"Now, Kitty, let's consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you should not go on licking your paw like that -- as if Dinah hadn't washed you this morning! You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course -- but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, so you ought to know -- Oh, Kitty, do help to settle it! I'm sure your paw can wait!"
-- Chapter 12, "Which Dreamed It?"
Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Mama said that when she was a little girl, before her house in London was bombed, she would often creep out of her bed at night and open the door between her nursery and the top of the back staircase that led down to the kitchen. She'd tiptoe downstairs to make sure the door was closed and no servants were around. Then, spreading her white nightgown around her and slowly rising off the ground, she would fly up and down the passageway. She knew she hadn't been dreaming because when she awoke on mornings after flight, there would be dust on her fingertips where she had touched the ceiling.
My mother was a child hidden away. She, like many upper-class and upper-middle-class English children of her day, was raised by staff in the nursery. I grew up hearing grim tales of nursery life. The one brief, bright spot was a nice governess, Nurse Reed, who took little Claire home with her on visits to her family. Nurse Reed's replacement, a Swiss-German who, among her many delightful qualities, used to force Claire, after lunch, to sit on the toilet until she "produced," or until suppertime, whichever came first, was more the norm. I knew, too, that she was sent to convent boarding school when she was only five years old and that she was taught to bathe her little body under a sheet so God wouldn't be offended by her nakedness. I used to think about that when I was a little girl sitting in the tub, how scary a wet sheet over you would feel, as if you'd get caught under the immensity of it and sucked down the drain. Once, when I was in the hospital with poison ivy, my mother told me that when she was at the convent and got poison ivy, the nuns scrubbed her head to toe, beneath the sheet of course, with a bristle brush and lye soap to remove the evil ivy boils.
What I didn't understand was why she was there. I didn't wonder about it when I was little and assumed that things just happen to children as inexorably as the catechism. But now, as an adult, it no longer made sense to me, and I asked her about it. My mother explained that at the time, in the fall of 1939, the fact that loomed largest in most Londoners' lives was that there was a war on. During the Blitz, parents with the means and "any sense at all," she said, took their families out of London and went to stay with friends or relatives in the country. The Douglas family had both country relations and money; nevertheless, Claire and her brother, Gavin, were packed on a train, unaccompanied, "with all the poor children," and evacuated to a convent at St. Leonard's-by-the-Sea. St. Leonard's had the unfortunate geographical attribute of being opposite Dunkirk, and they were soon evacuated again, this time inland to a sister convent in what my mother only remembers as a red-bricked city. She was five years old.
There was no comfort to be found in her elder brother, who, at seven, had a well-developed penchant for torturing animals and small girls. "He liked to cause pain, poor boy, it confused him terribly." "Why?" I asked, grateful that she had never let "the poor boy" anywhere near her daughter while he was alive. "Mom, what was wrong with Gavin?" The answer came back flat and blunt: "The man my mother got her black market meat from was a pederast. When he came to the house, he bothered me a couple of times, but it was mostly my brother he was interested in, not me, thank God. I don't think he ever recovered from it."
In the fall of 1941, as Jerome Salinger had his first story, "The Young Folks," published, Claire, age seven, and her nine-year-old brother, Gavin, were put on a train to Southampton, where they were met by a governess. She informed them that their family's house had been bombed and had burnt to the ground. The Douglases had been out for the evening when the bomb struck, but Claire's beloved kitten, Tiger Lily, was nowhere to be found. The governess deposited Claire and Gavin on a ship, the Scythia, offering the children no explanation. Her duty accomplished, she turned and marched off the ship.
The ship was packed with stunned, weeping children headed for the safety of the United States to sit out the war. One bit of contact, which Claire clung to like a life preserver, was to stand on the deck each day and wave to the children on the deck of their sister ship, The City of Benares, which carried the same cargo of unaccompanied children and sailed alongside them in close convoy. The children would wave back to her. Several days out of Southampton, as Claire was exchanging waves, a German torpedo ripped into the side of the Benares. It exploded into flames. Claire watched in mute horror as it sank, children screaming and dancing as they burned.
The Scythia disembarked at Halifax, Nova Scotia. From Halifax, Claire and Gavin traveled alone by train to Waycross, Georgia, to meet their first host family. They were in Georgia when, on December 7 of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Before the war's end, they would be removed from eight different American foster homes because of Gavin's behavior. "And you know what happens to little girls in foster care...," my mother said, as though we were both in on some kind of secret not to be mentioned, only hinted at.
Their second placement was in Tampa, Florida. She remembers being terribly sunburned and attributes her midlife melanoma to her Tampa stay. The next stop, about the time Staff Sergeant Jerome Salinger was preparing to take Utah Beach on D-Day, was Wilmington, Delaware, where she attended the Tower Hill School for about a year. This was followed by placements with families in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Sea Girt, New Jersey; and Glens Falls, New York.
I never heard about these places growing up. My mother didn't have to think for two seconds, though, to remember. The towns, and the order in which the placements occurred, were literally at her fingertips as she ticked them off, counting on her fingers the way my son, at age four, might display his mastery of the days of the week. "Waycross, Tampa, Wilmington..."
"Where were your parents?" I asked, assuming they must have been unable to leave England. She told me that her father, an art dealer, came to America shortly after she did, in 1941, to sell some pictures in New York. He was stuck there while the shipping passage was blocked by German U-boats. When it opened, he sent for his wife and they spent the duration of the war in New York City building up the business at Duveen Brothers and getting established.
When the war ended, the foster program ended, too, and the Douglases had to collect their children, at which point Claire was sent off to the Convent of the Holy Child in Suffern, New York, where she stayed until the end of eighth grade; Gavin went to Milton Academy. "How were they able to have their children taken care of by American families on that war program when they were in the country themselves?" I asked her as she told me this story. She shook her head and said, "God only knows what story my mother told them."
She stayed with her parents in their New York apartment on the occasional school holiday, sleeping under the dining room table -- for reasons unknown and probably unquestioned. In eighth grade, she refused to go back to the convent. "They were doing a number on my head, trying to coerce me into becoming a nun. The whole school was ordered to shun me, not to speak to me, until I had declared my decision. I was going mad." Her parents did not, or could not, force her to return, and in the fall of 1947 they enrolled her, instead, at Shipley, a girls' boarding school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Three years later, in the fall of 1950, she met a writer named Jerry Salinger at a party in New York given by Bee Stein, an artist, and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, a writer for The New Yorker. Claire's parents lived in the same apartment building as the Steegmullers on East Sixty-sixth Street, and through their shared interest in the arts, they had become good friends as well as neighbors. Claire was sixteen and had just begun her senior year at Shipley. She arrived at the party looking strikingly beautiful, with the wide-eyed, vulnerable, on-the-brink look of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Leslie Caron in Gigi, a movie my father loved so much that he bought a reel-to-reel copy and played it for us so many times when I was growing up that, to this day, I can still sing the lyrics beginning to end. As a child, I never heard the names Holden Caulfield or Seymour Glass, but even now I can't hold a glass of champagne without hearing in my mind the song "The Night They Invented Champagne" from Gigi.
Our shared world was not books, but rather, my father's collection of reel-to-reel movies. During the long winters, our human visitors were, essentially, supplied courtesy of MGM. My father would set up the screen in front of the fireplace in the living room, and I'd lie on the rug watching Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent; Laurel and Hardy; W. C. Fields; and the Marx Brothers, to name a few of our favorites. The neat, plastic videocassettes he now owns are a sterile substitute for the sensuous delight I remember then. My father would take the reel from the round metal case, as though unwrapping a present, and place it on the projector spindle. I watched him thread the film through the maze of the projector in a lovely over and under hide-and-seek; his hands knew the special moves and codes for each location. When I threaded my old treadle Singer sewing machine for my 4-H class, I felt the same thrill of competence, of secrets mastered.
When he secured the tail of the film in the empty reel, he was ready for me to turn off the lights. A thin blue stream of light beamed from the projector, widening as it moved toward the screen, smoke and dust playing in the flickering light. First the leader tape passed through with its strange hieroglyphics of bull's-eyes and numbers and scratches, absent the dire modern video warnings about the FBI, imprisonment, and fines written in legalese. Then the title appeared with the movie's music and opening credits.
Most of his movies were on two or three reels, so in the middle of the movie we had to stop, turn on the lights, and wait while my father rewound the spent reel and threaded the next. I liked the sound of the film at the end of each reel slapping against my father's hand as it pulled free of the projector. I'd never stick my hand in the midst of all that flapping. He wasn't scared of getting cut at all, even when he had to stop the movie and splice the film together where it broke.
Rewinding the film at intervals was also a chance for me to rewind, have a drink of juice or some peanuts, reassurance that the world, as I knew it, still existed. Some of the Hitchcock movies scared me half to death, and not in a fun way. Much to my father's disgust, I always had to leave the room in the middle of Foreign Correspondent and put my head under a pillow to block out the screams of that sweet old man, Van Meer, when the Nazis tortured him in a windmill, offscreen, to get him to talk. Of my flights to the next room, my father would say, "Christ, all you and your mother want to see are sentimental pictures about Thanksgiving and puppy dogs." In my father's vocabulary, sentimental was a very damning word indeed.
Old Hitchcock movies, especially, became our secret language. As late as my senior year of high school, I'd receive a postcard saying simply, "There is a man in Scotland I must meet if anything is to be done. These men act quickly, quickly" -- signed, in my dad's handwriting, "Annabella Smith, Alt-na Shelloch, Scotland" (from The 39 Steps). When my brother was at boarding school, I received many a letter from him signed "Huntley Haverstock" (Foreign Correspondent). In short, we'd all light on the choice of Leslie Caron or Audrey Hepburn, rather than some literary character, to describe the young Claire when they first met.
Claire wore her chestnut hair smoothed back from her lovely forehead. Pretty mouth, fullish lips, and the kind of high cheekbones that promise a beauty that does not fade with youth. Claire's large eyes are a limpid, liquid blue that reflect the ambient world, the way only hazel or green eyes are supposed to do. On a stormy day her eyes look gray and wind-tossed; on a bright day at the beach, like blue sea glass and white sails. When her eyes became the color of a burnt match, it was a signal to her children to run and hide, fast. When her eyes became opaque, like those of a dead fish belly-up at the pond, it was time for me, the elder of her children, to take charge and do whatever needed to be done to survive, because she could no more see us than a dead fish can see the flies buzzing around its eyes.
Those little eyes so helpless and appealing,
one day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling.
("Thank Heaven for Little Girls," from Gigi)
The night my parents met, her eyes shone like a beacon across the room. She was wearing a midblue linen dress with a darker blue velvet collar, simple and elegant as a wild iris. "God, I loved that dress. I was a model for a designer called Nan Duskin that summer in New York. She let me keep it at the end of the season...said it was made for me. And it was, it matched my eyes perfectly. I've never worn anything more beautiful in my life."
"You wore a gown of gold..."
"I wore blue that night, and the month was June."
("I Remember It Well," from Gigi)
Jerry, at thirty-one, was nearly twice her age and was quite simply, or rather, quite complicatedly, tall, dark, and handsome. My father captures his own image, refracted through the eyes of his beloved, fictional Glass family. Under the guise of Buddy Glass as the purported author of Seymour: An Introduction, he writes that several members of the Glass family, including himself, have eyes that "could all be rather bashfully described as extra-dark oxtail in color, or Plaintive Jewish Brown." What I can tell you as his daughter, without the bashfulness of a male narrator, or the self-consciousness of a person looking at his own image in the mirror, is that my father's eyes are absolutely beautiful, with thick, long, black eyelashes -- inherited by my brother and, a generation later, by my son; the kind that women in the park, peeking into a carriage, click their tongues over and say, "Why is it always the boys who get those gorgeous long lashes?"
Buddy, continuing to describe or "introduce" his revered, dead brother, Seymour, writes: "...he had very wiry black hair. The word is almost kinky, but not quite;...It was most exceedingly pullable-looking hair, and pulled it surely got; the babies in the family always automatically reached for it, even before the nose, which, God wot, was also Outstanding."
When Jerry and Claire saw each other from across the room at the Steegmullers' party, Claire was dumbstruck. They had each brought a date to the party, "so we couldn't really talk much," she told me. Every time she looked up, though, their eyes seemed to meet and she felt herself blush, afraid he might think she was rather forward. The next day Jerry phoned the hostess to thank her, and to ask her about that beautiful girl in the blue dress. She gave him Claire's address at Shipley.
The next week, Claire received a letter from Jerry. She wrote a letter to him in return, agonizing over it, afraid she might not sound clever enough to a real writer. He telephoned and wrote to her off and on throughout the 1950-51 school year. She knew from his letters that he was hard at work finishing a novel. She thinks he changed the school that Holden's friend Jane Gallagher attended to Shipley for her. "It was the sort of thing he'd do, but I was too in awe and on my best behavior to ask."
She knew, too, that Jerry was seriously considering becoming a monk. He had become friends with Daisetz Suzuki and meditated, he told her, at a Zen center in the Thousand Islands. The next year, when The Catcher in the Rye was published, he abruptly switched to Vedanta and often studied with Swami Nikhilananda at the Vedanta center in the East Nineties. But he had already met Claire.
"That's right," Teddy said. "I met a lady, and I sort of stopped meditating." He took his arms down from the armrests, and tucked his hands, as if to keep them warm, under his thighs. "I would have had to take another body and come back to earth again anyway -- I mean I wasn't so spiritually advanced that I could have died, if I hadn't met that lady, and then gone straight to Brahma and never again have to come back to earth. But I wouldn't have had to get incarnated in an American body if I hadn't met that lady." ("Teddy" in Nine Stories, JDS)
When Claire came home to New York from Shipley for the summer, they started seeing each other. This was soon interrupted when each left for Europe, Jerry to the British Isles, to avoid being in America for the publication of The Catcher. "It's a goddam embarrassment, publishing," he once said to a fellow writer. "The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down."
Claire went to Italy, to be with her dying father. It did not come as a surprise to anyone who knew her father that old age finally caught up with Robert Langdon Douglas, or RLD as he was called by friends. He was nearly seventy when Claire, the last of his fifteen or so children, was born in 1933. Baron's Knights and Peerage records nine of them. By the time she can remember him, he was suffering from senile dementia. She told me once, at an age when I, too, would have "died" of embarrassment, that in the middle of a formal dinner party at their home in London, he boomed across the table in his plummy churchman's voice, "Claire, have you moved your bowels today?"
RLD's final years were characterized by similar occurrences of progressive unpredictability; however, his decision to repair to Italy to spend his last days rather than to the Black Douglas Clan's lair in Scotland was well considered. Two divergent paths of his long life led him, at the end, to San Girolamo, a convent and nursing home for retired clergy, high in the hills above Florence. He had been an Anglican priest and had had a parish in Oxford, England, for a time. Several wives and even more offspring later, it was thought best that he find some other mode of employment, and he began his second, highly successful career as an art dealer and historian. "Your grandfather," I've been told, "was largely responsible for putting the early Italian Masters, especially the Sienese, back on the map." He wrote a lovely book on Fra Angelico, and though RLD was dead long before I was born, I used to take great comfort falling asleep beneath Giotto's dark-skinned Madonna and Child when, as a young girl, I visited my grandmother in New York. Perhaps RLD did, too; toward the end of his life he converted to Catholicism.
When he died, he was awarded a hero's funeral in Siena, where he is entombed in a great wall. My mother said the whole city turned out in medieval procession that day, with costumes, trumpets, and pageantry, to pay homage to the man who, through his work, had restored such honor to their city. My mother gave me his funeral proclamation by the city of Siena, a two-foot-by-three-foot document worthy of an honorary Italian.
After the funeral, Claire returned to New York. Jerry was back as well and had settled into an apartment on Fifty-seventh Street. When Claire first saw it, she was speechless. It was, she told me, "one of those partly underground, ground-floor places, very underwater feeling. The whole apartment was black and white. I was appalled, frightened, excited, bug-eyed at the black sheets on his bed. They were the height of sophistication and depravity to me. For Jerry, though, I think the black sheets and the black bookshelves, black coffee table, and so on matched his depression. He really had black holes where he could hardly move, barely talk."
Claire would stay the night with him on those black sheets, but they were not intimate. Jerry was very involved with Vivekananda's Vedanta center at the time, she told me, and as his character Teddy said, meeting a woman was heading in the wrong direction for enlightenment. Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda's guru and predecessor, expressed the same opinion, though more forcibly, in his book The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna (which my father sent to his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, as the only thing worth reading), saying:
A man may live in a mountain cave, smear his body with ashes, observe fasts, and practice austere discipline, but if his mind dwells on worldly objects, on "woman and gold," I say, "Shame on him!" "Woman and gold" are the most fearsome enemies of the enlightened way, and woman rather more than gold, since it is woman that creates the need for gold. For woman one man becomes the slave of another, and so loses his freedom. Then he can not act as he likes.
When a disciple of Ramakrishna's confesses that he has been enjoying sexual intercourse with his wife, Ramakrishna replies, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You have children, and still you enjoy intercourse with your wife. Don't you hate yourself for thus leading an animal life? Don't you hate yourself for dallying with a body which contains only blood, phlegm, filth, and excreta?"
The summer after her freshman year at Radcliffe, Claire was back in New York, where she had a summer job as a model for Lord & Taylor. She was careful to hide this from Jerry: "Your father would not have approved, all that vain, worldly, women-and-clothes stuff...I didn't dare tell him."
Around the time Jerry began seeing Claire, he went on a couple of dates with Leila Hadley, a writer, whom he met through his friend S. J. Perelman. When Ms. Hadley saw that same apartment on East Fifty-seventh Street, she described it as "extremely bare":
There was just a lamp and an artist's drawing board. He used to do rather good sketches, and when I read "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," I was sure he had based the hero on himself. On the wall of his apartment there was a picture of himself in uniform.
In contrast to the young Claire, who was "too in awe and on my best behavior to ask" any personal questions, Ms. Hadley was confident enough, mature enough, to ask him questions and offer her own opinions rather than reflect his own. She said that Jerry "never talked about himself and he resented any personal questions -- about his family, or his background...[He] was not easy to be with." Their relationship was a brief one.
This resentment of questions about family and background, about connections from island to mainland, runs like a mother lode through our family. (Recall the opening of The Catcher in the Rye: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me...my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.") My aunt Doris -- Daddy's only sister -- and I were talking recently about being raised not to ask any questions, and most especially, not to ask questions about one's background, or as Holden put it, how one's parents "were occupied and all before they had" you. Doris told me that by the time she was about seven, shortly after her brother was born, she had "learned enough about the birds and the bees" to figure out that her mother, Miriam, must have had parents. One day she said, "Mother, you must have a mother and daddy somewhere. Where are they?"
Her mother snapped, "People die, don't they?"
That's it. That was all she said. Doris heard from one of her aunts on the Salinger side that Miriam was heartbroken when, years later, her mother actually did die. Miriam never said a word about it to Doris though. Later that same year Doris saw her mother packing a box full of their baby clothes. Thinking they might be for her mysterious family, Doris asked her whom she was sending them to. "It is none of your business," she was told with a glare.
"Well, I just shut up and took it like I always did," Doris told me.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
Copyright © 2000 by Margaret A. Salinger
With generosity and insight, Ms. Salinger has written a book that is eloquent, spellbinding, and wise, yet at the same time retains the intimacy of a novel. Her story chronicles an almost cultlike environment of extreme isolation and early neglect interwoven with times of laughter, joy, and dazzling beauty.
Ms. Salinger compassionately explores the complex dynamics of family relationships. Her story is one that seeks to come to terms with the dark parts of her life that, quite literally, nearly killed her, and to pass on a life-affirming heritage to her own child.
The story of being a Salinger is unique; the story of being a daughter is universal. This book appeals to anyone, J.D. Salinger fan or no, who has ever had to struggle to sort out who she really is from whom her parents dreamed she might be.