Salinger's lost years in Stamford

It was the perfect writer's haven.

Set atop a hill in the quiet woods of North Stamford sits a small loft-style house with high ceilings, a large stone fireplace and a tight winding staircase that leads to a sunlit balcony bedroom.

J.D. Salinger, who died Wednesday at 91, lived and worked here in the years leading up to the 1951 publication of his groundbreaking novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which became an enduring anthem of teenage angst and isolation.

The house, which has kept many of its design details and old furnishings, provides a glimpse into the life of one of the most private and reclusive American literary figures, whose biography contains significant gaps of information.

According to several sources, Salinger rented the dwelling beginning in 1947 from Himan Brown, a radio producer in New York who bought the property in 1945 and used the house and another residence next door as a summer retreat.

In 1949, Salinger relocated to Westport. In the wake of his literary sensation, he moved on New Year's Day, 1953, to Cornish, N.H., where he would live in seclusion until his death.

Stamford directories published in 1949 and 1950 listed a Joseph D. Salinger as living at the Browns' address, according to Ron Marcus, the research librarian for the Stamford Historical Society. It was a deviation from Salinger's real name, Jerome David Salinger.

In the 1999 biography Salinger, Paul Alexander wrote that the writer lived in "a barn apartment" in Stamford.

Brown, now 100 and dealing with health problems, has spoken publicly about Salinger, known to him as "Jerry."

In the 1998 book Five Directors: The Golden Years of Radio, he is quoted as saying, "One winter I rented the building to J.D. Salinger, whom nobody had heard of, and he wrote Catcher in the Rye up in the bedroom on the balcony."

Brown's son, Barry, said the author lived in his family house for about four years. He would spend winters in Stamford and leave when Brown's family returned in the summer.

Barry, now 75, was around 12 when he met Salinger. He said the two struck up a friendship and that Salinger "wrote constantly," though he did not know exactly he was working on.

Melina Brown, Barry's daughter, who lives at the property today, said she remembered hearing her grandfather talk about Salinger, referring to him as a "strange guy," but nonetheless, "a very good tenant."

Through his work in radio, Himan Brown came across many writers, she said. Brown produced and directed several radio shows, including The Adventures of the Thin Man, Dick Tracy and Grand Central Station, but is perhaps best known as creator and producer of Inner Sanctum Mysteries.

As Melanie gave a tour of the house Friday, a flock of chickens and a turkey pranced about in the yard.

The house was constructed in the early 1940s as a choral rehearsal studio, Melina said. These days, it serves as a hangout for her son, Will, an avid drummer. At 16, Will is about the same age as Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye.

Will's 10th-grade English teacher at Westhill High School recently assigned the book.

Will recounted first picking up the novel several years ago after his mother told him the author once lived there.

"I wanted to know what had been written in my house so I could brag to all the English teachers," he said.

But in the end, the book that has inspired legions of teenage skeptics provoked a decidedly cynical response: "It seems while well done, it was written to be marketable. It leads every teen in the country to believe it was about them."

He later added, "As much as I respect J.D. Salinger as a writer, a lot of what would be referred to as deep philosophical thinking is just sentiment for the sake of sentiment."

But he is used to impassioned reactions from fans who learn the writer once lived at his home.

One teacher, he recalled, told him he wanted to just "sit in the house and absorb the essence of J.D. Salinger." That afternoon, he was more interested in talking about his own obsessions, that of progressive rock; his favorite band, The Mars Volta; and the cuica, a Brazilian percussive instrument he demonstrated.

As he explained with animated gestures how the loud screeching sound was produced, any traces of Holden Caulfield seemed all but extinguished.