Inside J.D. Salinger's House

Sep 15, 2014

J.D. Salinger was famously private - and his privacy was often famously invaded - by photographers, journalist, curiosity seekers, film makers. 

That Salinger lived in Cornish is well known.  Less well known is that Salinger had two homes in Cornish.  The first house he lived in for 14 years sits on the hill behind the second.  It recently came on the market and I went to talk to its owner about her home - and about her long time neighbor, J.D. Salinger.

Critics like to say we shouldn't make too much of it, but on January 1, 1953, J.D. Salinger followed the only dream Holden Caulfield ever had and escaped from the pressure-cooker of New York City and moved into a falling down barn on a rocky knoll in Cornish, New Hampshire.

The gambreled structure on the right of the house is the original "barn" Salinger moved into.
Credit Sean Hurley

"And I'd build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life."

There was no running water in the cabin Salinger found.  No bathroom, no heat. But there was land and a view. Hills and valleys and mountains in the distance.  

"He bought it, I was always told, with the proceeds from Catcher in the Rye."

That's Joan Littlefield, the home's current owner. 

"And then a few years after that he married and when they started having children, he added onto the original house. But at some point he built the house down the road on abutting land."

After Salinger and his wife Claire divorced in 1967, Claire took ownership of the cottage and he moved into the house he'd live in for the remainder of his life. 

In 1983, Joan Littlefield and her husband Jim bought the original cottage.

"The minute we moved into the house he called and he welcomed us to the neighborhood and he said "If you ever need anything, get in touch with me - we're neighbors now." 

Joan had never read a word of Salinger.

"I became curious afterward.  Because he was a lovely lovely neighbor.  When I did read Catcher in the Rye I read it all at one reading.
Sean: Did it surprise you reading the book and then knowing the person?
Joan: No it didn't.  I felt there was a strong vein of despising hypocrisy and you felt it in his conversations."

From time to time Joan would give Salinger a tour of his former home.

"I think that he was completely indifferent to it.  I don't think that houses and material things had any appeal for him.  He had some interesting little paradoxes in his life that I observed.  For instance, you know that he seems to not have an interest in material things, yet in his own way he always looked snappy.  Flannely and plaidy and vesty." 

Joan heads up the stairs into the apartment above the garage.

On the left, the apartment above the garage where Salinger lived toward the end of his marriage to Claire.
Credit Sean Hurley

"His son said that his father occupied this place during their break-up.
Sean: Was there anything here when you came that was left from Salinger?
Joan: Oh yes. Yes. In this crawlspace like attic, we found boxes of papers and some potentially, probably, valuable things in his own writing.  Some - oh I don't know what to say without getting too personal.
Sean: What will you do with it?
Joan: Oh, I wish I could auction it off for a million dollars!" 

The secret boxes were not on the premises but the secret tunnel connecting the house to the garage was.

"That seems to be one of his trademarks.  He has one in the house up there too.  I mean I was really surprised that he would show me through his private tunnel, but he took me right on down through the basement and through the tunnel and out the door to my car.  He was very very gentlemanly."

Joan used to read at night in the loft where Salinger once slept.

"See, I was a real night owl and I used to come up here because I'd read at night and do you know that that beautiful branch out there - it is a broken branch, we should have cut it years ago but I could not bear to cut this branch because it shed the most wonderful, filtered moonlight."

From the loft, Joan heads out to her favorite spot.

"I call this my sacred garden. I don't know why."

There are floes of hemlock, honeysuckle, fern.

"Lenten rose.  But you see a fern has taken up residence near it."

In the center of the sacred garden a square white stone.

"It's just a big hunk of marble.  We brought it from the other house we lived in.  I don't know if it was going to be a step to something.  It isn't a tomb."

For a moment Joan Littlefield's sacred garden metaphors tangle into a riddle. The rose hidden beneath a fern.  The marble stone that may be a step, but isn't a tomb.  The broken branch no one dares cut because it shed the most wonderful, filtered moonlight.

For nearly 60 years J.D. Salinger lived on this hill in two separate houses,  privately and famously and as quietly as he could.

Sean: Do you think he ever wanted to leave the area and go hide away from all this?
Joan: I think he loved it here.  I think he had as much protection and love in this community than he could get anywhere. Where would you go?