for his writing, and -- since we despair at the current, noxious confusion between the artist and the art -- we admire him equally for his reticence. It is, truly, an unwillingness to exploit the self. It is, if you will, the reverse side of Norman Mailer.

In Alexander's first chapter, "A Sighting," we don't see Salinger. Rather, we get to see Alexander, the original Ivy League groupie, unable to leave a man alone -- to the point of skulking around Salinger's house in New Hampshire, poking through the garbage can, sneaking a peek in the mailbox. And not only is Alexander a noisome spy, he also has delusions of grandeur. "What I felt," he sighs, "was that as I was watching the house someone inside it was watching me." Yeah. Hoping like hell this twit would go away.

In 1933, Gertrude Stein published "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." It was the life story of the woman she had loved and lived with for so long. It's a winsome book, an affectionate portrait of not only Toklas, but of Stein pretending to be Toklas, and thus giving us a Chinese box portrait of the two of them. It's only in the last line that the name of the true author is revealed.

In 1972, writer Clifford Irving decided to do the same with Howard Hughes. But Irving forgot that he wasn't Gertrude Stein. Also, he didn't live with -- and presumably didn't love -- Hughes. It was, instead, a con job of the first water, a totally fabricated piece of chicanery -- which finally caused the reclusive subject of the book to rise up in wrath. Irving got salted away in the hoosegow for a couple of years for his troubles, and the "Autobiography" was never published. At least, not until now, a quarter-century after the fact.

Hughes was obviously an interesting, driven, perhaps tortured person (anyone who has a jillion dollars and yet chooses to get strung out on codeine clearly has some issues.) But the fictionalized account that comes to us from Irving's hand presents us with a ho-hum braggart; a repetitive, arrogant, fop; a lout with a penchant for the pretty skirt. No wonder Hughes was so miffed. How would you like some ham-fisted, second-rate scribbler making up your autobiography whole cloth, and doing a bad job of it?

The scandal is not that Irving fabricated it; the scandal is that he had such lousy insight into the character, works and peculiarities of Hughes -- and that he did such a puerile job with whatever facts he could dig up or make up. In response to a purported question about Hughes' purported affair with Jean Harlow, Clifford has his doppelgänger say: "If you want to know whether or not I had an affair with her, the answer is yes. I went to bed with her because she was the star and I was the director and in those days it was one of the obligatory things to do. She came to my office one evening after the shoot and asked me to read some lines with her. I did that, of course, and the next thing I knew she was down on her knees, unbuttoning my fly."

Somehow -- just somehow -- it's hard to picture one of the most bold, original and wealthy adventurers in America telling some second-rate fraud about a ho-hum knob-job that took place 40 years before. As they say in English literature, it just don't parse.

Irving only got two-and-a-half years in the Graybar Hotel for his efforts. It should have been much more. If the judge had been forced to read through the whole of this pastry-pot, Irving would have gotten 25 years to life: for botching what could have been, after all, a great picaresque novel.

By Lorenzo W. Milam

Lorenzo W. Milam writes for RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities. He is the author of "CripZen," "Sex and Broadcasting," "The Radio Papers" and "A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset)" among others.

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