The Two Great American Writers Who Met at War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not often that two literary icons meet on the battlefield.
By Sean Braswell
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s brand-new weekly podcast unlocking a series of linked histories, starting with the murder of John Lennon and stretching all the way back to the Russian Revolution. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on ozy.com.
When it became clear that Allied forces would retake Paris from the retreating Nazi army in August 1944, an American took it upon himself to personally liberate one of the city’s most famous landmarks from the Germans. The Ritz Hotel was not a real military target, but 45-year-old Ernest Hemingway was not a real American soldier either. The hotel, however, was one of the writer’s favorite watering holes, and he had decided it would make an ideal base of operations for his reporting on France’s liberation. So Hemingway and a small entourage he called the “irregulars,” including a private cook, a photographer, a historian and a PR officer, overran the Ritz, bearing a cachet of arms and Scotch.
There Hemingway and his band were found by a younger American writer, an actual American soldier, one who was supposed to be hunting down Nazi collaborators, not his literary heroes. And it is at the Ritz that the remarkable wartime friendship between two American literary icons, Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger, begins.
The men drank champagne from canteen cups and talked for hours.
By the time Sgt. Jerome Salinger’s regiment arrived in Paris that August, they had been through hell in France. After landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, they had fought their way to Cherbourg, which they retook from the Nazis after days of harrowing street-to-street fighting. For almost a full month, as Kenneth Slawenski chronicles in J.D. Salinger: A Life, Salinger had no break from combat, no chance to bathe or to change clothes. Of the more than 3,000 men in his regiment who landed on D-Day, about one-third remained. But those who did were mobbed by jubilant crowds in Paris. The three days Salinger spent there would be the happiest of the entire war for him. In part that was because of the opportunity Paris presented for the young aspiring writer to converse with one of the artists he admired most. And so when Salinger, a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps, learned Hemingway, a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine, was in Paris, he got in a jeep and headed for the Ritz, where he was sure he would find him.
He did, and the two writers talked shop over drinks. In a letter to his editor after the meeting, Salinger described Hemingway as a “really good guy,” who was much more humble and generous than his tough-guy reputation. Hemingway said he was familiar with some of the younger writer’s short stories and had enjoyed them. Salinger left the Ritz on a high. He had struggled to find the time and the will to write during the early months of the war, but after meeting Hemingway he redoubled his efforts, writing in foxholes and whenever he had the opportunity. Salinger “used writing … to see him through as a sort of self-therapy,” says Slawenski, “as a way of dealing with the horrors that he was witnessing.”
After Paris, those horrors resumed. Salinger’s division was the first to enter Germany, where he ended up in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, including the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. That winter at Hürtgen was bleak, with soldiers freezing to death in their foxholes, but again Salinger managed to find some much needed distraction. According to Salinger’s army buddy Werner Kleeman in his war memoir, From Dachau to D-Day, the writer grabbed him one dreary evening and said: “Let’s go and look up Hemingway.”
Sure enough, the two men found Hemingway about a mile away, holed up in a small farmhouse. Hemingway welcomed them, and the men drank champagne from canteen cups and talked for hours. Salinger took tremendous pride, and strength, from his interactions with Hemingway, and for having won the older writer’s approval. After Hürtgen, however, Salinger’s regiment encountered even more fighting and tragedy, from the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of the camps at Dachau. By the end of the war, Salinger was suffering from what was then called “battle fatigue,” and in July 1945 he checked himself into a hospital in Nuremberg for treatment. One of the reasons we know of this period in Salinger’s postwar life is a very candid two-page letter he wrote to Hemingway from the hospital. “We can tell even from reading that letter to Hemingway that he wasn’t really getting a lot of help,” says Slawenski, “and it took Salinger years to even begin to get over the battle stresses that he suffered from.”
Salinger confessed to Hemingway that he had been “in an almost constant state of despondency,” but that he was hopeful they would meet again in New York. “The talks I had with you here,” he reflected, “were the only hopeful minutes of the whole business.”