It’d be hard to call J.D. Salinger a fashion figure. And yet, in spite of – or maybe because of – his avoidance of fame, he became a real American style icon in the years before his death.
He has a double appeal. On the one hand, Salinger has always seemed to stand, especially through his Glass sibling characters, for an idealized pre-sixties aesthetic – a time of sidecars, sunhats, and grey flannel suits. It’s very much a part of his iconic status that he stopped publishing in 1964, just as the east-coast world of prep schools and university clubs started going through the upheavals of the late sixties. He long outlived it, but he’s a chronicler of a more stylish time.
Even before he stopped publishing, he retreated to Cornish, New Hampshire, joining a long line of reclusive American writers who holed up in New England. And the myth around him grew. Here’s this elegant, reclusive man, someone who gave only one interview between 1961 and his death. He became a stylish, alluring figure by hiding – a trick that works well for writers.
Salinger did occasionally leave Cornish – sometimes to go to New York and eat with Wallace Shawn, a former New Yorker editor. When he went, it was a perfect synthesis of the things that made him an American style icon. He’d get off the train, hiding under an anachronistic fedora and glasses, and meet Shawn under the clock at the Biltmore, an old meeting place for generations of prep school and college students. They would eat out in the open, but as soon as they finished, the hat went back on and Salinger would disappear, heading towards Penn Station, back to New Hampshire.