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Despite his reputation as recluse, Salinger was anything but to his neighbors

J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger
Lotte Salinger, Associated Press

CORNISH, N.H. — His most famous character, Holden Caulfield, said it was impossible to find a place that's "nice and peaceful," but J.D. Salinger may have found something close for himself in the woods of this tiny town.

Here Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store and wrote a thank-you note to the fire department after it extinguished a blaze and helped save his papers and writings.

Despite his reputation, Salinger "was not a recluse," said Nancy Norwalk, a librarian at the Philip Read Memorial Library in Plainfield, which Salinger would frequent. "He was a townsperson."

And last week, after his death, his neighbors would not talk about him, reflecting what one called "the code of the hills."

"Nobody conspired to keep his privacy, but everyone kept his privacy — otherwise he wouldn't have stayed here all these years," said Sherry Boudro of nearby Windsor, Vt., who said her father, Paul Sayah, befriended Salinger in the 1970s. "This community saw him as a person, not just the author of 'The Catcher in the Rye.' They respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life."

The curious constantly descended on Cornish and the surrounding area, asking locals for directions to Salinger's house. Instead of finding the home, interlopers would end up on a wild goose chase.

How far afield the directions went "depended on how arrogant they were," said Mike Ackerman, owner of the Cornish General Store. Salinger, he said, "was like the Batman icon. Everyone knew Batman existed, and everyone knows there's a Batcave, but no one will tell you where it is."

Cornish, a town of about 1,700 on the banks of the Connecticut River, has two general stores, a post office, a church and miles of pines, oaks, farmland and rolling hills. The town has long been a summer haven for artists and writers, a solitary escape in the woods.

By all accounts Salinger loved the area. He would, until recent years, vote in elections and attend town meetings at the Cornish Elementary School, and he went to the Plainfield General Store each day before it closed. He was often spotted at the Price Chopper supermarket in Windsor, separated from Cornish by a covered bridge and the now ice-jammed river, and ate lunch alone at the Windsor Diner. Salinger was also said to have frequented the library at Dartmouth College and have attended the occasional house party.

In the 1950s, Salinger would socialize with students at Windsor High School, residents said, meeting them at Nap's Lunch, a soda fountain.

Salinger and his wife, Colleen O'Neill, were "very generous" to the town of Cornish, said Keith L. Jones, a selectman and owner of Cornish Automotive. O'Neill, who married Salinger in the late 1980s, is a blue-ribbon quilter and is active in town issues. She is also a preservationist who bought tracts of land throughout the area that were threatened with development. This summer she preserved an old barn on the couple's property.

"She would say, 'Jerry just wants me to tear the barn down, but I want to keep it,' " Taylor said.

Over the past few years, Salinger made fewer trips out of his home, but "he loved church suppers," Jones said.

Salinger was a regular at the $12 roast beef dinners at the First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vt. He would arrive about an hour-and-a-half early and pass the time by writing in a small, spiral-bound notebook, said Jeannie Frazer, a church member. Salinger usually dressed in corduroys and a sweater, she said, and would not speak. He sat at the head of the table, near where the pies were placed. Salinger last came to a supper in December, and O'Neill picked up take-out the past two Saturdays. Salinger was one of the few diners who gave the children who waited on diners a few dollars.

"Not everybody tipped," said Stuart Farnham, whose son received a $2 gratuity from Salinger.

Merilynn Bourne, chairwoman of the Cornish Board of Selectmen, bought a home from Salinger's former wife in the 1980s. It had a tunnel that led from the garage to the main house for privacy. Bourne said she was fixing a leaky pipe in the kitchen soon after she bought the house, when she heard a voice boom, "Who is in here?" from another room. It was Salinger, wondering who was in the home. She explained herself, and he left. The two never spoke again.

A few years later Bourne moved to a home closer to Salinger. Salinger would stop in his beige Toyota Land Cruiser and make small talk with Bourne's children, who played in the front yard; he would ask about their day at school, and toys. In the winter, the children would knock on Salinger's door, asking if they could sled down his hill, and he always obliged.

"I could understand why, after years of being pursued, why adults were suspect but kids were not," Bourne said.

Peter Burling, a Cornish resident and former state senator, grew up near Salinger's home and remembers him as a friendly neighbor quick with a hello.

A few years ago Burling built his young son a red, painted bus stop at the bottom of their hill. Web sites instructed those looking for Salinger's house to turn at the stop. Burling later sold the bus stop to a less well-regarded resident, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German man who passed himself off as a Rockefeller and was later convicted of custodial kidnapping. The curious would instead end up at Gerhartsreiter's home, Burling said.

"People would turn into his driveway, demanding to meet J.D. Salinger," Burling said.

Salinger did not approve of all the trappings of a New England life. Generations ago, towns appointed hog reeves — people who caught livestock that ran away — each year at a town meeting. In Cornish, for fun, newly married couples are appointed as honorary hog reeves each year. In the 1950s Salinger and his first wife, Claire, were appointed to the position, Taylor said.

"By all accounts, he was not amused," Taylor said