Each month, Anna Knoebel revisits letters from prominent writers and other artists to revive the dying art of letter writing. Anna is the editor and co-publisher of Abe’s Penny, a magazine of arts and literature delivered in the form of postcards.
It’s hard to grow up in America and not read or at least hear about The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s first and most famous novel, published in 1951. The book was immediately popular and still sells over 250,000 copies per year.
My last post featured a letter by Harper Lee, another author who recoiled from fame, but there is a marked difference in tone between her letter and Salinger’s (featured here, a note to his maid, Mary).
The note, dated March 12, 1989, reads:
Please make sure all the errands are done before you leave on vacation, as I do not want to be bothered with insignificant things.
If this was all we knew of J.D. Salinger besides his books, we’d still determine Salinger’s well-known personality traits. A man described by Richard Lacayo in his 2010 obituary of Salinger, as “. . . the hermit crab of American letters. When he emerged, it was usually to complain that somebody was poking at his shell.”
Google this note and you’ll find thousands of posts about the impossible curmudgeon, Jerome David, who ordered his publisher to burn his fan mail and spent his days scanning new books for copyright infringement. Then, google Salinger 1989, and find this photograph of the author and his old friend Donald Hartog, taken the same year he wrote the note to Mary. They look positively joyful together. In fact, Hartog’s daughter described Salinger as, “utterly charming.”
Maybe this note would read differently if Salinger’s handwriting didn’t look so much like the angry slashes of a cynical and self-centered man. If his penmanship was more curvaceous, more legible, we would see there was a happy side to JD, a side he saved for at least one close friend.
With that in mind, I propose this to be the note’s true origin: On the day before Mary leaves for vacation, Salinger remembers it’s her birthday. “Mary, I feel terrible. I’ve no present to give you,” to which Mary replies, “Oh Mr Salinger, working for you is present enough.” Salinger laughs heartily and says, “No one would believe that!” and then he has an idea. He grabs a piece of his monogrammed letterhead and scribbles a note. “Who knows,” he says, as he hands it to Mary, “someday this could be work $50,000!” At that, they share a chuckle and Mary gets back to dusting the books.
This note is for sale on eBay for $50,000, or for direct purchase at www.historyforsale.com.
Photo: Donald Hartog and J.D. Salinger, right, pose together in London in 1989, when they met for the first time since 1938. Source: AP
– Anna Knoebel has been writing letters since she was about eight years old, often to her grandfather, who would send them back edited. She worked in publicity at MGM Studios in Los Angeles and as the Managing Editor of zingmagazine before co-founding Abe’s Penny with her sister, Tess. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter.