The story of the J.D. Salinger's life looks different when you look at it through the lens of his work.
An excellent piece of advice I received while working on my biography of J.D. Salinger, The Escape Artist, came from Renata Adler, who had known him personally when she worked at The New Yorker. "Everything you need to know is in the work," she said. "Your scoop is your understanding of the guy and his work."
So much has been written and said about J.D. Salinger and his life, in biographies and movies alike, that it might seem as if all the mysteries have been revealed. Only the final question about what he was writing and when we might see it is still unanswered--and it will remain so, until we see it.
But the whole mystery surrounding what he had been doing up there in the woods has been a distraction from the much more interesting mystery surrounding the man and his work: What does his writing provoke in us? How does it achieve its effect, and why?
Through the prism of his work, biographical details of Salinger's life that are both familiar and newly discovered take on new contours and meaning. Here are a few that stood out for me.
1. The famous opening scene of Franny, where Lane Coutell stands with an open coat re-reading Franny's letter on the day of the Yale Game, did not occur in New Haven, as is widely believed, but in Princeton, NJ. (No one attending Yale would refer to a home game as "The Yale Game.") The train from which Franny disembarks is called, to the this day, "The Dinky."
2. In his younger years he often signed his letters with joke names. The one he used most often was: "Fitz Dudley."
3. He had his Bar Mitzva a year late, at 14.
4. When Salinger's first infatuation, Oona O'Neill, dumped him, he either didn't get the message (she had moved to Los Angeles) or didn't give up, depending on your point of view. He continued writing her charming letters in such abundance that Oona suggested to her friend Carol Saroyan that she quote from them to her new husband, William Saroyan, who was at the time writing Carol a letter a day and demanding she write back. Thus Salinger became an unwitting and unwilling Cyrano. The misuse of letters was to become a theme of both the writing and the life. Salinger kept writing until he read of Oona's romance with Charlie Chaplin in the newspaper.
5. Salinger, whose work is filled with highly specific details of his character's clothes, had an older sister, Doris, with a similar affinity for style. She rose through the ranks of Bloomingdale's to become the buyer for its most fashionable showroom, named: "The Green Room."
6.Salinger starred in two plays at McBurney, which he attended for his first two years of high school, before being thrown out of poor grades. In both productions he played the female lead.
7. Salinger sold his first short story to The New Yorker at the age of 22 but it was not published until he was 26. It was scheduled to run in the December 11, 1941 issue, but when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7th the magazine pulled it for being inappropriate for the new era.
8. The editor who oversaw Time magazine's cover story on Salinger in 1961, which attempted to uncover some sexual deviance in the author, was known around the Time offices as, "The Horney Avocado."
9. His most important editor was Gus Lobrano about whom little has been known, until now.
Thomas Beller is the author of the new book J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist.