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Salinger’s N.H. town has rich history of artists

J.D. Salinger supposedly spent the latter half of his life writing for his own pleasure, composing each day in a pine house in the hills that overlooked towering maple trees, plowed hay fields and the neighboring mountains of Vermont.
/ Source: The Associated Press

J.D. Salinger supposedly spent the latter half of his life writing for his own pleasure, composing each day in a pine house in the hills that overlooked towering maple trees, plowed hay fields and the neighboring mountains of Vermont.

The author of "The Catcher in the Rye," who died last week at age 91, lived here for more than 50 years and continued to publish throughout his first decade in Cornish, releasing such fiction as "Franny and Zooey" and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," and "Seymour: An Introduction." But while he surely appreciated a setting that was "nice and peaceful," a wish Holden Caulfield expressed in "Catcher," Salinger was essentially a cosmopolitan author who set much of his fiction on campuses and in his native New York City and the surrounding area.

The book world knows no greater mystery than what Salinger might have written since he stopped sharing his work with the public in the 1960s. Former neighbor Jerry Burt has said, and continues to say, that Salinger told him he was keeping a stack of manuscripts in a safe. Salinger's daughter, Margaret, and a former Salinger lover, Joyce Maynard, have also claimed he had a secret stash at home.

With his longtime literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, Inc., declining comment on any possible unreleased work, rumors of what Salinger wrote in his later New Hampshire life range from meditations on nutrition to continued adventures of the Glass family featured in much of his published work. But had he chosen to take on his immediate world, in Cornish, there would have been much — in the present and in the past — to inspire him.

He might have responded to the books about him, to the memoirs by his daughter and by Maynard that cast him as a crank and recluse in his Cornish years, an image foreign to the amiable and unassuming townsman fellow residents had encountered.

He might have chronicled his public life: the roast beef dinners at a church in nearby Windsor, Vt.; the Sunday trips (a little past 9 a.m., like clockwork, recalled neighbor Elizabeth Church) into town to buy The New York Times; visits to the auto shop and general store; the restoration overseen by Salinger's wife, Colleen, of an old barn down the road.

"We kept hearing all the garbage about how weird he was," says Salinger neighbor and former state senator Peter Burling. "But he was a good neighbor completely integrated into the town, with a real appreciation for young people. When we were kids, we used to have picnics out on his fields and he never seemed to mind."

Salinger might have looked to the past. Cornish once was an artist colony that included founder Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Beaux-Arts sculptor known for his Civil War generals and a bronze statue of Diana in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a novelist-painter named Winston Churchill who was later confused with the statesman of the same name, a standoff settled when the British Churchill agreed to use his middle initial "S." Salinger might have tried to capture in words Cornish painter Maxfield Parrish's winterish-blue landscapes, or been intrigued by painter George de Forest Brush's decision to live in a teepee on the grounds of Saint-Gaudens' home.

Or he might have embellished on recent headlines. In the Cornish hills was a true-to-life "phony" worthy of Caulfield's scorn, a German immigrant born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter who called himself Clark Rockefeller and pretended to be part of the billionaire clan. In neighboring Plainfield lived Ed and Elaine Brown, who saw no good reason to pay federal taxes, a belief they acted upon by secluding themselves and building a defense of booby traps and 50-caliber sniper rifles.

"It's funny that so many people were focused on Salinger when you had these other incredible events going on," says Elizabeth Church, Salinger's neighbor.

Cornish residents, even those who spoke with him often, have no idea of what or whether Salinger wrote and are proud not to know. Revealing secrets in a small town can brand you for life, as fellow New Hampshire resident Grace Metalious learned in the 1950s when her tell-all novel of incest, murder and lust, "Peyton Place," enraged the citizens of Gilmanton, 70 miles east of Cornish.

Salinger's neighbors and fellow Cornish residents speak of the trust between themselves and Salinger. Neither spoke out of turn about the other.

But speaking out of turn is a writer's job.

"As someone who has written mostly about Northern New England, the greatest challenge when you're writing about a place that's rural is to gain enough distance so that the stories you learned can be transformed by the creative process," says novelist Jeffrey Lent, a former Cornish resident and author of the best seller "In the Fall" and other novels. (Lent, who says he never met Salinger, now lives in his native Vermont.)

"You don't want to have an angry neighbor. Northern New England has been overrun by people from other places, but there are still a lot of natives, and natives are where the really rich stories come out of. The stories can be extremely bizarre and very tantalizing, but you can't just pluck them and use them whole."

With a population of fewer than 2,000, Cornish is a vintage New England town, founded in 1763 and in many ways still untouched by modern times. There are no strip malls, movie theaters or discount outlets. The town clerk is in the office just four days a week, for three hours a day, plus the last Saturday of the month. The tax collector only comes in on Thursdays. Cell phone service can depend on which side of a building you're standing.

Cornish is still "horse country," some people like to say, with curving main roads bounded by corn fields and dairy farms, and narrow side paths more often dirt than asphalt. A sign might advise that horses must be walked across a bridge tunnel to avoid a $2 fine, or warn of "frost heaves" — elevations in the road caused by freezing.

The town's attraction to artists began in the 1880s when Saint-Gaudens visited and found Cornish so relaxing that he encouraged others to join him. For decades, Cornish was a prime destination, with visitors including dancer Isadora Duncan, actresses Ethel Barrymore and Marie Dressler, and literary editor Maxwell Perkins. President Woodrow Wilson used Cornish as a summer White House.

Among those who built homes in Cornish were Maxfield Parrish and his father, painter Stephen Parrish; painters Henry O. Walker and Kenyon Cox; and architect Charles Platt, great-grandfather of the actor Oliver Platt.

"What was most important — and perhaps keys into the story of Salinger the best — was that those artists found in Cornish a place where they could be to themselves," says John Dryfhout, former curator of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

"They could work usually from the early morning until 'the gloaming' — or tea time - cocktails later in the period. Their young families could be free from the worries of disease that prevailed in ... (New York City) during the hot summer months."

The town itself became a setting for the colonists' work, whether the gardens of Stephen Parrish and fellow painter Thomas Dewing, or the villas designed by Platt that were inspired by the architecture in the Tuscany region of Italy. Dryfhout says that Churchill used Cornish and the immediate area for his novel "Coniston." Reproductions of Maxfield Parrish's landscape paintings can still be found hanging in Cornish homes.

"They all had studios near their homes," Dryfhout says. "They all painted or sculpted when they were up there."

It was a memorable era that had ended — but for a few aging survivors — when Jerry Salinger, in his mid-30s, moved up from Manhattan around 1953, just as "Catcher" was changing him from a gifted story writer for The New Yorker to an object of fascination on a terrifying scale.

Dryfhout notes that Salinger had a distant tie to the old arts colony, through Saint-Gaudens' granddaughter, Carlotta.

"It was Carlotta who sold Salinger her house in Cornish," Dryfhout says. It was the house in which Salinger originally lived with second wife, Claire Douglas.

The most notable stories you hear about Salinger in Cornish are not about the author, though, but how others behaved around him: The visiting fans determined to camp out on his lawn; the teenager in the 1950s who persuaded the author to give her an interview for the local paper's high school section, only to have the article end up on the editorial page.

"Salinger never spoke to her or her friends after that," says longtime resident Stephen Taylor.

But Salinger's place in Cornish history is mostly that he lived here. He was not the town sage, the town drunk, or even, reputation aside, the town eccentric. He was simply the tall, dark-eyed man who liked to watch the horses at the county fair, buy lettuce at the market or invite children inside for hot cocoa.

At least in public, his life was likely too ordinary for a good memoir. You'd have to make something up.