Last week my editor mused that, in light of the recent death of J.D. Salinger, I might want to write about the “vicious” betrayal of Salinger’s privacy by Joyce Maynard. Maynard was Salinger’s live-in girlfriend for some months in 1972-73 when she was 18 years old and he was 53 (commonly known as an “abusive” relationship unless you are really important like Pierre Trudeau or Salinger, in which case the young woman is the exploiter). That’s how I came to dip into what George Steiner referred to as “the Salinger Industry,” which, incidentally, doesn’t need any stimulus money to keep going, even though he published only one novel and some short stories and then went dead quiet for the last 45 years of his life.
I stuck to a few primary sources: Salinger’s own work, his daughter’s autobiography Dream Catcher, and Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World, which she published in 1998. That’s the book that caused all hell to break loose, because in it she forfeited silence to write about her time with this pathologically private man.
I can’t imagine why anyone was upset with Maynard. I found her account of weirdo life in Cornish, N.H., with Salinger, veggies, and the great search for her simillimum to repair her vaginismus (look them up; I had to) absolutely riveting.
Frankly, I couldn’t imagine how any 18-year-old girl could have endured the relationship, but then I remembered being 18 and I couldn’t imagine how you would say “no” to it. You are in first year Yale, a complete washout with your fellow co-eds (with fewer than 200 girls in a freshman class that has over 1,000 males, you ought, theoretically, to have five dates a night), and you are about the most talented and hard-working 18-year-old journalist ever encountered. She sends the pages cut from her article for Seventeen to the editor of the New York Times (a tip I must remember every time my copy is cut for the art department), and the NYT promptly commissions her for a piece that ends up with Maynard’s photo on the NYT magazine cover announcing her as the voice of her generation. Salinger writes praising her work and an epistolary relationship ensues.
What are you expected to do when he suggests a meeting? After living through the ineluctable consequences of this sequence of events and becoming a squashed creation of Mr. Salinger, are you seriously supposed to court eternal madness by keeping this “material” hidden or used sparingly only through fictional devices? C’mon.
When it comes to writers, I really don’t understand the concept of “privacy” as either a legal or moral construct. A writer is largely informed by his experiences. This is so self-evident that all you can say is that the single responsibility of writers is to make sure that they do not falsify their experiences through malice or carelessness and enter the realm of fiction or libel law. Maynard and Salinger had a mutually beneficial relationship: she wanted something, he wanted something, and both got some of what they wanted. He told her to write only about what she felt “honestly” and so she did. Everybody paid a price, but insofar as you can judge these things, it seems pretty fair value.
He broke her heart and chucked her when she wanted a baby; she fractured his privacy and gave birth to her memoirs. As a reader, I’m grateful to them both. Describing a lunch with New Yorker editor William Shawn and writer Lillian Ross, the admiring Maynard asks the fiftysomething Ross what interesting people she has interviewed lately: “Nobody who would interest you,” Ross tells the 18-year-old bitingly. “Nobody nearly as interesting as Julie Eisenhower or Miss Teenage America.”
A barometer of Maynard’s accuracy is to compare her description of meeting Salinger’s daughter with the description Margaret Salinger gives of the same encounter in her memoir. Maynard writes: “In Peggy’s presence I feel naked and oddly silly.” Margaret writes: “I mean she was perfectly nice and everything, but who expects to find someone looking like a 12-year-old girl? In the place of a potential stepmother, here was this bizarre little sister of sorts. It was so weird . . . she was wearing these little Mary Jane-style sneakers, straps and everything and Daddy said, ‘Aren’t those great Peggy, you can get them at Woolworth’s you know. Joyce has them in several colours.’ I grunted . . . and thought to myself, yeah, Dad, they’re grrrrreat. Gonna run right out and get me some real soon . . . It was indeed like having someone naked and oddly silly in the room.”
Salinger couldn’t help himself: he was no phony in talent or being. The “mental gymnastics” required to make a relationship work with him were summed up by his daughter: “To enter his world, a girl had to become, in a sense, fictional and split off from the depth, complexity and imperfection of a real, three-dimensional person.” Unsurprisingly, no one could.
The people who adjudicate between two self-seeking partners and label one the victim and disenfranchise the other are truly irksome. Maureen Dowd called Maynard a “leech” woman, “parasite,” “sexual climber” and compared her to Monica Lewinsky. I suppose waxing holier-than-thou is a much-loved pastime. Still, I can imagine what Salinger would have written about Dowd: “Does anyone actually need,” Salinger told Maynard when she was doing precisely the sort of writing Dowd does, “one more hysterically amusing little assassination by typewriter? Sooner or later you may need to soberly consider whether what you write is serving any purpose but to serve your own ego.” Well said, and we would never have heard it but for that “vicious” betrayal by Joyce Maynard.