The Writer & the Judge: J.D. Salinger’s Famous Best Friend

The Writer & the Judge: J.D. Salinger’s Famous Best Friend

Judge Learned Hand (center) commended after 50 years on the bench with a group of other judges (left to right): Earl Warren, Judge Clark, Learned Hand, Felix Frankfurter, John Marshall Harlan.

SourceAlfred Eisenstaedt/Getty

Why you should care

Because even a recluse needs friends.

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With the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, author J.D. Salinger was catapulted to fame at the age of 32. As the book grew in popularity, and into a best-seller, Salinger retreated further from the public eye, buying a piece of property in rural Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1953. But Salinger’s escapism only seemed to bolster his mystique: He became a legend and a curiosity.

For decades until his death in 2010, Salinger’s allure hardly diminished, even after he stopped publishing in 1965. He became, as Ken Slawenski, author of J.D. Salinger: A Life, puts it, “something of a ghost among us.”

The ghostly writer may have tightly guarded his privacy from adoring fans, but he was not without human contact. He had a wife and children, many friends in Cornish, New York and elsewhere. Indeed, Salinger’s neighbor and perhaps his closest friend was one of the most influential jurists in American history, a retired judge with the unusual, and unforgettable, name of Learned Hand. For years their friendship would sustain Salinger — and the famous judge’s jurisprudence would even bolster some of the legal claims made by the guarded and litigious writer.

Salinger greatly admired his esteemed neighbor …

During the mid-1950s, as Salinger and his wife, Claire, settled into the isolated existence they had carved out for themselves, there was one thing they looked forward to each spring, even more than the thaw of a harsh New Hampshire winter: the arrival of their neighbors and dear friends, Billings Learned Hand and his wife, Frances. The Hands spent six months in Cornish each year until winter drove them back to New York City.

Hand spent 52 years on the bench, longer than any federal judge in history, and had recently retired, at age 80, from full-time judicial duties. His name is one that all law students encounter sooner or later, a name that The New York Times once stated “belongs … among the eminences of the American judiciary.” Often called “the 10th justice of the Supreme Court,” Hand remains perhaps the most influential U.S. jurist not to sit on the country’s highest court. Hand was neither a conservative nor a liberal, but he was a fierce proponent of judicial restraint, a view that would influence generations of later legal scholars and judges, including some who did make it to the Supreme Court, like Antonin Scalia. Hand had such a dim view of judicial activism that he famously criticized the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision to desegregate American schools in Brown v. Board of Education as judicial overreach, despite his moral objections to segregation.

Gettyimages 514963770

Judge Learned Hand, then circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals, is pictured aboard the S.S. Caronia as he sailed for England on a brief vacation cruise.

Source Getty

Salinger greatly admired his esteemed neighbor, referring to him once as “a true karma yogi.” Dinner with Learned and Frances was a weekly ritual for the Salingers, who always looked forward to their wide-ranging conversations about law, literature, religion and more. “They bring only peace and joy, those two,” Salinger once wrote of his neighbors.

During the winter months, Salinger and Hand corresponded frequently by letter. The old judge had a great deal in common with the young artist. Like Salinger, Hand was also a writer and an author, one who wrote some of the most influential books in the corpus of U.S. constitutional law. Both men also valued their privacy, and suffered from depression and rocky marriages. In the final years of Hand’s life, before his death in 1961, Salinger was the judge’s best friend, his confidant. And Salinger valued him as well: Hand was the first one Salinger informed of the birth of his daughter, Margaret, who would also become Hand’s goddaughter.

After Hand’s death, the candid letters he had exchanged with Salinger became a source of distress for the private writer. The judge’s letters and writings were deposited at Harvard Law School, where a British literary critic, Ian Hamilton, came across them. When Hamilton penned an unauthorized biography of Salinger that quoted and paraphrased many of the author’s letters, including those to Hand, Salinger headed to court. He sued to bar the book’s publication and won in a landmark case that represented the first time a book had been enjoined prior to publication in America.

At the heart of the winning argument proffered by Salinger and his lawyers was the contention that Salinger owned the copyright to the contents of his letters, meaning that his expression could not be quoted without his permission. Nor could it be closely paraphrased. “The copyright covers not only the actual sequence of words used,” read one judicial opinion from 1919 that helped shape this aspect of copyright law, “but any equivalent expression which gives substantially the same impression to the mind as the author’s words.’’

The author of that opinion? Judge Learned Hand.

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