Issue 80, Summer 1981
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 theState 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 RougeEnterprise—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.