Gay Talese weighs in on Salinger in this week’s paper, but The Observer‘s Molly Fischer and Michael H. Miller also spoke to other writers and editors about their memories of the author.
GERALD HOWARD (Random House):
Gerald Howard, an editor, recalls a “piece of publishing lore” passed down by J. Randall Williams III—Howard’s father-in-law, and general manager at Little, Brown’s trade division when they published Franny and Zooey.
Salinger had requested “house paint white” for the cover of his book, and after seeing around 20 proofs, he still wasn’t satisfied. The art director was getting desperate. In final bid for authenticity, he sent over a paint swatch from Benjamin Moore.
“That did the trick,” Howard says. “Cover approved!”
WELLS TOWER (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned):
As a “broodingish” teen, Wells Tower made the mistake of trying to lay claim to Holden Caulfield. He walked into his 10th grade English class the Monday after Catcher was assigned and announced that he’d finished the book.
“It’s kind of a book about me,” he explained to a friend, who he assumed hadn’t bothered with the reading. This friend was in fact a good deal more brooding than Tower—and he too had done the reading.
“I remember him looking at me like I told him I’d just made out with his girlfriend.”
The class ultimately saw “a five-way war” for the title of most Holdenesque. “There was real hostility,” Tower says.
RIVKA GALCHEN (Atmospheric Disturbances):
“My mom learned English from this book called 50 Great American Short Stories,” Rivka Galchen explains. It included “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor”—prime material for an eighth grade oral presentation.
Galchen didn’t know who Salinger was, but she remembers being amazed by two things: the ping pong table described as “an ax-length away,” and the moment when the narrator watches Esmé’s nostrils flair.
Galchen did not make enough eye contact during her oral presentation, and received a 7 out of 10.
SAM MUNSON (November Criminals, out in April):
Sam Munson wrote his first novel from the “slightly frenzied” adolescent perspective of an aspiring Latin scholar/pot dealer. Holden Caulfield, as the patron saint of boy-angst lit, loomed large.
Munson had mixed feelings about this: While he later came to appreciate Salinger, he hated Holden when assigned Catcher in the eighth grade.
“I couldn’t stand him,” Munson says. “I found him so annoying. Little fuck.”
Munson named a character “Phoebe,” but didn’t recognize the name as Salingerian until his editor pointed it out. So he inserted an appropriately ambivalent backstory: She’s named after Holden’s sister, but goes by “Digger” because she dislikes the book.
JOANNA SMITH RAKOFF (A Fortunate Age) :
Joanna Smith Rakoff worked for Salinger’s agent, Harold Ober & Associates. She answered his fan mail.
“I was given a form letter to copy, it was written around the time he became a complete recluse. Something like: ‘Dear _____, As you know Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive fan mail. Goodbye.’”
She was ordered to throw away all fan letters, but eventually began responding to them personally. Salinger called regularly, and Ms. Rakoff always knew when her boss was speaking to the author.
“My boss would say, ‘Oh Jerry, HA HA HA!’ She would only laugh when she talked to him. A divine nervous laughter.”