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Pen Pal Of Young 'Jerry' Salinger May Have Been First To Meet Holden

J.D. Salinger wrote nine letters and postcards to aspiring Canadian writer Marjorie Sheard.
Graham Haber
The Morgan Library & Museum
J.D. Salinger wrote nine letters and postcards to aspiring Canadian writer Marjorie Sheard.

Fans of the reclusive J.D. Salinger are in their element these days. The writer, who died in 2010, is the subject of a recent documentary and companion biography; there's word that five Salinger works will be published for the first time, starting in 2015; and now, the Morgan Library in New York is showing never-before displayed letters that a 20-something Salinger wrote, from 1941 to 1943, to an admirer in Toronto.

For Salinger buffs, this is like a glimpse of the holy grail: seven letters and two postcards, mostly typed, two handwritten. Salinger's handwriting is slanted and spiky.

"He's writing quickly. He may have been writing this in a bar," says curator Declan Kiely. "The thing that jumps out at me is the way he forms I."

In a sea of cursives, Salinger prints his I — it looks like the Roman numeral one. He makes a strong vertical line and two horizontals.

Salinger, shown here in September 1961, comes off as both diffident and confident in his letters to Sheard.
/ AP
Salinger, shown here in September 1961, comes off as both diffident and confident in his letters to Sheard.

"They're really emphatic," Kiely says.

And he underlines his name — sometimes with one line, sometimes two.

"You see Dickens doing this, you see Edgar Allen Poe doing this," observes Kiely, who is head of the Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan Library. "A lot of male writers have what I would call a sort of architectural support."

Salinger Before 'Catcher In The Rye'

Salinger's first letter to Marjorie Sheard is dated Sept. 4, 1941.

"Dear Miss Sheard," he writes. "Your warm, bright letter just reached me. Thanks very much. It's unfair to authors that you write only to Aldous Huxley and me."

Sheard had written to praise stories of Salinger's that she'd seen in Esquire and Collier's magazines. Like Salinger, she was in her early 20s and wanted to write fiction. He gives her advice: "Why don't you try writing something for Mademoiselle or one of the other feminine magazines? Seems to me you have the instincts to avoid the usual Vassar-girl tripe those mags publish."

He put his parents' address (1133 Park Ave., on 91st Street in Manhattan) in the upper-right corner. He has typed the letter neatly — no cross-outs or erasures.

"He would have made a great secretary," Kiely says.

Salinger, clearly thrilled to get a fan letter this early in his writing career, ends his note this way: "I hope you'll always read my work with pleasure. So glad you liked the Esquire piece. I write for Marjorie Sheard and a few others. The fact that Esquire's circulation is 600,000, and Collier's is in millions is purely coincidental."

Kiely thinks these letters reveal who Salinger was before Catcher in the Rye made him a literary star.

"He's a combination of diffidence and confidence," he says. "He is right at the very beginning, but he knows that he's onto something."

He's also witty. Later in their correspondence, after Salinger has been drafted and is waiting to be shipped overseas from Army basic training in Georgia, this Upper East Side prep school fellow writes, "Can't you just picture me leading me little platoon over the top? You boys go ahead. I'll meet you at the Biltmore under the clock."

An Early Hint At Holden

And who was she, Miss Marjorie Sheard of Toronto? Only one of her letters to him survives. In a P.P.S. she provides some "vital statistics" — a list of her likes: "Drinking beer, also rum; Sunday afternoon cocktail parties; flirting; dancing in a too-high, too-crowded place; white evening gowns; men who are tall, dark and dangerous; writing letters to Jerry Salinger. My father's a lawyer who plays the cello and writes musical criticisms. My mother is extremely beautiful. My brother is crotchety and practical, but I like him."

Sheard was slightly older than Salinger. Only one of her letters to him survives.
/ The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Marjorie Sheard Carter
The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Marjorie Sheard Carter
Sheard was slightly older than Salinger. Only one of her letters to him survives.

Sheard was slightly older than Salinger. (His correspondence with teenage girls would come later.) Her niece, Sarah Sheard, says Marjorie was quiet and shy. But she had a real writer's voice in that flirtatious P.P.S. A month after his first letter, Salinger is getting curious.

"Dear Marjorie," he writes. "Excuse the delay but I've been up to here and still am. Thanks for writing. What do you look like? Send a huge photo."

She does. In profile, the photograph reveals a nice straight nose and wavy dark hair that flows down her back.

On Nov. 18, 1941, Salinger writes, "Sneaky girl. You're pretty." That same letter also has news: After many rejections, The New Yorker magazine has accepted one of his stories. He tells her it's about a prep school kid on Christmas vacation.

"Let me know what you think of the first Holden story, called 'Slight Rebellion Off Madison,' " he writes. "Best, Jerry S."

Kiely says that November 1941 letter may be the most valuable in this collection.

"It could well be that Marjorie Sheard was one of the first people who learned of the creation of the character Holden Caulfield," he says.

The story was scheduled to run Christmas week, 1941. But it would be another five years before readers actually met Holden, the character who became the hero of Catcher in the Rye and one of the most beloved figures in fiction. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor a month after Jerry wrote Marjorie about the New Yorker acceptance. Editors decided, given the circumstances, that the "Holden story" was "unpublishable."

A Coquettish Correspondent

Sarah Sheard says her aunt, Marjorie, never talked about her pen pal and mentor.

"She was a little coquettish about it," Sheard says. "She would sort of bat her eyes and say, 'Well, you know, I did have this brief, you know, exchange with J.D. Salinger.' Jerry Salinger, she called him."

She saved all the letters, and agreed the family could sell them to pay for the Toronto nursing home where she died last May, just before her 95th birthday.

Marjorie Sheard never published any fiction, but she did have a 30-year career writing advertising. Her young 1940s correspondent became one of the world's best-known authors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
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