As Veterans Day approached, I found myself thinking of famous men and women who, unbeknownst to the general public, also selflessly served their country. Numerous veterans who happen to be famous in other fields of endeavour particularly politicians, wear it on their sleeve with understandable pride.
However there is another kind of veteran who, while being famous and world renowned in their area of expertise is never associated with being a war hero. The person who comes to my mind on this day of Remembrance was one of the most successful writers of the 20th Century – J.D. Salinger.
Like J.D. Salinger, I attended the original Pencey Prep—the school from which Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield escaped to wander around New York—better known as Valley Forge Military Academy. Unlike Caulfield’s creator, I maintained my connections with the place and even joined its Board of Trustees.
Those trustees involved in fundraising considered Salinger as Captain Ahab did the infernal Moby Dick: an elusive, enigmatic quarry who would fiercely resist any approach, no matter how tentative. He was untrackable, unknowable, and, worse, was popularly rumored to have become a kind of Nosferatu-nailed Howard Hughes figure lurking in the wilds of New Hampshire.
In the early 1990s, after a fundraising event at the school where William F. Buckley had given the keynote speech, I had a drink with the former editor-in-chief of National Review. Buckley had once been a CIA man—when he had a free moment he wrote spy novels partly based on his experiences—and I was at the time an intelligence officer with a certain government agency, so there was a lot to gossip about.
Several drinks later, we had, as old spooks do, cooked up an intelligence operation to raise some sorely needed funds for the Academy. My mission was to seek out Salinger and attempt to extract a sizeable donation. His logic, on the face of it, was unimpeachable: Salinger was a VFMA graduate, as was I; he had once served in Army Intelligence, as I had; but most importantly, Buckley said with a shrewd and mischievous grin, I was still a young man and Salinger, let’s face it, was world-famous for writing about the trials and tribulations of youth. How could he not take the bait? The catcher in the rye would be caught.
I approached the problem using the methods hammered into me during my intelligence training. Recently, as part of our global effort to fight Communism and promote democracy, my bosses had dispatched me to the Basque country in Spain with orders to identify the head of the ETA, the indigenous terrorist group demanding independence. Five weeks later, I was sitting on the fellow’s porch enjoying a cigar with the most wanted, and most dangerous, man in the Iberian Peninsula.
For Operation Salinger I would use the same technique. Like a lot of real-world, as opposed to fictional, intelligence work, the plan was quite simple: proceed to Cornish, New Hampshire, where Salinger was known to live; hang around the local restaurants and bars; ingratiate myself with any locals who claimed familiarity with the writer; and eventually gain an introduction through friends of friends.
When I arrived in Cornish, I grew only more optimistic as to my chances, for the town at the time had a population of less than 2,000. It reminded me a great deal of my hometown in Long Island , New York: A typical upper-middle-class slice of Americana where, after spending a few days, one could start to develop some rapport with residents and gain some valuable insights into the comings and goings of anyone as high-profile as my target.
What I soon discovered, unfortunately, was that these selfsame residents were very protective regarding Salinger. It would have been easier to get the Old Man of the Mountain to talk than to extract information from the citizens of the Live Free or Die state.
A charming gent, let’s call him Bob, turned out to be my connect. He had initially eyed me warily but warmed up when he, a former paratrooper, discovered that I had been in Airborne. Over lunch he asked me frankly why I was so curious about Salinger. Despite being a spy, I’ve sometimes found that straightforward honesty can be the best policy, so I explained the purpose of my visit. Bob just started laughing. He had thought, like everyone else apparently, that I was with the FBI and it was the talk of the town that Salinger was being “investigated” for some nefarious purpose.
I had inadvertently reinforced the impression by, as Bob said, dressing and looking a little like Dale Cooper, the FBI agent from the television show, Twin Peaks.
He said that everyone had quickly ruled out the two other species who often came to Cornish asking nosy questions: My black suit and upright carriage meant that I was not the usual Dartmouth journalism student and, as my new friend confided, “You are too buttoned down and well dressed to be the usual crackpot writer looking to meet J.D. for inspiration.”
Two days later, Bob picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the front gate of the Salinger house. He informed me that JD would come down and say hello but warned me not to expect much as he agreed to meet only after Bob had convinced him that I wasn’t a loon. After about ten minutes, a dashing figure came striding up to the gate. My first impression was how striking he looked, but my reverie was interrupted by the unpromising first words out of his mouth: “So you‘re shilling for Valley Forge Military Academy, is that what I’m to understand?” I must say that he didn’t look happy and out of the corner of my eye I could see Bob’s gaze fixed intently on the ground—perhaps not the best body language for someone who had just provided an introduction. So, putting on my best Brooklyn accent, I looked Salinger dead in the eye and told him that while I didn’t work for Valley Forge, its accounting department had recently discovered that he owed some money from the 1930s and that I had come to “collect” on the debt. He burst out laughing and replied that he was afraid they had finally caught up with him in regards to the library books he had never returned. The ice broken, he put a hand on my elbow and suggested a walk.
Over the years I have read various accounts of how introspective and insular Salinger was but I found him to be both witty and surprisingly familiar with current events and pop culture. This was not at all what I had expected from a supposedly eccentric recluse. He confided that he had only agreed to meet me because I wasn’t a writer or a reporter and that he was intrigued that I would go to such lengths to appeal to him as a fellow alumnus.
“You are too buttoned down and well dressed to be the usual crackpot writer looking to meet J.D. for inspiration.”
He was gracious regarding the Academy and told me that he had exorcised his demons about his time there. The school had merit, he thought, but he was absolutely not interested in making a donation, let alone promoting it publicly. If I remember correctly, his exact words were, “Writers should write and celebrities should do interviews. I am not a celebrity.” That he was one of the most famous authors of the late twentieth century genuinely seemed not to have occurred to him.
Dismayed but still hoping to appeal to his sense of camaraderie, I played the spy card. We’re all brothers, as they say, and no one ever really leaves the intelligence biz.
We talked about how he had served in Intelligence during World War II and was at the Normandy landing at Utah Beach (which he called the Meat Grinder), as well as the Battle of the Bulge. He went on to inform me that he had served in the 12th Infantry and had worked with the OSS as a translator and intelligence officer. Despite giving it the old college try, it was still a no-go. Not a penny would VFMA receive.
Then he changed the subject. Like any good writer, Salinger was a good listener and wanted to know why I went to VFMA. He insisted that I tell him the truth and not give him the “yearbook answer.” We found that we had both wanted to get away from our families in New York. You have to be young and dumb, Salinger observed, to believe that you can gain independence by going to military academy.
We had a good laugh about the Special Agent Cooper/Twin Peaks jokes making the rounds in town. He told me that he loved that show but asked me not to let it become common knowledge (I think it’s probably alright to make this information public now.) I replied that I pictured him reading Tolstoy not watching primetime TV, but by this time even I was realizing that the real Salinger was very different from the version retailed in the Press.
The statement that shocked me the most for someone who was supposedly a shy introvert was that he wanted to be an actor when he was young, as he loved drama. Speaking of drama, he asked me what my favorite movie was. Worried that the Great Man might find fault with my questionable cinematic taste, I took the safe option and answered, “Casablanca”—a choice to which surely nobody could possibly object. When I asked him the same question, I was expecting a highbrow litany of Godard and Fellini titles, but he, quite seriously, said that TheTerminator was a great flick. He suddenly became quite animated about the underlying metaphors of the monomaniacal cyborg assassin and the Resistance fighters. A fan of the film myself, I wished I had been more forthright and had just told the truth.
It also turns out Salinger was a spy-novel aficionado. In a moment of seriousness he said to me that in his experience, the worst thing about being in intelligence was the loss of innocence for those who choose that calling. I was struck by how maudlin he sounded. Holden Caulfield would have understood his disappointment.
We talked back and forth about movies and books for some time more, and as we walked back to the car he apologized that he couldn’t have made my trip more worthwhile. I responded that, whatever the outcome, it had been a great adventure to have spent a few days in Cornish and to have met him. As I closed the door, he advised me to pick up a copy of The Great Gatsby. It was one of his favorites and he thought I’d appreciate the book. And with that he bid me farewell.
Following my visit, Salinger relented a little and sent a modest donation to his alma mater. To that extent, Operation Salinger can be said to have been a success. Perhaps, I admit, in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t much, but I learned from my meeting with him something worth a great deal more, and that was, things are rarely what they seem. Certainly, Salinger wasn’t.
About the Author
“Jon Augustine” is a former spy who served as an officer in the United States Army Intelligence Support Activity (USAISA). “The Activity” is a top-secret Special Operations Unit that collects actionable intelligence in advance of missions by other US Special Operations forces, especially counter-terrorist operations. Mr. Augustine is one of the founders of the Long Island Spy Museum
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