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The odd life of Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger

If he were still alive, JD Salinger, the world’s most famous literary hermit, would surely turn his back on any brouhaha surrounding his centenary in 2019.

The Manhattan-born author notoriously went into suburban seclusion in the town of Cornish, New Hampshire, soon after the publication of his best-selling 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. Throughout the following years he would utter the plea “why can’t my life be my own?”. He also complained bitterly to close friends about the “damn people” who sent him invitations to social events.

“My father hated birthdays, holidays, and pretty much any planned or culturally mandated celebrations, and he’d certainly hate this centennial,” Matt Salinger, the 58-year-old actor who appeared in Revenge of the Nerds and Captain America, told the Associated Press recently. He was commenting after the announcement that the New York Public Library will open a major exhibition in October featuring “manuscripts, letters, books and artefacts from Salinger’s archive”. Little, Brown Book Group are also staging events across America next year to mark the anniversary of the author’s birth on 1 January 1919.

When Salinger died on 27 January 2010, aged 91, he was described as “a recluse” in virtually every report. Although he spent much of his adult life trying to avoid interviews, the term is not an accurate description the famous author. Jerome David Salinger, who went by the name Jerry, played up to a loner image. He may have described himself to a friend as “a perennial sad sack”, but he was an active socialite as a youngster (frequenting the glitzy Stork Club in New York) and even toyed with the idea of becoming an actor.

In 1941, after leaving a creative writing course at Columbia University, he worked for three weeks as the entertainment director of the cruise liner MS Kungsholm. In that role, Salinger was responsible for helping to make sure the 1,500 passengers sailing round the West Indies were having fun. He organised games of deck tennis and danced with unattached ladies who were on board. His career in showbusiness was brought to an end that year when the Kungsholm was requisitioned by the US government for use in the war effort. When Betty Eppes, a reporter for The Baton Rouge Advocate,  asked him what he had been like as the ship’s jolly entertainer, Salinger sidestepped the question.