The mystery of where J. D. Salinger lived in Westport when he put his finishing touches on The Catcher in the Rye in 1949 is now closer to being solved, thanks to the release of the first new biography of the celebrated writer in a decade.
We now know that Salinger lived on Old Road, off the Post Road near present-day , according to Kenneth Slawenski, author of J.D. Salinger: A Life, released on the first anniversary of Salinger's death last year at age 91.
"Westport is the birthplace of The Catcher in the Rye and it's an honor to be here," said Slamenski, a guest speaker at the Westport Public Library on Sunday.
Slawenski has been loudly praised, here and in England where the book was first published, for the extensive research he conducted to shed fresh insights into Salinger's private life, always a popular topic for speculation.
Slawenski's Westport talk occurred on the same day as publication of a review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, quite a feat for a computer technician with no prior experience writing except for DeadCaulfields.com, a blog he 's maintained since 2004.
His informal talk was led by Westporter Sybil Steinberg, who introduced him and posed questions.
Steinberg, who's had a career editing authors' interview for Publisher's Weekly as well as serving as that publication's book review section editor, had nothing but praise for Slawenski's accomplishment.
"I was swept away by the depth and breadth of the research and impressed by the astute analysis of the writing," she said. "The most riveting part of the book involves Salinger's wartime service."
The biography sheds new light on Salinger's combat service during World War II. He landed at Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day and experienced losses of comrades in bloodbaths across France, his unit taking record casualties.
In fresh research, Slawenski uncovered the fact that Salinger's battalion was assigned to liberate the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where Jewish prisoners were walking skeletons. Salinger's father was Jewish and his mother was of Irish-German descent.
In his published writings, Salinger avoided directly addressing his wartime experiences (except for one unpublished story, The Magic Foxhole), but Slawenski argues that the horrors Salinger witnessed permeate his fiction.
"He fought for 11 months on the continent, and the horrors he saw opened him up," Slawenski said. "They were embedded in his writing for the rest of his career."
Slawenski's biography strives to explain Salinger's extreme need for privacy as an outgrowth of his spiritual journeys in Eastern religions which call upon adherents to undergo "ego detachment" and avoid self-promotion.
Salinger also required isolation and quietude to do his writing and he left Westport for the hills of New Hampshire shortly before The Catcher in the Rye was published, while hardly anticipating the book, a groundbreaking first-person account of teenager angst, would sell 65 million copies during his lifetime. He lived in the Connecticut River Valley town of Cornish for almost 50 years until his death.
Slawenski said he's asked every day if there's a vault somewhere containing works Salinger chose not to publish in his lifetime. A short story he wrote for the New Yorker, published in 1965, was the last work he published.
"I'm sure there's an enormous amount of work there. I hope we'll see a portion," he said, noting that Salinger himself wrote from Cornish that he had completed two new novels there and they were ready for publication.
Salinger's exact street address in Westport, where he also wrote the short story For Esme with Love and Squalor, will continue to remain a mystery for the time being.
Slawenski established the street address from return addresses Salinger left in his correspondence, always omitting the street number.
As there are no records of Salinger's ownership of property in the Westport land records, according to a search conducted by Patch, it's presumed he rented.
And given the frequency with which houses in the area have been torn down to make way for larger new ones, there's every chance the house where Salinger stayed but briefly has been lost.
That's the view of Audrey Doniger, who's lived on Elizabeth Drive near Old Road since 1959, who attended the lecture out of a general interest. She was unaware Salinger had resided in her neighborhood.