When J.D. Salinger was all the rage

Reading the book review section of the NY Times yesterday was like time travel.  I had just begun reading the front page piece about J.D. Salinger and bam, I was right back in 1985, meeting face to face with  J.D. Salinger.   It was a life changing event for this writer as a young person.

New York Times book review

In the early 1980s I was getting my MFA in creative writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and working at various jobs in publishing along the way.  In 1984 and 1985 I worked at Harold Ober Associates, an extraordinarily distinguished literary agency. My job was as assistant to Claire Smith, for whom I read manuscripts, tracked submissions, typed letters from a dictaphone onto triplicate carbon pages and the general associate duties.  The agency was headed by the incomparable Dorothy Olding McKeown.

It was quite a special place, a cross between The Old Curiosity Shop and a book party of the most amazing 20th Century fiction writers — Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas and J.D. Salinger.  Harold Ober was synonymous with The New Yorker, Knopf and the Scribners of Maxwell Perkins.  And grande dame of it all was Dorothy Olding.

During that time it was Miss Olding’s 75th birthday.  “Miss Olding” (never “Ms. Olding” but not infrequently
Mrs. McKeown”) inspired awe.  In her 70s she came to work every day in perfect dresses and high heels, an aura of glamour.  She was formal but not distant.  Respected yes but more importantly everyone loved her.  Even the most difficult of authors were under her spell.

To celebrate the big occasion, the other agents  at Harold Ober hatched a plan to surprise Miss Olding with a fabulous birthday dinner at Perigord Park.  They secretly invited with all of her authors, favorite editors and associates from around the world, including J.D. Salinger.

While it was going to be Miss Olding’s big day, it held special meaning to me.  In my imagination I was going to be at the world’s greatest literary gathering where I would steal a moment for a small heart-to-heart conversation with J.D. Salinger, writer-to-writer.  Oh, truth be told, I fantasized that our conversation would make such an impression that Jerry (yes, we’d be on a first name basis) would ask to see some of my stories.

In early April a letter from Salinger arrived declining the dinner invitation.  He wrote that being the congenitally poor mixer that he was, he would rather toast to Dorothy at a table for, say, two for lunch or breakfast on the historical 12th (the 12th being, of course, Miss Olding’s actual birthday).  In an ironic aside he assured the party plotters that if anybody let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party, it wouldn’t be him.

I was crushed.

My dream of meeting Salinger evaporated.  Gone.  Now that he and Miss Olding were going to have an intimate lunch for two at the Waldorf, I’d have no opportunity to draw him into a conversation that would lead to his invitation to read some of my stories.

But not all was lost.  It turns out that J.D. Salinger was coming to the office to pick her up.

A gentle tip-off from C.T. about the actual timing of Salinger arrival and a minor pretense were all that was necessary to bring   me into the reception area just as he was coming into the office.

There he was, the real him.  Standing in the reception area, he didn’t look like a recluse or a hermit or anything other than a pleasant, rather tall fellow, getting a little hard of hearing.   I shook his hand, said hello, and went back to my desk.  I had just met J.D. Salinger.  A life changing meeting.

The big birthday party was the next night.  Can’t say I remember much of that — Belva Plain, Ira Levin, dozens of others, they were all a mere shadows compared to meeting Salinger.  The next morning I came into the office, waiting for my life to be changed.  And the next after that.  A few weeks after the historic meeting with J.D. Salinger, the turning point in my young writing life…well…nothing happened.  At night I worked on my fiction writing.  And each day I went to work and came home unpublished and unfamous.

Later that year, I left Harold Ober Associates.  It was a fabulous place, filled with very wonderful people.  I learned much there about publishing, about people, about J.D. Salinger and even about myself.  I came to the understanding that I could be a writer without working in publishing.  By then I had a literary agent of my own and was beginning to have stories published in Runner’s World and some literary journals.

At the end of the summer I took a job at one of the largest advertising agencies of the time, Ted Bates.  I became like one of those advertising men who monopolize the phone lines in Salinger’s story, A Good Day for Bananafish.

2 Responses to “When J.D. Salinger was all the rage”

  1. 1 Richard McDonough June 28, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Nice memory. Knowing DO should have been enough, a woman of great istinction with whom I lunched from time to time, though I do not recall if I ever bought a book from her in my role as editor.

  1. 1 Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year | Sylvie's World is a Library Trackback on July 1, 2015 at 4:01 pm

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