When J.D. Salinger Lost the Girl and Went to War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because girls can drive you crazy. They really can.
I’m not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me last year before old Jerry Salinger— that’s me — got drafted and had to be a soldier.
Where I want to start is the time I became a published author. It was 1940 and I was 21 years old and still living with my parents on the Upper East Side. It was pretty depressing. I had attended one military academy and three colleges by that point.
In Their Voice: Part of a series featuring stories about famous writers told in their own voice. In this episode, a young J.D. Salinger loses the girl of his dreams to the ultimate phony. Based on true events.
Anyway, one of the biggest reasons I left each college was because I was surrounded by phonies. But I also didn’t want to work for old Daddykins, so I kept on going back to college. My father owned a meat-and-cheese business. He was also a crook, but I don’t want to go into that. A few years ago, in between colleges, he dragged me off to slaughter pigs in Poland. Boy, I wasn’t too crazy about the pigs and all, but I sort of liked writing. So one day I took out a goddamn piece of paper and started to type on my lousy typewriter. I wrote one story that got published, but I didn’t sell anything for eight months. I wondered if I was a has-been at 21.
I didn’t have much money by that stage. So one day my best friend, Herb Kauffman, talks me into taking a job aboard the SS Kungsholm — one of those lavish art deco cruise ships bound for the Caribbean. That’s right, it’s just after the Great Depression, and me and old Herb are on the entertainment staff of the Swedish American Line accompanying girls to cheesy dances, organizing deck games and shooting the bull with the passengers. That was February 1941, and all anyone wanted to talk about was the war. It got on your nerves sometimes.
Anyway, by that point I’d decided I hated the prospect of living with my parents more than joining the Army, so I tried to enlist. But they wouldn’t take me on account of my heart condition. I forgot to tell you about that.
I was pretty bitter about not getting into the Army and all, so I wrote war stories instead, the kind of drivel about the virtues of soldiering that they eat up at places like Collier’s. I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.
I was lucky. That summer I went down to the Jersey Shore with an old pal. One afternoon we saw these three girls around 16 or so. It was a regular debutante ball there on the shore. Anyway, I started giving the dark-haired one the eye. She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we even started talking. Oona was cute as hell, she was intelligent. That was the first season when intelligent was the thing to be. She was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, who had won the goddamn Nobel Prize for Literature or something.
All I wanted to write were 15-page goddamn love letters, telling her how I loved and missed her and all that crap.
What I liked about old Oona, she didn’t give you a lot of horse manure about what a great guy her father was. He had abandoned her when she was 3, and she kept a scrapbook of photos of him so she wouldn’t forget what he looked like. I’m not kidding.
She liked me. At least, I think she did. We promised to keep seeing each other when we got back to the city. The next thing I knew, I had holed up at the Beekman Hotel with my lousy typewriter and written a new story about a prep school kid named Holden Caulfield. Oona was nearby at the Brearley School but spent most of her time at the Stork Club, where the movie stars hung out. Imagine that, a 16-year-old hanging out at the Stork Club after school. That killed me.
I was falling hopelessly in love with little Oona. I took her to museums and plays and out to expensive restaurants. She was spoiled too. Last year, I made a rule that I was going to quit horsing around with girls that, deep down, gave me a pain in the ass. I broke it for Oona the same week I met her — the same night, as a matter of fact.
During the days, I was typing away like mad at the old Beekman about jerks and phonies, and, in the evenings, I was hanging out with them at the Stork Club with Oona. You should’ve heard the conversations they were having. It was too depressing. There isn’t any nightclub in the world you can sit in for a long time unless you’re with some girl that really knocks you out.
Anyway, around October, I found out that The New Yorker had accepted my Holden Caulfield story. Six weeks later, the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and some goddamn editor decided that a story about a prep school kid was no longer befitting the national mood. Somebody’s always going around hollowing out all of my victories, I swear to God.
The good news was that, thanks to Pearl Harbor, the Army relaxed its classification standards and I received my draft notice in April. That same month, Oona received her own designation: Debutante of the Year. I don’t think the other guys in the platoon believed she was my girlfriend. I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t have either.
At Fort Dix, I was homesick for the city, and especially for Oona; and all I wanted to write were 15-page goddamn love letters, telling her how I loved and missed her and all that crap. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.
Anyway, Oona’s mother gets it in her head that Oona should really be out in Hollywood trying to be a movie star. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. So she goes out to California, where this young fella named Orson Welles shows her around the town. On their first night out, he grabs her hand and reads her goddamn palm. He tells her she has a love line that leads directly to an older man: Charlie Chaplin. I’m not kidding.
I didn’t hear a lot from old Oona after that. Then, this past January, I pick up a newspaper and read about her and 53-year-old Charlie Goddamn Chaplin. Apparently she had auditioned for a role in one of his lousy movies. They got married the minute she turned 18, for propriety’s sake and all. That killed me.
I sat in the chair for a while and smoked a couple of cigarettes after I read that. My Army buddies had a goddamn field day with the news, you can’t imagine.
That’s all I’m going to say about that. I could tell you what I did after basic training, and what theater of the war I’m supposed to go to after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t.
Anyway, I wrote Oona some pretty nasty letters after I heard about old man Chaplin. Everyone knew he used monkey glands to boost his manhood on account of his age and all. So in one letter I drew a cartoon of little Charlie chasing after Oona waving his you-know-what at her. Later she said my actions only made her more glad that she was with Charlie and not with me. Forget the war, that just about killed me. It really did.
Epilogue: Oona and Charlie Chaplin had eight children and remained together until his death in 1977. J.D. Salinger fought at D-Day in Normandy, carrying several chapters of The Catcher in the Rye with him throughout the war.