Salinger's Wartime Letter To Hemingway

Host Scott Simon talks to Tom Puttman of the Kennedy Presidential Library about a letter by J.D. Salinger going on display there. Salinger wrote it to Ernest Hemingway just after World War II and it references his meeting with the older author in Paris during the war.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Tomorrow, a two-page letter that might be the sum total of the correspondence between two signature American novelists will be put on public display for the first time at the John F. Kennedy President Library in Boston, where the Hemingway Collection is kept.

A 1946 letter to Ernest Hemingway sent by a young J.D. Salinger. J.D. Salinger died earlier this year at the age of 91, which set off renewed interest in any prose written by a man who wrote one of the most famous novels of all time in "The Catcher in the Rye."

Tom Putnam, director of the JFK Library, oversees the Hemingway collection. He joins us from the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. TOM PUTNAM (Director, John F. Kennedy Library): Happy to be here.

SIMON: Help us set the scene. Ernest Hemingway was in his 40s, maybe the best-known writer in the world then. J.D. Salinger was in his 20s, short story writer who'd had a tough war. How did they even meet in post-war France?

Mr. PUTNAM: Well, as people know, Hemingway famously liberated the Ritz and he was there camped out. And a number of people came by to visit him. And obviously Salinger actually took the initiative and they met there at the Ritz.

SIMON: The Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Mr. PUTNAM: Exactly.

SIMON: The letter discloses a sense of humor in J.D. Salinger from almost the first line.

Mr. PUTNAM: Yes, absolutely. There's an allusion to "A Farewell to Arms." Let me read it. He says: Dear Papa, I'm writing from a General Hospital in Nurnberg.�Theres a notable absence of Catherine Barclays is all Ive got to say.�

SIMON: We might need to explain, of course, Catherine Barclay, the sultry English nurse in "A Farewell to Arms." We can assume a psychiatric facility of some kind?

Mr. PUTNAM: We're not sure, but he says: Nothing was wrong with me except that Ive been in an almost constant state of despondency and I thought it would be good to talk to somebody sane.

But then he goes on with a little more humor: They asked me about my sex life, which couldn't be normaler - gracious. And about my childhood - normal. My mother took me to school until I was 24 but you know New York streets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Now he was in the - Salinger was in the Counterintelligence Corps, which I have subsequently read they were supposed to interrogate former Nazis and, I guess nowadays we'd call it de-Nazification.

Mr. PUTNAM: Exactly. Although, there's a funny line in the letter about that too. I mean he, clearly somewhat disillusioned, he says: There are very few arrests left to be made in our section.� Were now picking up children under 10 if their attitudes are snotty.�Got to get those ol arrest forms up to Army, got to fatten up the report.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Tom, you said on thousands of sheets of paper in the Hemingway collection there at the JFK Library, is there any record to indicate that Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter back to J.D. Salinger?

Mr. PUTNAM: No. We double checked today. He did keep carbons of some of his outgoing correspondence but that was generally more related to business ventures. So he could have written back and not kept a copy.

SIMON: So this was kind of a one-sided relationship.

Mr. PUTNAM: Yes. I mean he's suggesting in the letter that maybe they might meet in New York. And again, we dont have any record that they did. But there's a lovely last line when he says: I hope the next time you come to New York that Ill be around and that if you have time I can see you. The talks I had with you here were the only hopeful minutes of the whole business.

SIMON: The whole business meaning?

Mr. PUTNAM: World War II.

SIMON: Tom Putnam, director of the JFK Library that oversees the Hemingway Collection, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. Putnam: Sure. Thank you for having me.

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