Sunday, 31 January 2010

Salinger - The view from Cornish

J.D. Salinger, Recluse of Cornish, Dies
By Susan J. Boutwell and Alex Hanson
Valley News Staff Writers

J.D. Salinger was grateful for the “protective envelope” he was given by neighbors here, his wife, Colleen Salinger, said yesterday.

“Cornish is a truly remarkable place. This beautiful spot afforded my husband a place of awayness from the world. The people of this town protected him and his right to his privacy for many years. I hope, and believe, they will do the same for me,” Colleen Salinger, also known locally as Colleen O'Neill, wrote in an e-mail yesterday to the Valley News.

For more than five decades, the author's neighbors and friends hid his whereabouts from what Cornish resident Peter Burling called “the annual parade of English majors.”

It was, “one of the most enjoyable municipal conspiracies ever, how to keep everyone guessing where Jerry Salinger lived,” said Burling, who for 44 years has lived several doors from Salinger's Lang Road home.

“You very quickly got kind of wrapped up in the joke of it all. They were all so desperate to see if they could talk to the great man,” he said.

Few of them -- from away -- actually did.

A favorite pastime at Cornish General Store, in Cornish Flat, was sending people searching for Salinger out into the weeds.

“I never told where he lived,” Mike Ackerman, a 42-year-old Cornish native who's run the store for two years, said yesterday. The directions given to Salinger-seekers varied, he said.

“It really depended on the attitude of the person coming in how much fun we would have with that person,” said Ackerman, who met Salinger when he was working for UPS and delivered packages to the author's house.

The first time he delivered there, he saw Salinger coming to the door, left the package and waved as he walked away. The next time and subsequently, they would chat for a few minutes, Ackerman said.

“He was the type of individual where, if you treated him like he was everyone else, he would tend to open up a bit,” Ackerman said. “A very nice guy.”

None of his local friends know why Salinger picked Cornish as his refuge. But they do know he made a life just like theirs, filled with the same routines.

Over the years, people saw him at the movies at Dartmouth College, reading at Hanover's Howe Library, coming out of a voting booth at Cornish elections and swimming in Lake Runnemede in Windsor, where he used to attend Christmas parties thrown by Fannie Cox, mother of Archibald Cox who went on to become the special Watergate prosecutor fired in 1973 on orders from Richard Nixon.

The Cox family and their cousins, the Evarts, lived in the grand houses that line Windsor's North Main Street.

“This was exactly the type of party that Holden Caulfield would hate,” said Windsor resident Joyce Burrington Pierce, who, with her girlfriends, struck up a friendship with Salinger in the early 1950s, shortly after Salinger had made Caulfield famous in The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger shopped for food in Windsor, where as a young man he would do his banking, pick up his mail, then cross the street to buy The New York Times and stop in at the old Knapp's Lunch for coffee.

Pierce was a 19-year-old Windsor High graduate back in the days when Salinger would drive into town in his little Hillman sports car, his pet schnauzer in back.

Salinger would visit with the Windsor teens, watching their high school football games, attending movies with them and inviting them to his house to listen to Billie Holliday records or play with his Ouija board, recalled Pierce.

“My father was a bit leery of us spending so much time with him. He'd say ‘You girls are going to end up in a book,' ” Pierce said. “I read all of his stories looking for me.”

Until last year, Salinger was a regular at the Hartland Congregational Church's roast beef suppers, arriving more than two hours early for the first seating.

He would bring along back issues of the Times and sit with other, mostly older, early birds waiting for the doors to open so he could claim the same seat at the head of the table nearest the pie rack.

“No one ever bothered him at the suppers,” said former pastor Bob Moyer of Hartland. “I think many, many people knew exactly who he was. Had he been bothered, I don't think he would have returned.”

Salinger's health had declined after the new year, according to a statement yesterday from his New York City agent, Harold Ober Associates, Inc.

Yet he was still able to enjoy the Hartland church fare as his wife stopped by the last two Saturdays to purchase roast beef, mashed potatoes and cole slaw to bring home to Cornish, said Larry Frazer, one of the meal's organizers.

“I just said to my wife, ‘We've lost a regular,' ” Frazer said yesterday.

The Ober press release said Salinger had been in excellent health, even after suffering a broken hip last May, until a “rather sudden decline” this month.

“He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death,” said the release, adding that there would be no funeral service for Salinger. He died at home, of natural causes, the release said.

As word of Salinger's death spread yesterday, residents were still closing ranks around him.

“I think I don't have anything to contribute,” said a genial older man who came to the door at the home nearest Salinger's. The man smiled and pressed his hands together as he refused to talk about his neighbor, as if he was carrying out a cherished responsibility.

Most of the homes on Salinger's rural road, about a mile off Route 12A, were dark yesterday afternoon, their owners either at work or away.

Just around the corner, on Dodge Road, Benjamin Ober and Erika Argersinger were walking with their dog. The couple moved to Cornish from Washington, D.C., last summer, and had never encountered Salinger.

“I spent summers here,” Ober said, “but I never met him.”

Ober's mother, Marion MacKye Ober, has spent nearly every summer at the house on Dodge Road and met Salinger only once, when she was walking across his land. He was brusque at first, protective of his privacy.

“Once he knew that we had lived there and I had grown up there, we had no problem at all,” Marion Ober said in a phone interview from her home in Arlington, Mass. “I'm really sad to hear” of Salinger's death.

Cornish Police Chief Doug Hackett said he and the three officers in his department are prepared to deal with anyone trespassing on Salinger's property, or to direct traffic in the days ahead if journalists and curiosity-seekers descend on the town of 1,600 residents.

As of yesterday afternoon, Hackett said no problems had arisen.

“Obviously, we're prepared for whatever happens, but we're hoping people allow the family to grieve in peace, and honor him the way he lived, which is quietly,” the chief said.

Selectboard Chairwoman Merilyn Bourne said residents treated Salinger “the way we'd behave with anyone who lived in town and wanted privacy.”

“He was a citizen in our town and so you look out for one another,” she said.

To Emily Robbins, Jerry and Colleen Salinger's house next door was a regular stop when she and brother Nick were raising money for Cornish Elementary School projects or out trick-or-treating.

One year, the couple forgot to buy Halloween treats and instead handed out pencils.

“Well, this is lame,” Robbins said she and Nick decided, once out of earshot.

Their mother told them, “Save those pencils.”

Now an aspiring writer in a graduate program at UNH, Robbins kicks herself every time she thinks about the pencil she misplaced years ago.

But not everyone in the Upper Valley recognized the famous person in their midst, even when his name was shouted out.

Former CVS pharmacist Tony Furnari loved to tell of filling a prescription at the West Lebanon store some years back for Salinger, while Salinger waited. At the cash register, a teenage employee called out the names of customers when their prescriptions were ready.

“Sal-ling-grrr,” the girl called, mispronouncing the famous name as the white-haired man paid for his drugs, then quietly shuffled off.

“Do you know who that was?” Furnari asked the teenager.

“No,” she said.

“That was J.D. Salinger,” the pharmacist said.

Valley News Staff Writer Mark Davis contributed to this report.

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