'Best Always, Jerry'

Previously Unknown J.D. Salinger Letters Discovered in New York

By Marc Pitzke in New York

He was considered a loner and a misanthrope, but J.D. Salinger, who died recently, also had a warm and affectionate side. Previously undiscovered letters he wrote to an old army friend, which have been seen by SPIEGEL ONLINE, offer fascinating insights into the private life of the reclusive US author.

The letter is short and laconic. Six paragraphs, neatly typed, signed by hand. The sender writes that he misses the recipient, and he reports on the things that happened during his absence: Two fellow soldiers were wounded, a third soldier was given a military discharge, and another -- described as a "nice guy" -- is in Cuba. The writer's tone wavers between sarcasm and self-pity. He seems depressed, but he also mentions the possibility of having a drink with the recipient soon.

It is a letter from one friend to another, and yet it is so much more. The document, dated April 25, 1945, is a slice of contemporary and literary history.

Not just because it was written by a young GI on the German front, shortly before the end of World War II. Or because the "nice guy," as the writer elaborates in the course of the letter, was literary giant Ernest Hemingway.

In fact, the letter's importance stems from the identity of its author: Jerome D. Salinger, the notoriously reclusive American writer who died in January, at the age of 91. His first and only novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," published in 1951, shaped the attitudes of generations, but Salinger went into seclusion shortly afterwards and did not publish anything at all after 1965. Since his death, researchers have been grasping at practically every word that might have come from his pen.

And then this letter turned up. It was tucked away, unnoticed, in a folder in the study of a small house in Queens, New York, one of nine private letters written by Salinger that have survived the decades here, on the outskirts of New York City. The recipient of the letters was Werner Kleeman, a former army comrade of Salinger. The two men fought side-by-side in the US campaign against Hitler's Germany, from Normandy across the Ardennes, to the Battle of Hürtgenwald in western Germany's Eifel Mountains, one of the war's bloodiest battles.

'Emotional and Warm'

"We became grown-ups together, we had to," Kleeman told SPIEGEL ONLINE, talking about the time he spent with Salinger. "I knew Jerry like not many knew him."

But the postwar biographies of the two men were very different. One ended up in psychological treatment and later wrote his way into literature's pantheon. The other disappeared into the anonymity of metropolitan New York, where he opened a small home-decorating business. But the friendship continued. Kleeman, who, despite his 91 years, still feels "quite fit" and lives alone, is one of Salinger's last living friends, although he only became aware of the true significance of that fact after the writer had died. That was when Kleeman, a widower, remembered the letters and pulled them out of his files.

Until now, very few people knew about the existence of these letters, which SPIEGEL ONLINE has had the opportunity to read and analyze at length. They offer rare insights into Salinger's isolated world, fill in gaps in his life's story, uncover the private side of the myths surrounding his character -- and reveal the astonishing warmth with which he kept up an old wartime friendship, even long after disappearing from public life.

This in itself is a surprise for a man who experts have always seen as a difficult misanthrope. "He was very much a loner," the British critic Ian Hamilton wrote in his famous monograph "In Search of J.D. Salinger," quoting a former fellow student of the author. "I don't think he gave himself to others, nor did he consider that others had much of value to offer him." Hamilton's 1988 work, currently out of print and yet a standard work to this day, helped shape Salinger's image as a misfit. Another contemporary quoted by Hamilton describes Salinger in the following way: "Generally he had no friends or companions."

The Kleeman letters contradict this impression. In them, Salinger sounds melancholy, almost gentle. He tells his friend about his new puppy, a husky. In 1961, he writes that he was "saddened" by Hemingway's suicide. He complains about his children growing up and describes himself as a "perennial sad sack." "He was very humble," Kleeman says about Salinger. "He was emotional and warm."

Estimated Value $60,000

The letters, written with a typewriter and signed "Jerry," "Yours, Jerry" or "Best always, Jerry," span a period between 1945 and 1969. In the first letter, written during the war, Salinger simply identifies "Germany" as the return address. The return address on most of the other letters is "Windsor, Vt.," where the post office for the nearby village of Cornish in New Hampshire, where Salinger lived beginning in 1953, was located.

Declan Kiely, the curator of the Morgan Library, a museum in New York that will exhibit some of Salinger's letters starting this week, has appraised Kleeman's letters and is convinced that they are genuine. He estimates that they are worth at least $60,000. "We would love to have those," says Kiely. Kleeman, who lives on a veteran's pension, has locked away his treasure into a bank safe for the time being.

Salinger's written legacy is relatively small -- and carefully protected. Any letters that have become known until now are kept in the archives of the Library of Congress, as well as a few US universities, including Harvard and Princeton. Salinger's private life was so important to him that he copyrighted the content of his letters, even beyond his death. For this reason, the letters cannot be quoted at length, although anyone can read them. "Through them Salinger comes alive," says Kiely.

The Hidden Side of Salinger

Salinger's style is immediately recognizable: his dry wit, elegant syntax and clear rhythm. Unlike other letters that have surfaced in the past, mostly to artists, editors or lovers, the Kleeman letters uncover a largely hidden side of Salinger -- that of the war veteran. It's something only a fellow war veteran can understand. "We both went through hell," says Kleeman. "That binds you together."

Salinger writes of emotional wounds on the front, but also of lost friends. Names from his former regiment appear frequently. And, again and again, Salinger mentions the prospect of going on a drinking spree with his old war buddy, or least having a "big fat lunch" together to talk about the old days. In the last letter, however, dated Feb. 23, 1969, he announces his self-imposed isolation, and tells his friend that he no longer wants to "go back anywhere in the flesh."

'He Was a Bit of an Eight Ball'

For Kleeman, the letters also resurrect his own adventurous past. Even without the friendship with Salinger, his life would offer sufficient material for a novel. After growing up in a German Jewish family in Gaukönigshofen, a village near the Bavarian city of Würzburg, Kleeman (whose name was still spelled Kleemann at the time) witnessed the Nazis' rise to power. He was taken to the Dachau concentration camp and was later released, fled to New York, joined the army and became a US citizen. He participated in the 1944 D-Day invasion in Normandy.

Salinger and Kleeman met in March 1944, in Devonshire in southern England, where the Allies were preparing for the invasion. The two men were stationed in the same unit, the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division. Kleeman was an interpreter, while Salinger was a member of US military intelligence. "I saw right away that he was a bit of an eight ball," says Kleeman. "He refused to tie the straps of his helmet. He did what he wanted to do."

Salinger, then 25, was at the beginning of his literary career. He had already published his first short stories. He joined the US Army in 1942. There has been little information about Salinger's time in the army available until now, especially about the last years of the war. "The few letters we did have from 1944-45 were fairly cryptic," wrote biographer Ian Hamilton after months of frustrating research. Salinger, he said, remained a "silhouette."

'Everybody Was Afraid'

Kleeman is now able to flesh out that silhouette. At this time, he was in close contact with Salinger. The aspiring author kept a low profile, Kleeman recalls. No one wore nametags, which was why the first question he asked Salinger was: "What's your name?" They quickly became friends -- a contradiction of reports that Salinger was often condescending and distant toward his fellow soldiers in the war. On the contrary, says Kleeman, Salinger was simply preoccupied with his writing. "The Catcher in the Rye" was taking shape during those months.

Salinger spent an entire two weeks carefully waterproofing his Jeep ahead of the D-Day landings, as a mesmerized Kleeman looked on. "He did a perfect job, like with his stories," he says. At other times, the two men had long conversations about their fears of the invasion. "There was enormous pressure," says Kleeman. "Everybody was afraid." The horrors of war would later become a recurring motif in many of Salinger's stories.

The two soldiers crossed the English Channel together. It was an eerie passage into the unknown, says Kleeman. He doesn't like to talk about the landing at Utah Beach in Normandy. Salinger also omits this extreme experience from his letters.

A Memorable Encounter with Hemingway

Instead, in a letter he wrote to Kleeman two decades later, Salinger mentions the "Hurtgenwald business," with a mixture of awe and nonchalance. He is referring to the Battle of Hürtgenwald, a famously bloody massacre that claimed the lives of at least 22,000 US soldiers. Salinger would later incorporate the horrors of Hürtgenwald into dark short stories. Kleeman discloses yet another detail: Salinger's commanding officer was a "heavy drinker" who tormented his soldiers. "He drank one bottle after another," says Kleeman.

Once, as Kleeman reports, the officer ordered Salinger to spend the night in a cold, snow-covered foxhole. Kleeman says he gave his friend a pair of socks his mother had knitted, as well as a blanket he had taken from the Hotel Atlantique in Cherbourg.

Kleeman and Salinger also ran into Ernest Hemingway, who was traveling as a war correspondent, and whom they had met earlier in France. The three men had a memorable encounter in Hürtgenwald, as Kleeman recalls. "Let's go and look up Hemingway," Salinger suggested one evening, says Kleeman. They found Hemingway stretched out on a couch in a house which had electricity from a generator. The two friends spent three hours drinking champagne from plastic cups and listening to "Papa's" adventure stories. Salinger, says Kleeman, idolized the older writer.

Salinger, too, would remember that cinematic scene years later. In a letter to Kleeman shortly after Hemingway had committed suicide in 1961, he writes "Remember?" -- a nostalgic reference to the evening in Hürtgenwald.

'Cool with Women'

After the war, their paths separated for many years. Salinger's 1945 letter, stamped "Army Postal Service, April 29, 1945," took a year to reach Kleeman, who had been transferred from one hospital to another. When the war ended, Salinger stayed in Germany for a few months, where he married a French woman, Sylvia Welter. Kleeman has his own theory about the marriage, which lasted only eight months and has remained clouded in secrecy: "People said she was a Nazi." Salinger, he says, eventually "got rid of her. One morning over breakfast he told her to get out."

His friend was "cool with women," says Kleeman. "He probably wasn't the most romantic fellow." He was similarly cool during his divorce from his second wife Claire, says Kleeman, and he even complained about the fact that his daughter Margaret "married a black guy."

But Salinger's friendship with Kleeman endured, even after the letters slowly stopped coming. In 1978, long after he had gone into seclusion, Salinger traveled to New York in disguise to attend a retirement ceremony for a former fellow soldier. "He was impeccably dressed and shy," says Kleeman. After the ceremony, Kleeman drove Salinger to a hotel in Manhattan, "very discreetly, of course."

Kleeman also visited Salinger in New Hampshire twice, in 1958 and 1983. "We spent hours on the balcony chatting," he says. Kleeman remembers the "overgrown field" in front of Salinger's house, the garage and the covered stairway. "He had dogs, and they barked, and he came out on the balcony and waved. Come on up, he called."

Despite rumors to the contrary, Salinger seemed "very happy" to his friend Kleeman, who confirms a long-standing rumor: "He showed me the room where he kept all his manuscripts." After Salinger's death, there was speculation that the author had left behind as many as 15 unpublished novels -- a secret Salinger's heirs have still not revealed.

A black-and-white photo of Salinger's house in Cornish, and the letters, are all that remain of Kleeman's friendship with the famous writer. "This is my life," he says proudly, holding up a copy of the 1945 letter.

He scrutinizes the signature, smiling softly, and says: "One of us had to go first."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

This article originally appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegel

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