Thursday, January 28, 2010

J. D. Salinger: Our New Hampshire Neighbor (c)

J.D. Salinger the famous and reclusive author whose 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," became a symbol for young and old alike has died at the age of 91.

The author died Wednesday of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire, according to a family statement that his literary agent, Phyllis Westberg, provided Thursday, according to CNN.

And so a page turns in my life too, because for many years we lived next door to Mr. Salinger in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was friendly with my stepfather and mother and a good neighbor, polite, but quiet and not very social.

As young children we used to catch glimpses of him as he rode past our house in his truck, or when we walked past his. We were even friends with his daughter, Margaret, though we never saw the infamous Joyce Maynard who reputedly had an affair with him when she was a college student. 

There were four of us kids until my little brother was born, then there were five. We spent hours talking about Salinger's little house in the woods where he used to go write for hours, but we were too scared to go look for it: the woods were deep there, and our chickens had been killed off one by one when they wandered away.

We even convinced my stepfather Stefan to build us a similar house, though of course it was much closer to our house, and very little writing was done there--more like messing up.

This is the place on earth where we had to suffer the indignity of going to school for the first time, and we hated it. It was about 1 mile away, past the Salinger House, past the Day farm, and down the hill to the right. We were dragged in crying mightily, and that's where we learned how to sing our A, B, C's.

Stefan was a filmmaker and visiting professor of film at Dartmouth College then (as well as professor of film at Columbia University), and he used to talk about Salinger's books and how they were burned in a "famous movie." When I was finally old enough, "The Catcher in the Rye" was assigned to me at school. 

I had a hard time connecting the book to the man. He seemed tall and quiet, polite even. We lived a gorgeous existence in New Hampshire, surrounded by our occasional chickens and goats and goat yogurt, many winters spent skiing till our fingers froze at Mt. Ascutney, and endless days swimming in our pond which was halfway between our house and Salinger's.

Birds trilled endlessly, and later, when we were grown, Stefan's horses C'est Si Bon and her daughter grazed gracefully in the abundant alfafa meadows he had planted.  

There were no neighbors on either side of Salinger or of us, except perhaps more than a quarter mile on his side.

That was the farm of Mr. Day whose land was long ago sold off to a man who turned the property into a site for his home overlooking the tremendous views west over the mountains and towards the Connecticut River and Vermont. Turns out that man was Salinger himself.

The old barn sat across the road empty and unused as a testimony to the days of farming when land and human beings had a strong relationship. 

Now the barn is little more than a marker to the bend in the road, a backstage to the grazing deer in the twilight that we saw the day after Stefan died.

A few miles down the road in the other direction, towards the Connecticut River and the old covered bridge leading to Windsor, Vt., were and still are the famous grounds of Saint Gaudens where we would go listen to beautiful classical music concerts on the grass. Well, we didn't really listen, we just monkeyed around the sweeping grounds while our parents tried to.

We visited the old family house this past summer, where my stepsister now still lives. The old barn was still up, the house had changed dramatically, with additions added almost like rabbit warrens.

I was with my real father and stepmother---Stefan died a few years ago, and was buried on his own land. When we returned to the car, I had a huge flat tire: a massive stone had punctured it. We walked over to the old red Salinger house to seek help. No one was home, but we had a short conversation with two men who were working on the house.  

We were so far up in the hills reception was really poor, and my phone kept going in and out. The workers at least had some phone reception and we called AA to come change the tire, since I did not have the proper equipment to change it. The Salinger house was as I remembered it--nestled into the curve of the road, at an angle to the view of the mountains, like a little house on the edge of a rainbow.

Our pond had changed a lot--it was overgrown all around, and I remembered the big cook outs we used to have with all our friends, and how I used to get thrown into the water by the handsome Hier boys who lived not too far away. 

I remembered how when my uncle Andrei used to come visit.  He was a pole vaulter as a young lad, and used to get the biggest, longest stick he could find--Olympic length-- and vault into the pond.

One day Andrei, forever adventurous, took his two very young boys down the Connecticut River in our canoe. Next we know, he had gone down the waterfalls--I still don't know where those are--near the covered bridge, and all came close to losing their lives. They lost the canoe, but we found it parked in someone's back yard adjacent to the river a few days later.

Behind the house, we used to go to the border of the fields below, spreading out in all directions, and dig into the soil, finding turn-of-the-19th-century-old bottles and other prizes.

On the way back to the house we ate blackberries until our tongues, lips and fingers were stained purple.  My mother Jagna made jam out of the berries, and cooked home made whole wheat bread. She taught us how to dance and we put on entire productions in the living room to the tune of Tchaikovsky's Peter and the Wolf.  I chased the young chickens with a grill--it was all in jest--until one day when they were grown up they cornered me when I was alone and flew up to peck at my face.

Stefan made an old English hand stock and used to threaten us with 17th century torture if did anything wrong. Of course we weren't naughty because no one wanted to be stuck in the stock. But that too, was one of Stefan's big jokes. 

And so with the death of Salinger, passes another great person, and with him, a wondrous way of life. This was the beauty of New Hampshire, but the way it was, is gone forever.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jen:
Nice piece. Peggy's younger brother Matthew was also in the picture. We sometimes went over to their house to play. My recollection is that JD did his writing in a studio above the garage, which was to the right of their house. After he and Claire were divorced, he bought the old Day farm and built his house on the ridge above. JD was relatively warm to us when we were innocent children, but he seemed to write me off after I told him I had read "Catcher in the Rye." That would have been in keeping with the personas in his books, who saw children as sanctified, innocent creatures. The adults who read his books and pursued him and invaded his privacy were fallen creatures.

Do you remember that they had a large dog, maybe a Husky, that used to kill the chickens and pigs on the Day farm?

Jen Benepe said...

It is clear that my brother remembers much more clearly what went on in those days of New Hampshire...Including this important fact that Salinger actually bought the Day farm and was the builder of the house on the hill, a much more expansive and luxurious house than the one he had previously. It's views were also much better, situated on top of the hill with no obstruction from the south, west or north. Only the hill behind him to the east was partially obstructed.
Thanks A. for the corrections!

Bernie Wagenblast (New Jersey) said...

Hi Jen,

Great story...Thanks for sharing it.


Changing Seats On The Titanic said...

..I know Matt Salinger is producing films....trying to get through to him for Adrian as well as myself....I was in touch when I was doing my first film...he was very kind and gave me advice on several occasions.

Thank you for writing this piece...I was going to do something on my blog but you captured the spirit and soulful essence of our times together beautifully. Love the pictures as well. Much Love Monica

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story. It seems that as neighbors you respected JD Salinger's privacy and did not venture too close to him. My friend Marcus Eliason wrote an interesting observation about Cornish back in 1976. He sent me the link yesterday -


Andy B from Jersey said...


Great story Jen. I've never read a peice of yours before that had such a wonderous lyrical tone. I'm very impressed.

Also what a wonderful childhood you must have had up there. I bet the biking was and is still great!

Squirrel of Nyack said...

Nice memories of the great (and I think, sweet) man -- Must be so incredibly difficult to be famous for one book in particular. Nice to read positive things about him. Lillian Ross wrote a nice piece about him--in The New Yorker recently, and a friend of Matthew Salinger wrote a positive piece about him.

I enjoyed all of his books and short stories, regularly re-reading everything except his most famous book, funny enough. A few months ago I purchased yet another copy of "Raise High"-- I'm forever passing his books along to friends because many of them have only read "Catcher". Have you ever read "For Esme..." ?

kamagra said...

The Catcher in the Rye book is a comfort if you're a teen feeling the same things as Holden, criticizing the world and its occupants.