For the past few decades, if any artist has been celebrated for a slim body of work and subsequently disappeared from public view, they’ve invited comparison to Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger. The author, who was born in New York City on January 1, 1919, published only one novel in his lifetime, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye—but what a novel it was. A bildungsroman (coming-of-age) story about an aimless young man named Holden Caulfield on a mission to find himself after being expelled from a private school, The Catcher in the Rye ushered in a new era of philosophical literature, becoming a staple of classrooms across the country.
Check out some facts about Salinger’s war experiences, his disappointing fling with Hollywood, and one curious choice of beverage.
1. J.D. Salinger worked on The Catcher in the Rye while fighting in World War II.
Salinger was a restless student, attending New York University, Ursinus College, and Columbia University in succession. While taking classes at the latter, he met Whit Burnett, a professor who also edited Story magazine. Sensing Salinger’s talent for language, Burnett encouraged him to pursue his fiction. After World War II broke out, Salinger was drafted into the Army. During his service from 1942 to 1944, he worked on chapters for what would later become The Catcher in the Rye, keeping pages on his person even when marching into battle.
2. He had a nervous breakdown and suffered from PTSD.
Following his service, Salinger experienced what would later be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder: He was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in Nuremberg in 1945 after seeing some very bloody battles on D-Day and in Luxembourg. Writing to Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met while the latter was a war correspondent for Collier’s, he said his despondent state had been constant and he sought out help “before it got out of hand.”
3. He refused to be rewritten.
After the war, Salinger settled back in New York, where he continued to write, contributing short stories to The New Yorker and other outlets before finishing The Catcher in the Rye. In literary circles, his name was already becoming known for insisting that editors not change a single word of his writing. A. E. Hotchner recalled how, when he was working as a magazine editor, he received a story from Salinger with a note attached reading “Either as-is or not at all.” After ensuring the story wasn’t changed, Hotchner found out that another editor had changed the title—and it was too late to change it back. When he met with Salinger to let him know, the writer was apoplectic. “He said it was a terrible deceit on my part,” Hotchner recalled. Salinger stormed out, and the two never saw each other again.
4. The New Yorker declined to print an excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye.
Despite having published stories in The New Yorker previously, Salinger was dismayed to discover that the magazine wasn’t very supportive of his debut novel. Getting an advance copy of the book in the hopes they would run an excerpt, editors said the book’s characters were “unbelievable” and declined to run any of it.
5. Salinger gave one interview ... to a high school student.
Early on, it became apparent that Salinger wasn’t going to embrace whatever celebrity The Catcher in the Rye brought to his doorstep. He insisted that Little, Brown not run an author’s photo on the book’s dust jacket and turned down any opportunities to publicize it—with one exception. After moving to New Hampshire, Salinger agreed to give an interview to a local high school paper. Salinger was later dismayed to find out an editor wound up putting it on the front page of the local paper. Annoyed and feeling betrayed, he put up a six-foot, six-inch tall fence around his property, further walling himself off from prying eyes.
6. He did end up selling a movie idea.
Although his most celebrated work has been kept offscreen, Salinger did have a brief courtship with Hollywood. In 1948, producer Darryl Zanuck purchased the rights to one of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Released as My Foolish Heart in 1949, it earned actress Susan Hayward an Oscar nomination (plus a second one for Best Original Song). Salinger reportedly hated it.
7. Salinger sued his biographer.
Choosing a difficult subject to profile, author Ian Hamilton insisted on pursuing a biography of Salinger in the 1980s. Salinger was so peeved he sued Hamilton to prevent him from using excerpts of unpublished letters. The courts gave him a victory, barring Hamilton from using the passages.
8. He probably drank his own pee.
Salinger’s reclusive habits made him easy prey for a litany of rumors, but some of his more intriguing habits were disclosed by his daughter, Margaret, in a memoir that described her father as speaking in tongues and occasionally sipping his own urine. That practice, known as urophagia, is said to have health benefits, although no reputable studies have been able to demonstrate as much.
9. Salinger always loathed the idea of a movie adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye.
With its persistent interior monologues, The Catcher in the Rye might be almost unfilmable—but that hasn’t stopped directors as revered as Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg from trying. Throughout his life, Salinger famously rebuffed any attempt to purchase the rights to make a film from his book, but did leave open a small possibility that it could possibly happen after he died. “It pleasures me to no end, though,” he once wrote, “to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.”
10. A cartoonist won a residency at Salinger's house.
In late 2016, the Cornish Center for Cartoon Studies Residency Fellowship accepted applications for cartoonists who wished to live in a one-bedroom apartment above the garage of Salinger’s former residence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The fellowship was granted so the winner could have a place to focus and produce “exceptional work.” The CCS repeated the offer in 2017, with a guest moving in on October 16. Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, is the current owner of the property—and the fellowship is ongoing.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.