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Salinger's letters to a friend reveal details of his life

J D Salinger

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The letters, a total of 11, were written between 1951 and 1993, from one buddy, or "Buddyroo," to another. In sharp and familiar prose, laced with humour and biting wit, the writer gives an intimate peek into his life and thoughts at precise moments in time. Read so many years later, they are filled with surprises.

The recipient of the letters was E. Michael Mitchell, a Westport, Conn., commercial artist who had designed the jacket for a best-selling novel.

The author of the letters - and that novel - was J.D. Salinger.

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Now, two weeks after Salinger's death at 91, the letters are being made public. They are likely to be among the first batch of many such correspondences, given Salinger's history of letter writing, that will surface and deepen - or perhaps even alter - the public's understanding of one of the 20th century's most puzzling, and puzzled over, literary lights.

The letters furnish what may be the most specific description yet of Salinger's writing habits in the years after 1965, when he stopped publishing. Even in the 1980s, he describes a highly disciplined writing regimen, starting each morning at 6, never later than 7, and not brooking interruption "unless absolutely necessary or convenient." This in-his-own-words account may bolster the conviction of some and the hope of others that he left additional works behind.

The letters to Mitchell also capture, like snapshots, how Salinger initially embraced the high life he tasted as an up-and-coming author -- supping with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in the couple's London home, for instance -- before souring on the social scene and parts of New York that helped shape his fiction.

Trips to New York to meet friends, wolf down Chinese food, browse bookstores or take in shows became rarer over the years, according to the letters, though Salinger acknowledged still getting a kick out of the subway into his 60s.

The correspondence reveals an enduring fascination with pop culture and politics that is at odds with the past half-century of popular mythology of Salinger as an odd recluse. His letters are peppered with sharp references - sometimes a bit too sharp - to household names like John Wayne, Nancy Reagan and even Eddie Murphy.

The literary world has been bracing for just such a moment

Now cloistered at the Morgan Library & Museum in Midtown Manhattan, the letters had reached the museum by way of gift, a single clamshell box of papers in a much larger collection of 20th-century American literature assembled by Carter Burden and donated to the museum in 1998, two years after Burden's death.

Museum officials agreed to keep the letters' contents under wraps, away from even their own staff, as long as Salinger was alive, out of a voluntary abundance of caution. But the self-imposed seal was lifted last week, and the letters are being prepared for exhibition.

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The literary world has been bracing for just such a moment. Despite his move to New Hampshire in 1953, his aversion to publicity and his withdrawal from the New York scene, Salinger, by his own admission, could not always resist the impulse to fire off cranky letters to people who criticized his behaviour; polite letters to schoolchildren who popped questions; and flowery letters to women who caught his eye. He had gone to great lengths to keep such unpublished musings private, successfully fighting one biographer all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to assert control over their content.

The Morgan's letters are particularly tasty. Mitchell, a onetime neighbour of Salinger's in Westport, had designed a dreamlike image of a red carousel horse for the cover of Salinger's first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, in 1951. More than once in his letters, Salinger informs Mitchell, who died last year, that he has "never had two dearer friends" than Mitchell and his ex-wife, Bet, a "tri-cornered" friendship.

The references to Salinger's writings are tantalizingly specific. One 1966 letter refers to an accumulation of "10, 12 years' work" that includes "two particular scripts -- books really -- that I've been hoarding at and picking at for years."

The first letter in the batch is dated May 22, 1951, weeks before The Catcher in the Rye was published. The letter opens with "Dear Buddyroos" - a moniker that the book's hero, Holden Caulfield, tosses around, too. It provides an account of Salinger's trip that month to London, where he was the toast of the town, basking in the perks that come with being an up-and-coming writer.

He shares his amusement at the very British offer of tea he received during intermission at Swan Lake. He tells of going on a couple of dates with a model for Vogue whom he met on the voyage. "No real fun, though," he reports. A night at the theatre ended with his being invited to sup at the elegant Chelsea home of the couple who starred in the show: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

"Naturally," Salinger recounts with some chagrin, over cocktails "some gin went up my nose. I damn near left by the window."

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Fast-forward 15 years to the next letter, which appears to have been sent in October 1966. In that time span much had changed. Salinger had become one of the most sought-after writers in America. He had settled in New Hampshire to escape the spotlight and gradually lost interest in having his works published. He had gotten married and become a father. And in September of that year, his wife, Claire, filed for divorce, stating in court papers that continuation of the marriage would "seriously injure her health and endanger her reason."

In that second letter Salinger shares the delight he felt in taking his two young children to Manhattan, mostly to visit the dentist. His 12-year-old daughter got a kick out of knowing that their suite at the Sherry-Netherland had once been used by the Beatles. The threesome dined out and enjoyed a stroll on Fifth Avenue after dark.

Salinger tells his friend that he loves watching his children sleep - another trait he shares with Holden - and has used those hours to write well into the night.

Two months later Salinger is back at the typewriter, thanking his friend for an update he devoured "greedily." This time, though, he reports that he has become less enamoured of New York's charms. "Meaning," he writes, "that there aren't any places I like or love there any more. With the exception of the Museum of Natural History."

While that was also a spot that Holden found comforting, Salinger fantasizes about visiting Williamsburg, Brooklyn, too, in "the faint hope that some kindly old Hasid from the 18th century" would invite him home for matzo ball soup or a cup of tea.

By August 1979, his interest in the city had further waned. He discusses how much he enjoys the 30 hours he spends each August mowing his fields atop "the big dopey tractor" and writes that he was in New York for the first time in months and hated it. He and a companion attended a performance of Ain't Misbehavin'. The best part, he reports, was the subway ride.

The correspondence picks up on Dec. 30, 1983, when he bluntly warns his friend that Random House had hired a British author to do a biography of him. "I'll weep if they bother you and Bet," he writes, describing the murderous thoughts that ensue.

Two years later he is apologizing to "dear old Mike" for his shortcomings as a friend and for solitary ways that are so ingrained that he can't recall ever answering the telephone "without unconsciously gritting my teeth."

It is not clear why Mitchell, given his obvious bond with Salinger, might have parted with the letters, resulting in their eventual sale to Burden. The last one, postmarked in January 1993, suggests that the decision may have sprung from Salinger's refusal to send his friend an autographed copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

"Most stuff that is genuine is better left unsaid," Salinger wrote back, in a note that is crisper than the others.

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