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


By in New York

Part 2: '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


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