'Best Always, Jerry' Previously Unknown J.D. Salinger Letters Discovered 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.


By in New York

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."


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