A year ago, while reporting a story on the conman Clark Rockefeller — a psychotic German who posed as a son of the dynasty before he kidnapped his daughter in Boston, and is now a “person of interest” in the disappearance of a California couple — I visited the town of Cornish, New Hampshire. It’s a place out of a fairy tale, a beautiful New England town unmarred by even a restaurant or gas station, and over the course of a couple days I met some of its more fascinating inhabitants, like a whiskey-drinking family of selectmen who were their way to a pre-1840 reenaction in Florida. (By day, they ran a tannery in town, and dropped some knowledge that I likely would have gone through life without knowing had I not made their acquaintance: “Every animal is born with enough brains in their heads to tan their hides.”) But the person I really wanted to meet was the town recluse, the 90-year-old who had barely left his home on one of the town’s highest peaks for more than half a century: J.D. Salinger.
Salinger, who died yesterday at 91, started the alienated teenager thing in post-war American literature. His kids were high class, but they didn’t luxuriate in it — like Holden Caulfield, the star of The Catcher in the Rye, they weren’t sure what they wanted to do with their lives, but they knew weren’t going to be like all the other social-climbing phonies. This take on life has been proved erroneous by every suddenly ambitious 30-year-old who once staked themselves on it, and was never more misinterpreted than by Mark Chapman, who decided to kill John Lennon in part because he thought Lennon was a Salinger-style phony. (After he shot Lennon, Chapman opened his copy of Catcher in the Rye and sat down on the curb outside of the Dakota to read it).
Since most of his fiction spun this theme, it’s not too surprising that, in his own life, Salinger couldn’t deal with the phonies either. In 1953, he moved to Cornish, which had been famous as an artists’ colony in the early 1900s, with inhabitants like illustrator Maxfield Parrish and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but was at that time dominated by eccentrics and Boston gentry. His closest friend was the jurist Learned Hand, now deceased, whose estate Rockefeller bought in early 2000 (Rockefeller was in the midst of renovating the home, Doveridge, when he was arrested for kidnapping). Rockefeller told his friends in town that he was close to Salinger too. “Clark said that he knew Salinger a little bit, but he was better friends with his wife Colleen,” says a close female friend of his, referring to Salinger’s third wife Colleen O’Neill, a nurse. “One time, I couldn’t meet him for a lunch we had scheduled, and he said, ‘Well, fine, I’ll just go with Colleen.”
Salinger’s home was only a mile or so from Doveridge, so after I peeked around, I made my way up a steep hill under the sharp shadows of white pine trees. I told myself that I really needed to know if Salinger was friends with Rockefeller, though that certainly wasn’t the real point of this journey — I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see if I could be the one to get Salinger to come to his door. I passed a small cemetery, an old stone building nicknamed the “Blow-Me-Down Mill,” and a decrepit white barn where a less fortunate neighbor ran a farm stand with sheepskins and “lamb for your freezer.” Finally, I reached my destination: a gray-paneled, Swiss chalet-style home, owned by Salinger. I knew it was the right place by the tiny No Trespassing sign near the mailbox.
I walked up the long, steep driveway. The house had no front door. It was confusing. I saw a satellite dish on the left side of the roof, and began to realize that the driveway was going to curve into the backyard. Even then, the only door that I could see was through the garage, where a tan Subaru with the bumper sticker “The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things” was parked. O’Neill, a pretty redhead, was unpacking her groceries on a counter next to the sink. She put down a stack of rice cakes and came out to talk to me for a few minutes; she looked confused when I asked about Clark Rockefeller, and said that she hadn’t known him at all. “My husband is a private person,” she said, smiling graciously. “There’s really not much more I can tell you.”
As she went inside, a figure hovered next to her, then retreated. The last thing I saw was a back, disappearing behind a curve in the wall.