"Letters by J.D. Salinger"

The curtain comes up on the reclusive author's private life, detailed in a 40-plus-year correspondence with his friend Michael Mitchell. Read 11 letters he wrote at the Morgan Library & Museum, and draw your own conclusions.

In 1998, the Morgan Library & Museum came into possession of ten letters and one postcard written by J.D. Salinger to Michael Mitchell. Mitchell, an artist, designed the original jacket for The Catcher in the Rye, marked by a sketchy red carousel horse with a sad look in its eye. The writer and painter had remained close friends for more than 40 years. Mitchell, his wife, Bet, and Salinger used to be neighbors, and they would meet often to drink, eat and carouse.

But after Mitchell wrote Salinger (in a letter thought to have been sent in late 1993) and asked him to autograph a copy of Catcher, the two had a sudden, subtextual falling-out. Mitchell, disappointed, sold the letters to a collector a year later, who in turn sold them to the politician and Vanderbilt heir Carter Burden. When Burden died, his widow donated the letters to the Morgan. Out of respect for the author's privacy, they've been kept restricted—nobody, not even curators, were allowed to read them until Salinger died. But this Tuesday, March 16, they'll go public. After Salinger passed away, the Morgan decided to display the letters, both typed and handwritten on yellowing paper, in a two-part exhibition: The first four, dated from 1951 to 1969, will be showcased through April 11; the rest, written from 1979 to 1993 (including the letter that ended the friendship), will be featured April 13 through May 9. And the Morgan has chosen to place them in a room with its copy of the Gutenberg Bible. "That's the kind of esteem in which we hold these letters. It was like a treasure trove," says the Morgan's Literary and Historical Manuscripts department head, Declan Kiely. "There's no better tribute to pay to an author than to say we're ranking this work among the best that we have. On the one hand, he'd be irate, to say the least, that we're showing them, I guess. But we never heard from him."

Letter one

May 22, 1951
Salinger writes from London, detailing his experiences sharing drinks with a Vogue model he met on the ship. ("No real fun, though.") Later, he hangs out with Laurence Olivier ("a very nice guy") and his wife, Vivan Leigh, whom he calls "a charmer." Salinger finds himself at a party—where he accidentally snorts gin up his nose—with the Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann, described as a "sinister looking pansy" and argues with Enid Starkie about Kafka. He also goes to see a play, and compares the theater in New York City to that in London's West End. "The audiences here are just as stupid as they are in New York, but the productions are much, much better," he writes to his "Buddyroo," Mitchell.

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