J.D. Salinger Country
Published: June 2009
By Paul Alexander
The reclusive author's biographer tells how he fell in love with Cornish, New Hampshire
I first came to Cornish, in western New Hampshire, in the fall of 1994. Immediately, I was struck by the bucolic beauty of the place. The wooded hills were a shock of yellows, oranges, greens, and reds. Besides the landscape, the other fact I noticed about Cornish village was that, for all intents and purposes, it's a town that doesn't exist. It has no business district-no shops, no restaurants, no offices, no gas stations. I did discover an old-fashioned convenience store, a modest town hall, a volunteer fire department, and a school-but nothing more. In a place nearby called Cornish Flat, I found a library, a post office, a meetinghouse, and a general store, yet this seemed to be another community altogether, and not much of one at that. To find a real town one had to look across the Connecticut River to Windsor, Vermont, a quiet hamlet that did at least have a knot of stores and businesses.
In Cornish, what I saw were houses—farmhouses, Cape Cods, Colonials, an occasional contemporary—all built among the hills. I hadn't come to this town that doesn't exist for the foliage or the fresh country air or the panoramic view of the Connecticut River valley. I had come because J. D. Salinger, author of the coming-of-age masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye and a man so obsessed with avoiding publicity that one magazine recently called him "the last private person in America," has lived in one of these houses since 1953.
I drove the 240 miles from New York City, where I live, because I have loved The Catcher in the Rye since I first read it as a teenager—and because Salinger has lived his life in such a way that driving from one's home to Cornish, on a pilgrimage of sorts, has become something his fans do. Some have become well-known themselves, at least to other Salinger fans. In 1961, Ernest Havemann searched out the writer's house and happened upon Salinger's wife, Claire, and their two small children, Peggy and Matthew. Havemann wrote about the episode—"She sighed and told me that she has a set piece for visitors who want to meet her husband, the gist of it being absolutely no"—in Life magazine. In 1980, Betty Eppes, a journalist from Baton Rouge, came to Cornish and, after leaving Salinger a note in his Windsor post-office box asking to talk to him, got to meet Salinger in person. Her article about that encounter appeared in her local newspaper; George Plimpton later got Eppes to elaborate for a piece in The Paris Review called "What I Did Last Summer." When Michael Clarkson drove down from Ontario twice in the mid-eighties, he saw Salinger both times, once even getting a full view of the writer's den from the back deck of his house. Clarkson used the events as the basis for a story he published in the Niagara Falls Review. As much as anything, these articles encouraged Salinger's legions of fans—The Catcher in the Rye still sells a quarter of a million copies a year—to travel to Cornish to get a glimpse of him, maybe even a chance meeting.
"People come in here all the time," says Michael Hamel, owner of the 12% Solution, Cornish's convenience store. "Not long ago I had a carload of women from Ohio asking where Salinger lives. High school and college students are always stopping by. Just recently, two women from the BBC in England came in to ask about Salinger. Naturally I never tell anybody anything." Rob Pearl, the owner of Windsor's Juniper Hill Inn, which has been a part of local folklore since Teddy Roosevelt visited in 1907, also has patrons inquiring about Salinger. "I tell them I don't know which house he's in," Pearl says, "only that it's up in the hills in Cornish. I've heard that some Dartmouth fraternities require pledges to find Salinger's house as a part of their initiation. So there must be people who know where he lives." Some Salinger fans travel to Cornish, fall in love with the place, and return again and again. One Salinger scholar, Warren French, adored Cornish so much he moved there. In the eight years he lived in the town, however, he never once met Salinger.
While Salinger fans have a very specific reason for coming, Salinger himself ended up in Cornish almost by happenstance. "What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all there, see," Holden Caulfield says to Sally Hayes in a scene in The Catcher in the Rye, trying to convince her to move to the country. "It's beautiful as hell up there. It really is…. We'll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something." In 1953, two years after The Catcher in the Rye was published (to a public response so strong that, much to Salinger's surprise, the book spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list), Salinger, like Holden, wanted to move to the country, from Westport, Connecticut. He began looking around New England for property, and found a 90-acre tract of land high on a hill not in Vermont, but across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire.
The land was owned by Carlota Saint-Gaudens, granddaughter of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the American sculptor whose house and studio were in Cornish. Salinger bought the land and moved into a cottage there in the winter of 1953. Two years later, he married Claire Douglas. They and their two children lived in the cottage, which they added on to, until the couple's divorce in 1967. Salinger moved into a chalet-style structure nearby, onto which he would also build additions. It was here that Joyce Maynard, then 18, lived with Salinger for 10 months in the early seventies, as she recounts in her recent book, At Home in the World.
Cornish is a town rich in history. "Colonized" by artists in 1885, the year Saint-Gaudens moved there (Cornish had been settled in 1765), the village became a summer community for New Yorkers and Bostonians. Saint-Gaudens stayed in Cornish year-round, and by the turn of the century numerous actors, artists, and writers were renting houses there as well, among them Maxfield Parrish, Ethel Barrymore, and Isadora Duncan. In the summers of 1913 through 1915, President Woodrow Wilson set up the summer White House in Cornish. But after World War I the town lost some of its luster: trend-conscious New Yorkers and Bostonians began summering on Cape Cod or in the Hamptons.
Today, Cornish still has landmarks of interest to tourists. Saint-Gaudens's house is open to the public from May to October. Its grounds are so tranquil and lush that visitors picnic on the grassy quad between the house and studio. There are other exquisite gardens as well, many open to the public for summer tours. The Chase House bed-and-breakfast was once the home of Salmon Portland Chase, one of the founders of the Republican Party and a member of the family for whom the Chase Manhattan Bank is named. The two-story Federal-style building has large, comfortable rooms and a "great hall" where guests can mingle. Spanning the Connecticut River is the CornishWindsor bridge, the longest covered bridge in the United States. Renovated over the years, it still reflects its original design, and is a living symbol of what American life was like when the bridge was constructed in 1796.
In summer and fall, visitors can stop near the bridge and talk to the self-named "Bridge Lady," Ethel Nelson, who has built a roadside information booth where she's happy to recount Cornish lore and sell modestly priced mementos: T-shirts, jars of maple syrup, afghans she knits herself. She can also recite a quick history of the bridge. What she will not talk about, unless specifically asked, are the years she worked for Salinger as his housekeeper. Like everyone else around here, Nelson protects Salinger's privacy.
When pressed, the Bridge Lady will tell a few things about Salinger: He was a good father. He spent most of his days secluded in a bunker behind his house at work on his fiction. He and Claire appeared to have a healthy marriage, for the years it lasted at least. Lately, like other Cornish residents, Nelson sees Salinger with his current wife, Colleen. But the writer, who's now 80, gets out less and less. Colleen often runs his errands—in the shops he used to frequent, off the Windsor town square—and the Windsor post office has started delivering the mail right to his door. Today, the best hope for a glimpse of Salinger is to find his house in the Cornish hills and wait until he goes out.
That's what I did the first time I came to Cornish. Sitting in my car on the dirt road at the end of his driveway, I looked up just as a car was coming down the hill and there he was-Salinger himself, behind the wheel. Thinking back, I realize what it was: the end of a pilgrimage. I also realize that seeing Salinger made me view him as less of an enigma and more of what he now is-a very old man who in his youth wrote one novel and several pieces of short fiction that rank among the best of American literature.
After seeing Salinger in the fall of 1994, I returned to Cornish the following summer. By 1996, I had contracted to write a biography of the writer, and had become increasingly attached to Cornish myself. What I like about the place is simple. It has a rare, undisturbed calm. It is Salinger country, after all. In the same way Key West is associated with Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, and, more recently, Savannah is associated with John Berendt and his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Cornish belongs to J.D. Salinger—a person whose presence has come to define the place even though he's done everything in his power to remain apart from it.