J.D. Salinger’s Letter To Ernest Hemingway – from Hello Goodbye Hello by Craig Brown
J.D. Salinger seeks out Ernest Hemingway
The Ritz Hotel, 15 place Vendôme, Paris
Late August 1944
The twenty-five-year-old Jerry Salinger is experiencing a terrible war. Of the 3,080 men of the 12th US Infantry who disembarked with him at Normandy on D-Day, only a third are still alive.
His regiment is the first to enter Paris. They are mobbed by happy crowds. Salinger’s job as an officer in the Counter-Intelligence Corps entails weeding out and interrogating Nazi collaborators. As they go through Paris, he and a fellow officer arrest a collaborator, but a crowd wrests their prisoner away and beats him to death.
Salinger has heard that Ernest Hemingway is in town. A writer himself, with a growing reputation for his short stories, he is determined to seek out America’s most famous living novelist. He feels sure he will find him at the Ritz, so he drives the jeep there. Sure enough, Hemingway is installed in the small bar, already bragging that he alone liberated Paris in general and the Ritz in particular.
To this latter claim, there is a slight smidgin of truth. “It was all he could talk about,” remembers a fellow member of the press corps. “It was more than just being the first American in Paris. He said, “I will be the first American at the Ritz. And I will liberate the Ritz.’” In fact, by the time he arrives, the Germans have already abandoned the hotel, and the manager has come out to welcome him, boasting, “We saved the Cheval Blanc!”
“Well, go get it,” snaps Hemingway, who then begins slugging it down. Hemingway proceeds to make the Ritz his home. From then on, he can’t be bothered to cover the liberation of Paris, though he lends his typewriter to someone who can. Instead, he spends most of his time drinking Perrier-Jouet in the bar.
Over brandy after lunch on liberation day, a female guest says she wants to go and watch the victory parade.
“What for?” says Hemingway. “Daughter, sit still and drink this good brandy. You can always see a parade, but you’ll never again lunch at the Ritz the day after Paris was liberated.”
As the days go by, he continues to hold court in the Ritz, boasting how many Germans he has killed, though no one with him can remember him killing a single one.
Upon Salinger’s arrival, Hemingway greets him like an old friend, saying that he recognises him from his photograph in Esquire and has read all his short stories. Does he have any new work with him? Salinger produces a recent copy of the Saturday Evening Post containing one of his stories. Hemingway reads it and congratulates him. The two writers sit and talk for hours. Salinger (who secretly prefers Fitzgerald’s writing) is pleasantly surprised by the difference between Hemingway’s public and private personas; he finds him “a really good guy.”
A few days later, Hemingway tells a friend about meeting “a kid in the 4th Division named Jerry Salinger.” He notes his disdain for the war, and his urge to write. He is also impressed by the way Salinger’s family continues to post him the New Yorker.
The two men never meet again, but they correspond. Hemingway is a generous mentor. “First you have a marvelous ear and you write tenderly and lovingly without getting wet… how happy it makes me to read the stories and what a god damned fine writer I think you are.”
The chumminess of their single meeting is captured in a letter Salinger writes to Hemingway the following year from the military hospital in Nuremberg where he is being treated for combat stress:
Nothing was wrong with me except that I’ve been in an almost constant state of despondency and I thought it would be good to talk to somebody sane. They asked me about my sex life (which couldn’t be normaler – gracious!) and about my childhood (Normal)… I’ve always liked the Army … There are very few arrests left to be made in our section. We’re now picking up children under ten if their attitudes are snotty. Gotta get those ole arrest forms up to Army, gotta fatten up the Report.
…I’ve written a couple more of my incestuous stories, and several poems, and part of a play. If I ever get out of the Army I might finish the play and invite Margaret O’Brien to play with me in it. With a crew-cut and a Max Factor dimple over my navel, I could play Holden Caulfield myself. I once gave a very sensitive performance as Raleigh in “Journey’s End.”
I’d give my right arm to get out of the Army, but not on a psychiatric, this-man-is-not-fit-for-the-Army-life ticket. I have a very sensitive novel in mind, and I won’t have the author called a jerk in 1950. I am a jerk, but the wrong people mustn’t know it.
I wish you’d drop me a line if you can manage it. Removed from this scene, is it much easier to think clearly? I mean with your work.
Around this time, Salinger experiences some sort of nervous break- down fuelled by the horrors he has endured. His biographer Ian Hamilton suggests his chummy letter to Hemingway cannot be taken at face value. It is, he believes, “almost manically cheerful.” He is probably right. Years later, Salinger tells his daughter: “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.”
In Greenwich Village in 1946, Jerry Salinger has regained some of his old bravado. To his poker-playing friends he speaks disparagingly of many well-known writers, Hemingway among them. “In fact, he was quite convinced that no really good American writers existed after Melville – that is, until the advent of J.D. Salinger,” recalls one.
Hemingway, on the other hand, is happy to name Salinger one of his three favorite contemporary authors; when he dies, a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” is found in his library. He is neither the first writer with a disciple who turns against him, nor the last.
And people accuse TVWriter™ of being snarky? Craig Brown has us beat. In fact, he’s got his ‘tude down so brilliantly that we want to be his interns. Dood, you listening? Call us. Liberate us!