Maynard’s class at Yale was the third coed one in university history. The female students on campus were often treated with ridicule. One woman in Maynard’s dormitory received countless phone calls from male classmates amused by her room number: 69. Maynard’s French instructor last semester, Ruth Koizim, was a graduate student at Yale in the seventies. “There were professors who would enter the room and make a point of saying, ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ despite the fact that women were there,” Koizim told me. “I know for a fact that some women would walk into the dining halls and be greeted either by applause, if they were attractive, or by pig noises, if they were not.”
Institutional sexism was not foreign to Maynard. Her mother, a freelance writer for women’s magazines, had a doctorate in literature from Radcliffe College, at Harvard, but could never get a job at the University of New Hampshire, where Maynard’s father, a frustrated painter with no graduate degree, managed to secure a position teaching English. The couple instilled in their children a quiet ambition and a precocious facility with language. (Maynard’s elder sister, Rona, also went on to become a writer.) When Maynard was in her early teens, she began publishing work in magazines. As a senior, she transferred into the first coed class at Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious high school in her home state, which she attended on a scholarship. During her first term at Yale, Maynard convinced Seventeen to fly her to Fort Worth, Texas, for a feature on the Miss Teenage America pageant. Upset that Seventeen had edited down her story, she sent a photocopy of the uncut piece, cold, to an editor at the Times, expressing interest in future assignments. A week later, the Times Magazine asked her to write a thirty-five-hundred-word personal essay on “what it is like to be eighteen years old in this country.”
Maynard’s only writing teacher at Yale was the novelist Leslie Epstein, an alumnus who was back on campus as a visiting professor. One day, in the spring of 1972, he entered the classroom and immediately sensed a tense energy around Maynard. “You could practically see waves of something, of envy,” emanating from the other students, he recalled, “the way on cold days you can see air being disturbed by radiators. I said to myself, ‘What on earth is going on?’ ” He soon had his answer: Maynard’s personal essay, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” was the cover story of that week’s issue of the Times Magazine. “The rest of the kids were all struggling to be writers, and so forth,” Epstein said. “And there was Joyce.” Anne Fadiman, who was a sophomore at Harvard at the time, recalled feeling “intensely envious,” both of Maynard’s achievement and of the fetching photograph that appeared on the front of the magazine, showing the young author sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Yale library. “I thought, Damn, but I also admired the essay and knew that I couldn’t have written anything nearly as good,” Fadiman said.
Maynard’s essay pushed her into the public sphere. It roused the interest of many agents, editors, publicists, politicians, producers, and casting directors. (She was invited to audition for the lead role in “The Exorcist,” a job she lost to Linda Blair.) Part of the article’s charm was its premature world-weariness. Maynard dismissed the myths of her elders and the mores of most adolescents. Cape Canaveral, the Cuban missile crisis, the women’s-liberation movement—none of this quite moved her. Nor did the “disproportionate importance” of drugs among her peers. Her own idyll was isolation. “As some people prepare for their old age, so I prepare for my twenties,” she wrote. “A little house, a comfortable chair, peace and quiet—retirement sounds tempting.” In later years, Maynard confessed some regret about the essay’s “fundamental dishonesty.” Her attempts to contrive the voice of a generation had led her to efface the private trials of her own adolescence: her father’s alcoholism, her struggles with bulimia. (“I never supposed, in 1972, that anybody would have cared to hear the voice of the girl I really was,” she writes in “At Home in the World.”) But it was perhaps her essay’s affectations that most charmed the writer of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Like Holden Caulfield, who railed against phonies, or Franny Glass, the precocious liberal-arts student of Salinger’s imagination, Maynard seemed to have a knack for calling bullshit.
Salinger was one of many readers to send her fan mail. Since the fifties, he had lived in Cornish, New Hampshire, retreating from the reach of publicity and establishing the sort of life style idealized in Maynard’s essay. Though he continued to write fiction, he had not published any since 1965. (Salinger died in 2010. Last week, his son told the Guardian that he and his stepmother are preparing to release the author’s unseen work.) In his first letter to Maynard, in 1972, he praised her prose and struck the tone of a fatherly confidant. At a time when the literary élite was courting Maynard, Salinger urged her to spurn promises of success and profit. Her writing should be allowed to develop naturally, he said, without the officious influence of New York types. Salinger warned Maynard “in strictest privacy” that she stood to be exploited, adding that, if she could “bear it,” she ought to keep his advice confidential.
The pair’s correspondence blossomed. That summer, he visited Maynard in New York, where she apprenticed as an editorial writer at the Times. She spent a few weekends at Salinger’s ranch-style home in Cornish, and sometimes, at his suggestion, called in sick to prolong her visits. In September of 1972, after just one night back in New Haven, Maynard says, she left college and moved in with Salinger, where she was inducted into his rigid and reclusive routine. They ate a diet of nuts, vegetables, and studiously underdone lamb patties. (Overcooking food removed its nutrients, he explained.) A practiced homeopath, Salinger inveighed against doctors, musicians, feminists, politicians, and the publishing establishment. Though he continued to live off royalties from his œuvre, he disapproved of Maynard’s career moves, her first book deal, the calls that came from the city. The prospect of literary success had made her a “worldly, greedy, hungry person,” Maynard recalls him telling her, in “At Home in the World.” “You can’t stop loving all the foolish, empty, hollow attractions the world has to offer you.”
In March of 1973, less than a year after they first exchanged letters, Salinger brought Maynard to Daytona Beach, Florida, on a vacation with his children. The couple visited a naturopathic practitioner there who Salinger hoped could fix Maynard’s vaginismus, a condition that causes spasms of the pelvic-floor muscles, which had hindered their attempts at sexual intercourse. The treatment did not succeed. Later that afternoon, as Salinger watched his son and daughter lounge on the shore, he told Maynard that they were through. Before she boarded a taxi to the airport the next day, he handed her two fifty-dollar bills. She was to return to New Hampshire, clear her belongings from his home, and disappear.
Maynard waited twenty-five years to tell this story. While living with Salinger, she adapted her breakout essay into a memoir, “Looking Back,” which does not once mention him. Readers of her first novel, “Baby Love,” from 1981, would not have known that the abrupt breakup one character suffers on a beach in Florida closely mirrored the author’s own. In the immediate aftermath of the split, Maynard used the advance from “Looking Back” to purchase a nineteenth-century farmhouse about fifty miles from Cornish, where she eventually moved in with her first husband. In the following decades, with no college degree to her name, Maynard became a radio correspondent, reported more for the Times, published books, and penned a syndicated column called “Domestic Affairs,” which more than a dozen newspapers pulled after her divorce. When journalists questioned her about the Salinger rumors, she demurred; she had promised to respect his privacy, she said. “Was it a love affair?” Charlie Rose asked her, in 1992, bringing up the subject when she appeared on his show to promote her second novel, “To Die For.”
“It’s not the only thing I’ve done with my life,” Maynard said, “or the most—”
Rose interrupted her. “No,” he said. “It certainly is not. I mean, you’ve got three kids, and you’ve had a marriage.” (Twenty-five years later, the public learned of Rose’s habit of making unwanted advances on much younger staff members. He has denied allegations of sexual misconduct.)
In “To Die For,” Maynard reimagined the true story of Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire woman who, in the nineties, was convicted of persuading her student lover and his friends to murder her husband. The book assumes the form of a mockumentary and reads like an engrossing, if sometimes predictable, popular crime novel. (Gus Van Sant adapted it into a film, starring Nicole Kidman, in 1995.) “There are some individuals I could mention that will probably tell you I’m some kind of cutthroat, ambitious bitch,” Smart’s fictional counterpart, the mercenary TV journalist Suzanne Maretto, tells the reader. Rather than mope about the possibility of a life sentence for her murder plot, she plans to spend the days before her bail hearing cutting back on calories and keeping a journal about her time in jail. “When it was all over,” she reasons, “I’d have some dynamite material to market.”
Maynard has often said that she decided to break her silence about Salinger only after her daughter turned eighteen, the age at which Maynard had first heard from him. When “At Home in the World” was published, it inspired disdain that verged on personal hatred. At Slate, Maynard’s former Yale classmate Alex Beam wrote that she had “hacked her way through three decades wrapped in a delusion torn from the Oliver Sacks casebook: The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Someone Interesting.” Much of the publishing world was horrified that she had exposed Salinger’s intensely private personal life. Cynthia Ozick described her as someone “who has never been a real artist and has no real substance and has attached herself to the real artist in order to suck out his celebrity.” The critic Gerri Hirshey dismissed the author’s “icky, masturbatory eroticon” and “that busy Maynard mouth,” referring to an uneasy scene in the memoir in which Salinger pushes the young Maynard’s head beneath the sheets.
By the time Maynard published “At Home in the World,” she had learned of other women her age who possessed intimate, flattering letters from Salinger; at least one of them had received his missives while he and Maynard were living together. In a scene toward the end of the memoir, Maynard, now in her forties, returns to Cornish, looking for some sense of closure. She finds Salinger living with a new wife many decades his junior. In those days, it did not occur to much of the world to question Salinger’s choices, or to imagine that Maynard’s honesty might constitute not simply confessionalism but a brash kind of courage. Critics were quick to recast her openness as opportunism and Salinger’s stealth as divine, vulnerable introversion. Fewer wondered openly, if at all, whether the hermit might have something to hide.