Tea with J.D Salinger
In 1969, J.D. Salinger came to visit and offered some blunt advice to an aspiring writer.
The longest covered bridge in the United States spans the Connecticut River between Cornish, N.H., and Windsor, Vt. Two remarkably different New Englanders, one of long standing, the other adoptive, became close friends across that bridge. One was J.D. Salinger; the other was my godmother, Fanny Perkins Cox. Mrs. Cox was the sister of Maxwell Perkins, the great editor of Wolfe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Every morning, she walked from her big white house to the Windsor post office, across the street and down the block, to get her mail in the rather grand brick building that stood proudly, cupola and all, on Main Street. Meanwhile, although secluded from the world at large, Jerry, as she always referred to him, crossed the bridge to pick up his mail there, too. His box was right next to hers.
I often visited Windsor, just 2-1/2 hours north on Vermont Transit from Radcliffe, where I was in college. In the winter of 1969, I dropped out of school, taking refuge for several weeks with Mrs. Cox. She was a handsome woman, with big hands that remained gloveless even on the bitterest winter days. She had a strong nose and deep-set, pale-blue, watery eyes.
One bright cold morning, after her daily trip to the post office, she came into the kitchen and announced in her highly inflected, almost guttural voice, "Jerry Salinger is coming for tea," absent-mindedly tucking a wisp of white hair back into her loose bun.
Perhaps because I was majoring in English and because the two of us often talked about how I wanted to write, she thought he could give me advice. Perhaps she just thought it would be fun.
It was a big event for an English major, who like so many others had loved "The Catcher in the Rye" and the stories about the Glass family. When he came that afternoon, we sat, as we always did, in front of the fire, with me on a yellowish sofa, its printed slipcover faded and slack on its frame. Salinger sat in a black leather wingback chair to my right, behind him a portrait of Mrs. Cox's son Robbie, my father's friend, who had died as a flier in the Royal Air Force in World War II. To my left was Mrs. Cox's chair, loose and comfy like the sofa, and in front of us was tea, served in a tarnished silver pot and chipped china cups, edged in gold leaf. Salinger would have been just about 51 then. I remember a longish face and thick, black hair graying at the temples.
I don't remember much about our conversation, and as is so often true of memories, what I remember may say more about me than about Salinger. I recall only that we talked about the war in Vietnam. I was shocked that he was for it. I'm sure I argued with him about it, as I was wont to do with anyone; but I'm equally sure that that part of the conversation did not last long. I privately reasoned that it must be because he had gone to military school. I knew nothing about his own combat experience in World War II. (It wasn't the last awkward conversation Mrs. Cox and I shared about the war: her son Archibald Cox, before becoming the Watergate prosecutor, had been Harvard University's troubleshooter for campus politics and Vietnam protests, in both of which my boyfriend – later my husband – and I were very active.)
Some time later, on another visit, Jerry came again, this time for lunch. We sat in the garden at a glass table enclosed by perennials and ate a lunch almost certainly rich in cream and butter, maybe a vegetable soup made in the Waring blender, with a salad of iceberg lettuce, and some Pepperidge Farm bread, followed by applesauce and cookies.
It was after lunch, standing in the gravel driveway with Mrs. Cox's neighbors that Salinger gave me his blunt advice about writing. He may have asked me my age – I was 20. Then he said, "If you haven't published by age 21, you might as well forget it." His words stung and I had no way to argue back as I had about the war.
Looking back on it now, 40 years later, with both of them dead, what is most striking is the ordinariness – and loveliness – of the post office box friendship between these two very different New Englanders. They were both flinty: He was reclusive and she outgoing. He was famous and she was not. But they came together now and again at the post office and gradually built up what for him seems to have been a rare and lasting friendship.