In Time magazine’s 1961 article "Sonny, An Introduction," John Skow gave the following account of J.D. Salinger’s meeting with Ernest Hemingway during World War II: "In France, Staff Sergeant Salinger had an audience with War Correspondent Ernest Hemingway, who read Salinger’s work and, possibly in appreciation of it (‘Jesus, he has a hell of a talent’), took out his Luger and shot the head off a chicken."
In the years that followed, almost every Salinger critic has reported some version of this story. But as the half-century anniversary of the infamous chicken myth draws near, it is time, at last, to set the record straight.
Unfortunately, the myth has led scholars to ignore the fact that meeting Hemingway during World War II is the most overlooked event in Salinger’s formation as a writer. Considering the meeting involves two of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the oversight is difficult to comprehend. Salinger died in January at age 91; Hemingway, who died in 1961, was born 111 years ago this Wednesday.
By all accounts, Salinger first met Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz after the liberation of Paris in 1944. In a letter dated a couple of weeks later, on Sept. 4, 1944, Salinger tells his editor, Whit Burnett of Story Magazine, that he met Hemingway and found him soft in comparison to the hard, tough demeanor of his prose. Salinger also says Hemingway was generous, friendly and unimpressed by his own reputation.
Salinger boasts that Hemingway liked the same authors he did and that he genuinely diminished his place in literature. Though, unfortunately, Salinger does not go into details about most of the authors they discussed, he does mention that Hemingway had more than a passing admiration for William Faulkner’s work.
Salinger’s first impressions of Hemingway indicate his surprise about the difference between the author’s public and private persona, and as the letter to Burnett continues, he emphasizes not only Hemingway’s humility, but his generosity. Hemingway told Salinger he remembered him from one of his stories in Esquire, and he asked to read one of Salinger’s new stories.
After Salinger gave Hemingway "The Last Day of the Last Furlough," from The Saturday Evening Post, Hemingway said he had enjoyed the story. Beyond the fact that Hemingway knew Salinger from his work (one can only wonder how this must have made Salinger feel), his generous spirit toward the young writer extended beyond a token gesture. Salinger finishes his account of the meeting by telling Burnett that Hemingway was a good guy and that after reading his work, Hemingway said he would write a few letters on Salinger’s behalf, but Salinger declined the offer.
Salinger’s testimony of the meeting is, of course, in stark contrast to John Skow and Time’s. Yet Salinger’s surprise at Hemingway’s humility and generosity is revealing in light of how others have dismissed the meeting between the two writers. Such dismissal falls in line with long-established critical trends of generalization and stereotyping of the mythical Papa Hemingway.
Still, chicken myths and other reported fictions aside, the reports of the meeting between Salinger and Hemingway have centered on various descriptions of what transpired at the Ritz. And though a few scholars have hinted at the possibility that the authors met more than once, none has previously been able to identify when or where those meetings might have taken place.
A key eyewitness testimony of one meeting between the two writers comes from a lifelong friend of Salinger’s, Werner Kleeman. In his book "From Dachau to D-Day," Kleeman offers a thorough account of a Salinger visit with Hemingway "one dreary evening at around 8PM, when we were both staying in the same house in Zweifall":
"(Salinger) said to me, ‘Let’s go and look up Hemingway.’ With that, we put on our coats, took a flashlight and started walking. After about a mile, we found a small brick house and noticed a marker P.R.O., which meant ‘Public Relations Office.’ A few steps up we found a side doorway, which we entered.
"Inside we found Captain Stevenson, who was in charge of the office, and there was Hemingway, stretched out on a couch. A visor on his forehead, he was busy writing on a yellow pad. The office had its own generator to produce electricity for war reporters who had checked in for the night. The rest of the town lay in blackness."
And later Kleeman adds, "(H)ere I was, sitting with Giant and the young aspiring author, Salinger, who had already published several stories. While we sipped champagne from aluminum cups, I was fascinated, thinking that I was in the presence of such gifted men and was able to observe them in such a natural setting."
Kleeman’s account provides a revealing glimpse into the nature of Salinger’s meetings with Hemingway during the war. Since the meeting with Kleeman was not the first time the two writers had met, and since Salinger suggested the visit, it seems that Salinger felt relatively comfortable going to see Hemingway when the moment presented itself.
Just how many meetings took place between the two writers is anyone’s guess, but Kleeman’s story is yet another clue that indicates the level of Hemingway’s influence upon Salinger in his formative years as a writer.
Hemingway makes reference to Salinger in a letter dated Sept. 3, 1945, to writer and critic Malcolm Cowley. Hemingway tells Cowley about a kid in the 4th Division named Jerry Salinger. Hemingway notes Salinger’s disdain for the war, his desire to be a writer and that he is a good writer. He also says that Salinger’s family loves him and sends him magazines, including New Yorkers.
It is also clear that Hemingway admired Salinger’s post-World War II work and did not seem to be offended in the least by Holden Caulfield’s oft-misunderstood reading (or misreading) of "A Farewell to Arms" as a "phony book."
In her memoir "Running With the Bulls," Valerie Hemingway, who worked as Hemingway’s secretary and later became his posthumous daughter-in-law, writes, "the contemporary American authors (Hemingway) most admired were J.D. Salinger, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote." Hemingway also bought Valerie a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" shortly after they first met in Spain in 1959.
And a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" rests in Hemingway’s library at his home outside Havana, Cuba, a volume that is rumored to be autographed.
In the end, as with so many other questions surrounding Salinger, the true measure of Hemingway’s influence upon him can never really be known. However, it is time to recognize the relationship that was formed between the two writers during World War II and the profound impact it had on Salinger in one of the most difficult times of his life.
During the weeks that followed Salinger’s passing, close friends and acquaintances such as the New Yorker’s Lillian Ross at last felt the freedom to share their stories about Salinger.
We can only hope that in the months and years ahead more information will emerge that will help to clarify and illuminate Hemingway’s influence upon Salinger.
One detail that will help to foil those stubborn, would-be-chicken-mythers comes in a letter Salinger wrote to Kleeman on Sept. 5, 1961, just two months after Hemingway’s death. In the letter, Salinger’s sense of indebtedness to Hemingway and his "kindness" during the war penetrates to the heart of all that has been said and all that remains to be said concerning Salinger’s feelings about Hemingway:
"I have the feeling," Salinger writes, "you must have been saddened, too, over the fact and circumstance of Hemingway’s death. Remember the little house where we were staying during the Huertgen Forest business? I remember his kindness, and I’m sure you do, too."
And as Salinger writes in a July 1946 letter to "Poppa," after Salinger has experienced a nervous breakdown of sorts, "the talks I had with you here were the only hopeful minutes of the whole business."