Letters to friend reveal a social side of enigmatic J.D. Salinger

By Jill Lawless
Associated Press / January 28, 2011

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LONDON — He had a reputation as a literary recluse, but a trove of previously unseen letters written by J.D. Salinger to a British friend reveals a sociable man who took bus trips to Niagara Falls, ate fast-food hamburgers, enjoyed watching tennis, and claimed always to be writing new work.

The 50 letters and four postcards have been donated to a British university, which made them public yesterday on the first anniversary of the author’s death at the age of 91. They show that the enigmatic writer of “The Catcher in the Rye’’ was an affectionate friend who enjoyed gardening, trips to the theater, and church suppers — and thought one restaurant chain’s burgers, Burger King, were better than the rest.

Chris Bigsby, professor of American studies at the letters’ new home, the University of East Anglia, said they challenge Salinger’s image as a near-hermit holed up in his New England home.

“These letters show a completely different man,’’ Bigbsy said. “This is a man who goes on [bus] parties to Nantucket or Niagara or the Grand Canyon and enjoys chatting to people along the way.

“He goes to art galleries and theater and travels to London to see [Alan] Ayckbourn and [Anton] Chekhov plays. He was out and about.’’

The letters were written to Donald Hartog, a Londoner who met Salinger in 1938 when both were teenagers in Vienna, sent by their families to learn German. They corresponded after returning home — Salinger to try his hand as a writer, Hartog eventually going into the food import-export business.

The pair wrote to one another during World War II — in which Salinger fought as a soldier in the Army — but after a few years the friendship lapsed.

Hartog’s daughter Frances said her father burned those early letters while clearing out the house prior to a move.

Hartog reached his old friend after the publication of an unauthorized biography of Salinger in the 1980s.

They began writing to one another regularly, and in 1989 Salinger traveled to Britain for Hartog’s 70th birthday. The two friends went to the theater and visited a zoo, and Salinger met Hartog’s three children.

Frances Hartog found the letters in a drawer after her father died in 2007.