Last Sunday, a ninety-four-year-old man appeared outside my door. His name, he said in a deep German accent, was Werner Kleeman. He had come all the way up to Washington Heights from Queens to celebrate the birthday of his cousin down the hall. He was invited. He is certain of the date. But his cousin is not there.
Severely hard of hearing, with no cell phone nor ride home, Werner slumps in a folding chair a neighbor brought, marooned. When he rises, he sways woozily, perspiring in his dapper suit. My husband takes one look and gets the car. Once on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, Werner revives and tells the story of his life.
Born in Bavaria, he had been interned in a concentration camp. But he was able to produce a visa to the U.S., and, as was still possible then, at the start of the war, he was freed. He emigrated to New York, and then returned to fight the Nazis as an American soldier. Stateside, he made a modest living in a unique niche—hospital drapery. His wife passed away three decades ago. Since then, he’s lived alone. This trip is his first outing in weeks. “Now!” he chortles raucously as we near his street. “To my museum! You will not believe your eyes. I can show you things like you have never seen!”
Werner’s museum, it turns out, is a low-ceilinged, jumbled Flushing bungalow where he has resided for the last sixty-two years. He leads us through the cramped rooms, playing tour guide to a host of treasures: a dented spice box rescued from the desecrated synagogue in his native village; scenes by a famed sketch artist from the European front; a framed proclamation of honor for his self-published 2007 memoir, From Dachau to D-Day, signed by now-rival mayoral candidates John Liu and Christine Quinn.
As we try to say goodbye, Werner blocks our exit, brandishing a packaged coffee cake. “I have decided,” he announces, as if to himself. “Kind people, educated people. Yes. Why not?” He puts on water for tea, takes my hand, and draws me into a shaded back office from which he carefully withdraws a file. “You have heard,” he enquires, “of the writer J. D. Salinger? Letters from my friend Jerry.” We sit down.
In 1942, Salinger was drafted into counterintelligence in the same unit in which Werner served as a translator. Landing on Utah Beach, the pair swept through France rooting out traitors. Werner drove the jeep. During the liberation of Paris, they bivouacked in a zoo. (Despite Salinger’s bitter distaste for war, his notes to Werner are jaunty with army slang. In one, Jerry fondly calls Werner “old messkit.”)
Salinger had already published by then, and Ernest Hemingway had praised his work. During a tentative ceasefire in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest, Salinger stole out to meet Hemingway, bringing Werner along. In 1945, Werner, ill, was released from active duty. Thus began a sporadic correspondence that would stretch over the next twenty years. Following the smash success of the 1951 Catcher in the Rye and feverish acclaim for a series of stories in The New Yorker, Salinger withdrew from society, becoming the literary world’s most notorious recluse. But with Werner Kleeman, he stayed in touch.
He and wife Sylvia Louise, Salinger mentions in one letter, have “called it quits.” In another, he writes that his mother is taking a “pretty dim view” of the writer’s life and his “badly arranged ways and means.” He councils Werner to bring his own mother to a “bona fide” homeopath of a specific nineteenth-century tradition (names and addresses provided), then adds a postscript stressing once more his ardent hope that Werner will comply.
In 1961, Salinger fancies the idea of seeing Israel, where Werner has just been. By 1967, he’s unsure. A disciple of Zen and Vedic practices and a lapsed Jew, he’s intrigued by Hasidic wisdom, but Middle-Eastern politics confound him. He is aging, but then, “who in the hell would want to be young and green again?”
Urged to attend the army reunions on which Werner thrives, Salinger begs off on the basis that he’s a “perennial sad sack.” He smoothly evades engagements in general. He agrees they have much to “chew over”—so he’ll certainly keep Werner’s phone number. He’d hate for an old army buddy to “drop by here and be a witness to my peculiar and very unattractive working habits.” They must meet for a long-awaited “big fat lunch or dinner,” someday.
Despite Salinger’s repeated failure to provide his address, one day Werner showed up with wife and children at his friend’s New Hampshire hideaway. “How did I find it? At night when you find your foxhole, that’s how!” Werner crows. “Sniffed it out! Soldierly instinct!” Salinger—said to chase trespassers off with a gun—was uncharacteristically gracious. “He was shocked. But he just waved us in.” Throughout the letters the famously flinty Salinger treats Werner with palpable tact and tenderness. He was gentle with Werner’s daughter Susan as well. When she made Salinger a scrapbook of his press clips, which he emphatically never read, his reverence for childhood innocence, Werner recalls, was all that stayed his fury.
Unknown to Salinger, Susan would later reveal all in a school term paper: “On one of the unnamed, unnumbered dirt roads that struggle up, down, and around the thirty-six hilly square miles of the Town of Cornish, New Hampshire, there stands a rural-route mailbox with the single word SALINGER. If you continue to follow this road you will come to a thick blank fence which surrounds his house. There one can find many birch and hemlock trees. The house is set far back in the woods to discourage publicity seekers.” For further direction, a snapshot of his home is attached. “Mr. Salinger,” the paper concludes, “is a devoted writer, a good buddy, and also a brave soldier.” Now an English teacher herself, Susan says the paper got a bad grade. “Too personal. Too much personal information.”
A much-hyped tell-all book due for release this week—accompanied by a blockbuster film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Martin Sheen, John Cusack, Judd Apatow, Tom Wolfe, the late Gore Vidal, and Danny DeVito—promises “an unprecedented look inside the private world” of “the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye.” Werner Kleeman can already provide that. Monday night, he calls me. (Unable to hear well on the phone himself, he shouts.) “Can I tell you something else? Mr. Salinger! Only had one testicle! Mr. Hemingway said, those doctors, those fools, with one finger they could let the other one down. I never told about it while he was alive! It was personal.”
Werner brought a bottle of wine for his cousin’s birthday, and I’ve promised him I will deliver it. I walk down the hallway and knock on the cousin’s door. He answers this time. At ninety-eight, he’s unimpressed by my adventure. “Werner,” he grunts. “He can’t hear. The party was in Westchester.”
Shelley Salamensky is a scholar and writer. Her book Diaspora Disneys, funded by a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, will be published in 2015. Her work has appeared in print and online in The New York Review of Books, The Believer, and other publications.