Betty Eppes is a reporter for the Baton Rouge Advocate. In the spring of 1980 she was a Special Assignments Writer for the “Fun” section which appears in both the Advocate and the State Times, the morning and afternoon papers respectively. That spring she decided to spend her summer vacation trying to interview J.D. Salinger, the author famous for his reclusive behavior. Her story appeared in the Sunday Advocate magazine section on June 29, 1980, and in syndication in a number of other newspapers including the Boston Globe. What follows is a far fuller account of her experience which has been arranged from conversations held with Ms. Eppes by G.A.P.
I decided one day in 1976 that I was so bored that if I hit another tennis ball I was going to go crazy. So I thought, Now wait a minute, there’s a small weekly paper in town—the Baton Rouge Enterprise—what if they needed a tennis columnist? I was a pretty good tennis player—fluctuating between No. 1 and No. 3 at my tennis club in Baton Rouge, which is the Southwood Tennis Club. I play there because they have a health spa. I work with weights, dead-lifting, squats, bench presses, and all that stuff.
But I had never written a word professionally. In 1974 I tried a novel—more or less a kind of purge—about a woman whose life was parallel to mine. But I had no training to do such a thing; I had not even graduated from high school. I grew up in Trenton, Mississippi, which is a crossroads in Smith County; my father was a dirtfarmer. We were very poor. I married very young and had three babies. I learned my tennis from a friend in Florida. I don’t guess there is a tennis racket in Trenton, Mississippi. But everything I try I study at incessantly. That’s what I did with my writing.
So I wrote six tennis columns for the Baton Rouge Enterprise. But they wouldn’t publish them. So finally I took the articles to the Morning Advocate, which is the major daily in Baton Rouge. They not only published the columns, but after a while they let me do just about anything that was almost a reasonable story. Not only did I do columns on Bjorn Borg, Billie Jean King, and Rod Laver, and why tennis skirts cost so much money, but I went to the New Orleans Saints football camp and did interviews with Hank Stram, and a lot of neat things like that.
It’s very important for me to be super-excited about things. I have to feel challenged. Otherwise I get terribly bored and begin wondering if I shouldn’t move on to something else. Last summer I started wondering what assignment I could take on for myself that would be challenging and super-exciting. I thought and thought. I told Larry Fisher, who is the owner of the bookstore where I was browsing, that I was thinking—hoping to come up with something really interesting. He said he’d think about it too.
A day or so later I happened to be leafing through an encyclopedia of writers. I turned to William Faulkner who is just my idol, my personal idol, and there were pages and pages on him. Then by chance, because I had just reread The Catcher in the Rye I thought, Well, I’ll checkout J.D. Salinger, which is what I did. There was one skimpy paragraph.
So I went to Larry Fisher and I said. Damn, Larry, there’s nothing at all about Salinger. He said that was because nobody knows anything about him. He said. Hey! There’s your interview! I said, That’s a good idea. I think I’ll do it. Larry laughed and said, I think you ought to go and walk on the moon, too!
But the more I thought of it, the more enamored of the idea I became. I thought. Damn, I’m going to go for it.
Actually I had a small file on J.D. Salinger. I am a very practical woman and I file things I think might come in handy later on. J.D. Salinger and Howard Hughes happened to be the most interesting people I didn’t know. Peculiar birds. I had little files on both. In Salinger’s file I had a short item clipped out of Newsweek, I think, which reported that he shopped in a complex called Cummins Corner in the town of Windsor, Vermont, not far from where he lives in Cornish, New Hampshire. I thought, That’s where I’ll go to try to find him.
So I filed two stories in advance with my editor, Jeff Cowart, at the Baton Rouge Advocate. I didn’t tell him what I was going to do. I knew he would have said, Eppes, people have been trying to get an interview with Salinger for twenty-seven years; forget it, and go on out there and meet your next deadline. Well, I didn’t want to hear that. So I just bought an airline ticket to Manchester, New Hampshire.
Now, as I say, I’m a very practical woman. I’d checked everything out and discovered the whole trip was going to cost $1000. I thought, Jesus God, Eppes, that’s a lot of money to throw away. So I cast around in my mind for another person in that area I could get an interview with in order to pay off some of the expenses. The only person I could think of was William Loeb, the publisher of the Manchester Leader. He’s not one of my most favorite people. He is just about the most outspoken conservative man there ever was, making all sorts of crazy noises, a wild man, but on the other hand I didn’t want to eat $1000. So I called up his secretary to arrange for an interview. She said it would be fine. So I hopped on the plane and flew on up to Manchester. I spent the first night in Manchester asking the populace what it felt about Bill Loeb. I wanted to get some background. I interviewed fifty-seven people. Ten out of the fifty-seven didn’t like Bill Loeb.
He was ill-at-ease answering questions, it seemed to me. But there was no doubt about his attitudes. Once, when I referred to his conservatism, he interrupted me and gave me to understand that he thought of himself not as a conservative but a red-blooded American. He said that if I cared anything about my country I should go back to Louisiana and campaign hard for a Ronald Reagan presidency. His office was full of American flags. A big one stood in the corner. You would have thought he was a member of the House of Representatives. He had a lot of little flags on his desk. He had one in his lapel. Certainly he was very generous with his time. He invited me to a banquet at which he gave an award to the bravest man in New Hampshire who was somebody who had jumped into a river to save a child. Mr. Loeb gave him a plaque. Afterwards, he let me sit in on the open meeting at which anybody could come in and grill him on his policies. Of course, he has the option of skipping the questions but I didn’t see him do it. He allows them to grill the hell out of him: What kind of newspaper you running?—very sarcastic and needling.
After I had done with William Loeb, I rented a sky-blue Pinto and headed into the Green Mountains to look for J.D. Salinger. I’ve never driven in the mountains—and there I was, hauling my ass around those strange hills in a sky-blue Pinto that could barely make it over the peaks!
On my way to Windsor I stopped in Claremont, New Hampshire, to visit the offices of the Claremont Eagle. In my Salinger file at home I had a clipping about a Windsor schoolgirl named Shirlie Blaney who had managed to get an interview with Salinger for the student issue of the Claremont Eagle back in 1953. She had seen him eating in a local restaurant and had walked up and simply asked him. He had said OK and he had given her—at least as far as I knew—the only interview he had ever granted. There had been such a rumpus about this interview—I mean the little girl suddenly found herself in correspondence with people all over the country—that it reinforced Salinger’s determination never to give interviews again.
I thought I should read the Blaney interview at least to prepare myself. A fellow who works for the Eagle named Jefferson Thomas of all names (he said he had a terrible time in the Army where he had to give his last name first) helped me look for it back in the files. He was very helpful. It turned out he and I share the same birthday. It took us 2 1/2 hours to find the story which I read into my tape recorder.
I also dropped into the bookstore in Claremont. It’s a small bookstore but being the only one in that area Salinger comes over from Cornish and visits it on occasion. I talked with the owner of the store about him. She said, He’s such a peculiar man, not like any customer you ever saw. He’ll come in and doesn’t want you to speak even. If you ask if he needs help, he just shakes his head and walks away... One day my little girl was here with me when he came in. She was so delighted. She got a copy of a book of his and went over and asked for his autograph. Then he turned on his heel and walked out. He is a very peculiar man.
I stayed in Windsor, Vermont, at the Windsor Motel. Salinger lives in Cornish, of course, across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, which is just the smallest kind of hamlet. Windsor is the nearest place that has lodgings. The motel there looked like an old-time motor court from twenty years ago—very primitive, no phones in the room, but it’s set in a beautiful rural area amongst all those hills. Windsor itself is about seven miles away.
In my room that night I spent some time listening to the Blaney interview and preparing my questions, writing one on top of each page of my little spiral notebook. In that interview Salinger had mentioned that Holden Caulfield was autobiographical and that it had been a great relief telling people about his own early life. I thought I’d ask him about that, and if he planned a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. He had talked to Blaney about wanting to go to Indonesia. I wondered if he had ever gotten there, and what he remembered about entertaining troops aboard ship, which he had done in the West Indies. I thought I’d ask him about the American Dream. I had about twenty-odd questions in my notebook when I’d finished.
The next morning it was cold. An arctic front had come through that night and there was ice in the swimming pool next to the motel. Here it was in the middle of June and I was wearing the normal clothes you’d wear in Baton Rouge in the summer. Luckily, I’d thrown a long-sleeved sweater in my bag. If it hadn’t been for that sweater I would have froze my ass off.
I drove to Windsor. It is a small country town—everything concentrated on Maine Street with Bridge Street crossing it and leading down to the covered bridge over the Connecticut River. The first thing I did was to go into the drugstore. I told the man behind the counter that I was interested in interviewing J.D. Salinger. He looked at me and said, You’re a journalist. Go away. He wouldn’t say another word. And I thought. Oh God, here it was, the first time I’d mentioned his name, and it was like a door had been slammed on me. I couldn’t afford too many more of those. So I went back out in the street.
The Cummins Corner I had read about in the news story in my Salinger file turned out to be a bunch of shops in a big old wooden, sprawling building—a grocery store, a liquor store, a barber shop, and an ice cream parlor, though needless to say no one was hurrying in to buy ice cream that morning.
I went into the grocery in Cummins Corner and told the man behind the counter that I had read in a story that J.D. Salinger often came in there. He looked puzzled and said, No. He didn’t think so. But he was polite. He wasn’t like the guy in the drugstore. In fact, this guy didn’t really know who J.D. Salinger was. I said, Think. Really think hard.
So he did, and after a while he said, Well, that name does sort of ring a bell. I have this really strange customer who comes in once a week to do some shopping. As a matter of fact, this guy has an unlisted phone number—and that’s a little freaky in these parts. He said he had the number on file because this guy was a customer.
So he pulled out the number, and sure enough on the card it had J.D. Salinger. I thought, Ah hah! I didn’t ask for the number, because I was sure he wouldn’t give it to me, but I asked if he would call the number for me. He said he would. He called the number and then handed me the phone. It was J.D. Salinger’s housekeeper! I told her who I was and that I would like to see Mr. Salinger. She got very nervous and said that she shouldn’t be talking to me. She said Mr. Salinger doesn’t want to talk to anybody, he doesn’t want to see anybody, he doesn’t want to be bothered. If she helped me, she said she’d get in big trouble. I tried to reassure her. I said, Honey, you don’t have to help me; just tell me how I can get to see Mr. Salinger. She was so nervous by this time she could barely talk. She said that I should write him a note and post it. I moaned. I said it could be a week before he ever saw it. She went on to suggest that if I handed the note to the girl in the Windsor post office, Mr. Salinger would get it. She must have been very relieved when I thanked her and hung up.
Well, then I bought myself a Mead’s Spiral Notebook with a blue cover in which to compose this letter to J.D. Salinger. I thought it would be tacky to send him a note from my own reporter’s notebook which is so small that I would have used up five or ten pages just to tell him I wanted to see him. I bought a Bic ballpoint pen for nineteen cents. I took the notebook out on the street and since there are no benches in Windsor I sat down on the curbstone to do the letter. I thought, Oh God! What do you say to J.D. Salinger? Good night! I mean he gets tons and tons of requests—what would make him answer mine?
I started off by telling him who I was, and that I earned my living by writing. I did not mention The Catcher in the Rye or any of his work at all. It’s true I reread The Catcher in the Rye twice a year, but Salinger isn’t one of my favorite writers—I can’t really identify with the characters. What had fascinated me was that as a girl in Smith County, Mississippi, where males and females are very secluded from one another, I had two older brothers, and reading The Catcher in the Rye was like opening a secret door into their private male world. I really learned from it and I can certainly recognize the man’s literary skills. Of course, I didn’t say any of this in the letter. I told him I wasn’t a girl who had come to usurp any of his privacy; I was a woman who supported herself through writing and would very much like to see him. I wanted to know if he was still writing. I told him I was a novelist. I told him writing was so hard.
Then I explained that I was staying at the Windsor Motel where there were no phones in the rooms. Since he could not reach me, I wrote him that I would come back to Cummins Corner at 9:30 the next morning and wait for thirty minutes. If he didn’t come, I would be there at 9:30 the next morning to wait for thirty minutes. . .and I told him if he didn’t come then I was going back to Baton Rouge because I couldn’t afford to stay in Windsor any longer.
I told him that I would be sitting in a sky-blue Pinto right by the corner and just up the road from the covered bridge and that I was tall with green eyes and red-gold hair. I finished the letter, “I will make no further effort to seek you out, not because of guard dogs or fences, but because I do not want to anger you or cause you grief.” Then I put a PS down at the bottom: “I see perfectly why you live in this area. Its beauty is awesome. Often I find myself whispering.”
I took the letter into the post office and said I had a letter for J.D. Salinger. I got a pretty peculiar look as I handed it over. The people in Windsor seemed so determined to protect him. God bless!
After I’d done that, I went and brought some extra batteries for my tape recorder. I was being very cautious. After all, it was so cold the batteries I brought with me could have been affected and malfunctioned. It was best not to leave anything to chance.
Then I bought an eight-pack of Tab. It’s my favorite drink. I drink Tab like most people drink booze: I really swill it down. I took the Tab back to the Windsor Motel and there I fell apart. It was interesting. Up to that point I had been very confident. I remembered how nice Salinger was to the women he wrote about in his stories and books. Sometimes he was very rough on the men, but he was gentle with females. Holden is so very tender to his sister in The Catcher in the Rye. It was going to be a piece of cake. But then in my motel room I began thinking of all the reasons for J.D. Salinger not to come. I really got panicky. I hate to fail. I tried to think of things to encourage myself—that Edmund Hillary had climbed Mt. Everest the same year that The Catcher in the Rye came out. It didn’t work. I got so upset that I began swearing and pacing and worrying and trying to calm myself by drinking Tab and finally I said to myself, Oh well! and I went and pigged out on some fresh fruit. I eat fruit like I drink Tab.
In the middle of the night I woke up and I knew J.D. Salinger was going to come. I just knew. I was so excited that I had to say to myself, Now Betty Eppes, calm down. I have these things. I always know when something really important is going to happen. I always have them when people are dying. They just come to me like revelations.
I got up at four in the morning and turned on the TV. All hell had broken loose in the environment. Mt. St. Helens had erupted. On the TV preachers were wailing about Hell and damnation and destruction. But I remember thinking that only some natural catastrophe like that was going to keep me from my interview with J.D. Salinger. I was really confident. At breakfast I left a five dollar tip. I knew he was going to turn up.
I drove up to Cummins Corner in my Pinto. I bought a Tab there. Then I positioned myself in the Pinto about fifty yards from the covered bridge that crosses the Connecticut. I knew Salinger would have to cross that bridge to come into Windsor. One great piece of luck was that the bridge was being repaired. People parked their cars in a parking area on the New Hampshire side and then walked across. I knew Salinger would have to appear on foot. So I checked the camera and got it ready for an approach shot. I aimed it towards the covered bridge. I got the tape recorder out and set it up. I knew that Salinger would be spooked by the sight of a tape recorder, but also that it would be crazy to try to talk to him scribbling away in his face. So I thought Hell, I’ll stuff the tape recorder down my blouse under my long-sleeved sweater. It was difficult to do without looking like I had some kind of deformity. I thought. Jeez—I wouldn’t want J.D. Salinger to think I’ve got a square boob. So I finally shoveled the tape recorder down the sleeve of my blouse right under my armpit where I could hold it in against my body with my arm. I thought, if I just keep my elbow in, everything will be cool.
It seemed like I had waited there in the Pinto for about three years. I was just beginning to read an article in that morning’s Boston Globe entitled “What Is Luck?” when right on time—nine-thirty—he stepped out from the black of that covered bridge... J.D. Salinger!
He didn’t look like I thought he would. He had white hair. That freaked me out. He came out of the dark and the sun lit his hair like a beacon. In all the pictures I had seen of him he had dark hair. I was not looking for a Holden Caulfield but I was probably thinking of a Holden Caulfield. Not only that, but I was surprised by the intensity of the man. He walked almost like he was driven or pursued, his shoulders hunched up around his ears... it was almost a run. He looked neither right nor left but in my direction. As soon as I saw him coming I fumbled under my blouse to turn on the tape recorder and I opened the door and got out of the Pinto. He kept coming towards me. He had an attache case stuck under his arm. He walked right up to me and said “Betty Eppes?” which meant, of course, he had seen or had news of my letter. He mispronounced my name. “Eppes,” he said. We shook hands standing beside the Pinto. He had on a pair of jeans, sneakers, and one of those shirt-jackets. He looked in remarkable shape—very slim, very healthy. After he shook my hand, he backed off a few steps. He’s a very tall man so he looked down on me with eyes, very black, that seemed to glitter. I thought, Shit, I have just shaken J.D. Salinger’s hand; then I realized that the Sony tape recorder was going to fall out. I could feel it beginning to slip down my side. It was terrible! I clamped my arm in to keep it from going any further. And then I realized I only had 29 minutes of tape to go and when the machine reached the end it would give off a little beep. I thought if that beep signal went off while I was standing in front of J.D. Salinger and he heard it coming out from under my sweater, I’d just fall down in a faint. It was terrible! You don’t know how terrible it was!
He seemed just as nervous as I was. His hands shook. Here was J.D. Salinger and I thought, Shit, the man isn’t going to stand still. I mean it was obvious that he didn’t want to be there...he was going to bolt any second. Great God! I thought, Now, Eppes, if you don’t get but one question in before he bolts, it had better be about Holden Caulfield, because he’s the one everybody wants to know about.
First, I thanked Mr. Salinger for coming. He said, I don’t know why I did, actually. There’s nothing I can tell you. Writing’s a very personal thing. So why’d you come here? He said that my letter had been very brief.
I was very nervous. I said, I came not just for myself, Mr. Salinger, but as a spokesman for all who want to know if you’re still writing.
It was then he must have known—I was a journalist. After all, I was reading the questions off my notebook page, and scribbling notes.
I asked about Caulfield. Please tell me—is he going to grow up? Is there going to be a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye? All your readers want to know the answer to that question.
The whole town was gaping. I mean everybody. The old man in the Cummins Corner office had his nose pressed to the window pane. The people in the laundromat came out and stood on the sidewalk. There were faces looking out of the windows of the apartments across the street.
I kept pegging away about Holden Caulfield. He said, It’s all in the book. Read the book again, it’s all in there. Holden Caulfield is only a frozen moment in time.
So I asked, Well, does that mean he isn’t going to grow up—there won’t be a sequel?
He said, Read the book.
Every question I asked about Holden Caulfield he replied, Read the book. It’s all in the book. There’s no more to Holden Caulfield. Over and over. Except when I asked him if the book was autobiographical. When I quoted to him what he had once said in that interview with the Windsor schoolgirl about his boyhood being like Holden’s, he seemed to be made very uncomfortable by that. He said, Where did you get all that stuff? He looked at me very hard. I thought he was going to say, Read the book, again, and if he had I would have stomped on his foot! But this time he said, I don’t know... I don’t know. I’ve just let it all go. I don’t know about Holden any more.
So I left off Holden Caulfield and began asking about other things. Christ! I just wanted to ask him a question he would answer. I began turning the pages of my notebook.
Eppes: Have you visited Indonesia?
Salinger: I really don’t want to talk about all of this.
Eppes: You told Miss Blaney you were going to London to make a movie. Did you?
Salinger: Where’d you get all this old stuff?
Eppes: Did you make or work on a movie? Will you in the future?
Salinger: Can we go on to something else?
Eppes: Of course. But just for fun, do you remember the name of the ship you worked on as an entertainer?
Salinger: I do, yes. The Kungsbolm.
Eppes: You were in the Counter-intelligence Corps. How many languages do, or did you, speak?
Salinger: French and German, but not very well. And a few phrases of Polish.
Eppes: Given your family background, why writing?
Salinger: I can’t say exactly. I don’t know if any writer can. It’s different for each person. Writing’s a highly personal act. It’s different for each writer.
Eppes: Did you consciously opt for a writing career, or did you just drift into it?
Salinger: I don’t know. (A long pause) I truly don’t. I just don’t know.
I wanted a Tab. It was so painful for him to answer. But he kept standing there. I hurried on with my questions. I said that I had heard he had done his writing in a special concrete work- shop situated behind his house. I asked if he did his writing there.
He said, I have my work area set up the way I like, so its comfortable. But I don’t want to discuss it. I don’t want people streaming up here trying to climb walls and peek in windows. I’m comfortable, he said, and that’s enough. I’m comfortable, he said, and that’s enough.
I asked him if publishing wasn’t important.
He said that was an easy question that wouldn’t take any time to answer at all. He said he had no plans to publish. Writing was what was important to him—and to be left alone so that he could write. To be left in peace. He couldn’t tell me why he felt he wanted to be left in peace... but that he had felt that way in grade school, at the academy, and before and after military service. And he felt it now, too. Boy! he kept harping on that!
So I asked him why he had ever published anything at all if he felt so strongly that it disturbed his private life.
He said that he had not foreseen what was going to happen. He said he didn’t expect it, and when it did happen, he didn’t want it. It meant he couldn’t live a normal life. He had to put the roads near his home under patrol. His children suffered. Why couldn’t his life be his own?
I asked him if that was so why he had bothered to see me. Why hadn’t he stayed up on his mountain ignored my letter?
He said, You write. I write. He had come as one writer to another. Then he began asking me about my writing. Had I done a book yet? Goodness me! J.D. Salinger asking Betty Eppes about her work!
So I told him I had written a novel and given it to a regional publisher—Southern Publishing—but while the contract was being prepared, the couple who ran the company split up and the manuscript was lost. I only had a copy of the first two-thirds of the book. I told Salinger that I was so upset with myself for not keeping a copy, and with the two of them for losing the work, that I just hadn’t had the heart to rewrite that last section.
Salinger nodded and said that publishing was a vicious, vicious thing. He said that so many unforeseen things happen when you publish. He said that I’d probably be happier if I never published. He said there was a certain peace in not publishing.
Then we began talking about autographs. I asked him why he hated to give them. He said he didn’t believe in giving autographs. It was a meaningless gesture. He told me never to sign my name for anyone else. It was all right for actors and actresses to sign their names, because all they had to give were their faces and names. But it was different with writers. They had their work to give. Therefore, it was cheap to give autographs. He said, Don’t you ever do it! No self-respecting writer should ever do it.
Well, I myself had never really thought much about it. I mean nobody had ever asked me for my autograph before—well, once, a little girl did, but she thought I was Jane Fonda. I signed “Jane Fonda”—I didn’t want to hurt the girl’s feelings.
I tried other subjects. I asked about discipline in writing.
He said that discipline was no problem—that you either want to write or you don’t.
His style? Well, he said he didn’t know much about his writing style. Obviously a writer had to make choices. Decisions. But he really couldn’t help me with that question.
So I tried politics.
He said, I don’t care about politicians. I don’t have anything in common with them. They try to limit our horizons; I try to expand our horizons. He said that not one politician stood out in his mind.
I tried economics—inflation, unemployment, energy. . . did he have any comments to make about these issues.
No. He said that none of this touched him personally. Not his area. He didn’t know much about these things.
That was becoming such a stock answer—that he didn’t know. It made me super-nervous. He was super-nervous, too. He kept moving that attache case around, sticking it out in front of him and then tucking it under his arm.
Then we had this exchange:
Eppes: I’ve heard you’re into organic foods. Do you feel eating food stuffs organically grown is that important?
Salinger: Yes, or I wouldn’t bother.
Eppes: Is it true that you’ll eat fried foods only if they’re prepared in cold-pressed peanut oil?
Eppes: Why is that?
Salinger: Are you informed on the differences between coldpressed oil as opposed to oil extracted by other methods.?
Eppes: Yes, I am. I don’t use peanut oil but only cold-pressed oils. I make all my salad dressing from cold-pressed apricot kernel, sesame seed, sunflower seed oil. With a few herbs thrown in you come up with a super salad.
I didn’t know how many people would be interested in Salinger on cooking oils, so I went back to something more general. I threw him my question about the American Dream. Did he believe in it?
He said, My own version of it, yes.
When I asked if he would elaborate, he said, I wouldn’t care to, no.
So I said that the Constitution seemed to have been written by men for men and that it may not have been intended for women. That produced quite a response!
Salinger: Don’t you accept that! Don’t ever listen to that. Who says you don’t have a right to the American Dream, who says? That’s frightful. Awful! Don’t you accept that. The American Dream is for all Americans. Women are Americans too. It is for you too. Proceed. Claim it if you want it...
After a while, I got to wondering if Salinger was going to bring a halt to this, which was OK by me, because the tape recorder was getting pretty close to the end where the beep was going to go off. I couldn’t look at my watch to find out how much time there was left because if I had lifted my arm to look, that damn tape recorder would have slid right down, and I would have died! If Salinger knew what I was going through he might have smiled.
As it was, he smiled twice. The first time was when in the middle of our conversation—I don’t know if it was frustration, or intimidation, or awe, or what—tears began to roll down my face...God, it was embarrassing! And I couldn’t wipe them away—I had this friggy pencil in one hand and I couldn’t move the other arm because it had the tape recorder wedged in under it. Salinger smiled sympathetically at this point; he reached across and wiped those tears off with a knuckle, and then wiped his knuckles on his jeans.
The second time he smiled was when I asked him if he really was writing every day what then was he working on? He smiled and said, I can’t tell you that. I kind of understood what he meant.
Finally Salinger went off to get his mail. I went into Cummins Corner to get an 8-pack of Tab. I must have stayed in there for about ten minutes. As I came out of Cummins Corner I saw Salinger coming back along the street from the post office. I jumped in the Pinto, changed tapes and shoved the tape recorder back down my blouse, turned it on, and then I grabbed my camera and took three pictures of Salinger, who had been stopped by the young owner of Cummins Corner market; the guy had come out and put his hand on Salinger’s arm. Apparently he wanted to shake Salinger’s hand. That made Salinger furious. He came stalking across the street to the Pinto and leaning in the window right in my face he really got on my case! He chewed my ass out! He was wearing his glasses this time. His eyes seemed much larger behind them.
Here’s what he said: Because of you, this man I don’t know, have never even met, has spoken to me. Just walked up to me on the street over there and spoke to me. Just like that. Walked up and put his hand on my arm and spoke to me. I don’t like that. There have been calls to my neighbors because of you and I don’t like my neighbors inconvenienced. I want to be left alone, left to my privacy. That’s why I moved here. I moved here seeking privacy, a place where I could lead a normal life and write. But people like you pursue me. I don’t wish to seem harsh. It’s just that I’m a private person. I resent intrusions. I resent questions. I don’t want to talk to strangers. I don’t particularly like talking to anybody. I’m a writer. Write me letters if you wish. But please, don’t drop in.
I knew I had nothing to lose at this point. As he began to turn away, I said, I’m sorry you’re upset, Mr. Salinger, but please wait. Just a moment more. May I take a close-up photograph of you?
He looked horrified. Absolutely not! No!
All right, Mr. Salinger, all right. I’ve put the camera down. It’s down, Mr. Salinger, see?
As he paused, I put one more question to him. Tell me honestly, are you really writing?
I thought he’d run. But he answered, I am really writing. I told you. I love to write and I assure you I write regularly. I’m just not publishing. I write for myself. For my own pleasure. I want to be left alone to do it. So leave me alone. Don’t drop in here like this again.
Off he went. As he headed for the dark entrance of the covered bridge I snapped a picture. Before I could think of anything else to call after him, he walked back into that bridge and disappeared.
I sent Salinger a copy of the story I wrote for the Advocate. Eleven days later I received two photostats—copies of order blanks he had sent away to New York. They were signed by him, mailed in Windsor, and addressed to me care of the Advocate. I haven’t any idea if he sent them to me. The order was addressed to the Chocolate Soup Company in New York City and in it Mr. Salinger asked for two oversized schoolbags, gift-wrapped, from Denmark (at $16.50 each) that had been advertised in the then current New Yorker. Now why was that sent to me? It drove me just about crazy trying to figure it out.
After the article appeared, there was a lot more spooky little shit like that—just enough to drive you crazy. I have an accordion-file stuffed with job offers, letters, requests... people seemed to come out of the woodwork wanting things from me. There were two motion-picture companies who tried to get me to go back up there to convince Salinger to make a movie! In a way I guess it was a kind of education about what Mr. Salinger had gone through himself and what had turned him into the kind of person I found.
I want to tell you that interview with J.D. Salinger was the most difficult one I ever tried. The next most difficult was one I did on Edwin W. Edwards, the former governor of Louisiana, on gambling—stalking him around Las Vegas for three days. But he doesn’t compare with J.D. Salinger. Those eyes of Salinger’s... the strangest black eyes that glittered and just seemed to gaze right through you. So weird. I mean just weird, weird, weird!
This summer I decided to go to England. I interviewed James Mason, the English actor. He was a piece of cake compared to J.D. Salinger. He turned up in a pink sweater. He looked gorgeous. I just wanted to munch on him.