by Aleyna Rentz
If I ever wanted to really impress somebody—particularly someone well-read—I could say that my grandfather went to school with J. D. Salinger.
This, unfortunately, wouldn’t be entirely true, as much as I wish it were. Salinger and my grandfather never crossed paths, but they did, at unique points in their lives, both attend the Basic Flying School, later renamed the Southern Airways School, at the Bainbridge Army Airbase in Bainbridge, Georgia. I’ve spent the majority of my 21 years in Bainbridge, a quaint inland port town tucked away in Georgia’s southwestern corner, far away from any major highways or interstates.
Lost amongst pecan orchards and cotton fields, it is a town often missed by speeding cars headed for the Florida Gulf, a town ensconced in rural obscurity, the kind of town where, on some nights, it’s possible to sit outside on a front porch and hear nothing at all. Such seclusion might strike a more romantically-inclined person as the perfect breeding grounds for a writer, an untapped Oxford just waiting for its own Faulkner to spring from its soil, but I have to agree with Salinger’s appraisal of Bainbridge: when asked in 1969 to recall his days as an honorary Southern writer, he quipped, “Bainbridge wasn’t exactly Tara.”
If Bainbridge lacks the style and allure of Gone with the Wind, then Salinger was at least able to create a compelling drama out of his own life. Even while shouldering massive heartbreak, rejection letters from magazines and the looming threat of World War II, Salinger still made his nine months in Bainbridge one of the most prolific periods of his writing career.
He arrived in July 1942, wishing immediately that he were back up north. Bainbridge, he wrote to his editor Whit Burnett, was the type of place where Faulkner and Caldwell “could have a literary picnic.” It was hardly a suitable environment for someone whose writing primarily focused on sophisticated and intellectual Manhattanites. Perhaps this was part of the reason Salinger felt he could not work on The Catcher in the Rye in Bainbridge. Although he had begun initial work on the novel in 1941, he told Burnett that army life provided him with little time to work on a novel.
The strict routine of the air base consumed most of Salinger’s waking hours. He was quickly promoted to an instructor in the Officers, First Sergeants and Instructors of the Signal Corps. In addition to teaching cadets the basics of flying, it’s unclear what other activities comprised Salinger’s schedule, but the epilogue of the 1958 yearbook, of which my grandfather was the editor-in-chief, provides a glimpse at the rigid routines of Bainbridge Air Base’s men: Officers and cadets alike took part in parades, attended various classes that required intense concentration, polished drill routines and flew planes, still managing to find time to venture away from the base in search of Southern belles.
In his first few homesick months in Georgia, Salinger turned away from Holden Caulfield and channeled his writing energies into sprawling love letters—sometimes 15 pages long—to the stunningly beautiful and rich Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. The two had been romantically involved since the summer of 1941. Since these love letters came from the South, perhaps it’s appropriate that none other than Truman Capote documented the reactions they garnered from Oona and her socialite friends in Answered Prayers. According to Capote, Oona’s friend Carol Marcus considered them “sort of love-letter essays, very tender, tenderer than God. Which is a bit too tender.”
This pairing was seemingly a match made in literary heaven, but Oona had not inherited the artistic sensibilities of her father. She was (even in Salinger’s opinion) spoiled and vapid, an upper-crust ingénue concerned chiefly with her position among New York’s elite social class. Eventually, she focused her ambitions on Hollywood, where she hoped to become a movie star, furthering the divide between herself and Salinger. Contemptuous of writers who submitted their work to Hollywood studios (an attitude transmitted to Holden, who called his literary-writer-turned-screenwriter brother a “prostitute”), Salinger nonetheless sent a few short stories to studios in hopes of impressing Oona.
But his flirtation with Hollywood was short-lived; if it had all been for Oona’s benefit, she had dashed his dreams by involving herself with Charlie Chaplin, news that reached Salinger through gossip columns as early as January 1943 (the couple were later married on June 16, 1943).
Salinger biographer Kenneth Slawenski called it “the great romantic tragedy of Jerry’s life.”
He was mortified: newspapers all over the country printed photographs of Hollywood’s newest couple, and all his friends on base looked on him with sympathy, for they knew how deeply in love he’d been with Oona. In spite of his heartbreak, Salinger donned a tough expression and continued to write. The result was “Death of a Dogface,” a story in which the protagonist goes to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, hoping the girl with whom he’s secretly smitten will be in the theater, too.
Many romances flourished on the base between cadets and female employees; this is, in fact, how my own grandparents met. My grandmother was a dental assistant on the base, and my grandfather needed his teeth cleaned; the relationship progressed considerably from there. Salinger’s love affair began when he walked into the Post Exchange and fell immediately in love with the girl working at the desk (or so he once claimed). Her name was Laurene Powell, a 17-year-old Bainbridge native who made such an impression on Salinger that he later proposed to her.
Their relationship, however, did not last any longer than six months. One evening when Salinger visited Laurene’s home, her mother, Cleata, spied on them from the dining room, watching the couple’s reflection in a mirror. As soon as Salinger leaned down to kiss Laurene, Cleata burst through the doors and demanded Salinger leave immediately and never return. It probably goes without saying that the relationship ended that night.
While Bainbridge found Salinger unlucky in love, it proved an ideal place to write, after all. Holden Caulfield was still on the back-burner, but Salinger managed to write several short stories in rapid succession. None of their titles would be recognizable by his readers today, for all of them either remain uncollected or lost. Still, though, many of them were fine stories, published in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. One, titled “Both Parties Concerned,” was even inspired by Laurene; its character Ruthie, according to Kenneth Slawenski, is the first sympathetic female character found in Salinger’s writing, a tradition that would continue with Phoebe Caulfield and Franny Glass and countless other characters in the Salinger canon. Perhaps, then, if Salinger learned anything useful to his craft from the South, it was from the woman at the Post Exchange.
He also learned to be diligent with submissions. His characters, like Salinger himself, made an exodus from their expensive New York flats to the theatre of war. Some of these stories were satirical: “Men Without Hemingway” mocked the idealization of war perpetuated by novels and movies, while “Over the Sea Let’s Go, Twentieth Century Fox” meant to ridicule Hollywood’s production of propaganda films (one can only imagine, given Salinger’s breakup with Oona, the amount of vitriol that might have been present in a story about Hollywood). He wrote another story, now lost, called “The Broken Children,” whose title suggests a more serious look at the nature of war. Toward the beginning of 1943, he sent all three of these stories to The New Yorker, only to have them promptly rejected. Still, he continued sending them his stories, even though he would not establish his famous relationship with the magazine until 1948.
In May 1943, he was transferred to the Army Air Forces Classification Center at Nashville, Tennessee, where he realized he missed the friends he’d made in Bainbridge. The atmosphere in Georgia, it seems, was much friendlier. The pages of the air base annual from Salinger’s years in Bainbridge depict camaraderie: men singing together with guitars and accordions and several bottles of beer; men huddled around the mail table, reading letters together; men mugging at the camera with eyes crossed or tongues waving. Nowhere in these photographs, however, is Salinger. Always elusive, he escaped from his nine months in Bainbridge leaving hardly a trace of his tenure there. Even the most exhaustive search through the local library’s air base records, as I learned, ultimately proves futile. I learned plenty about my own family’s connection with the air base, though. In Salinger’s absence, my grandfather was the base’s new literary man, serving as editor for the yearbook and establishing the base’s first weekly newsletter during his several years there. It’s strange to think that, by a margin of a few years, the two missed possibly becoming friends. I suppose my connection with Salinger is just as tenuous as his connection with the South—a thing that might have been, but barely was.
Aleyna Rentz is currently enrolled in Georgia Southern University’s Honors Program, where she’s pursuing an English/Writing double major. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been featured in publications including Black Fox Literary, 30 North, the Collapsar and Deep South Magazine. She is also an editor at Moonglasses Magazine and can be found on Twitter at @aleyna_rentz. She sourced material for this piece from J. D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. Read her short stories “Far From Here” here and “A Mean Heart” here.