Was Giles Weaver Really J.D. Salinger?

Who was that mysterious stranger occupying Room 34 of South Deerfield’s “Warren Hotel” in September 1970?

His byline appears as Giles Weaver in the Winter 1970 revival edition of The Phoenix, a small literary magazine published after a 40-year hiatus by James Cooney at his West Whately Morning Star Press. Cooney introduces Weaver to his Phoenix readers as a pseudonymous “writer living like a solitary Bushman in America’s Kalahari,” and leaves it as that.

Some scholars believe Weaver was none other than reclusive author Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger, most known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye. The late Cooney himself refused to discuss it when queried, and today his son says no, Weaver was not Salinger. Still, the mystery endures. May never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Had it truly been Salinger, a deeply private man and troubled World War II vet, a worn, out-of-the-way railroad inn like the Hot’l would have been a perfect place to hide in plain sight while undergoing outpatient psychiatric care at the Northampton Veterans Administration Hospital (VA). Salinger would have then been living comfortably on Catcher royalties, and thus could easily have paid cash and registered under an alias to conceal his identity. Although he could have afforded the posh inns in Northampton or Deerfield and registered under another name, the possibility that he’d be recognized would have been far greater in academic communities.

Too bad current Hot’l owner Betsy Shea can’t produce a registration book for September 1970. Who knows? She may yet find one. If so, we would at least know what name was registered for Room 34. Was it Giles Weaver? Some obscure, aspiring writer no one has ever heard of? Or maybe even Jerome Salinger, which seems unlikely, given the backwater site and the fact that the author wanted to slip the public eye.

 The Phoenix Weaver bylines appears in successive 1970 and 1971 revival editionsTitled by Cooney Further Notes From The Underground, what unfolds is a series of rambling, at times outright bizarre, though well-written letters. The first letters are addressed from the Warren Hotel. The more hostile final letter came from “Everywhere, Somewhere, Zip-zip, 000.” Despite an open invitation from Cooney for more, Weaver’s byline never again appeared in the magazine, which rode off into the sunset in 1984.

By 1970, the 51-year-old Salinger would have been nearly 20 years into self-imposed literary exile and seclusion at his Connecticut Valley home nestled high atop a Cornish, N.H., hill. The last work ever published under his name was Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. After that, total silence and secrecy right up to the 91-year-old author’s peaceful death at home on Jan. 27, 2010. To call Salinger a fascinating enigma would be a gross understatement. His eccentricities only added to his allure.

English professor Mark Phillips was the first writer to suspect Giles Weaver was a Salinger pseudonym. The seed of inquiry was sown when Phillips interviewed for a job in 1978 at Cooney’s Morning Star Press. Eager to work for an interesting radical intellectual who had “discovered” Henry Miller and Anais Nin and published such literary luminaries as D.H. Lawrence, Jean Giono, Robert Duncan, Derek Savage, and Kay Boyle, among others, Phillips applied for an advertised Phoenix job. Somehow in the course of the interview, the topic briefly turned to Salinger, who Cooney said had experienced “some type of mental crisis.” Then, after imparting additional information that Salinger had once corresponded with his young daughter and had met his wife at her Smith College library workplace, Cooney asked Phillips if he had read Giles Weaver in The Phoenix and abruptly dropped the subject.

This Weaver tease stirred Phillips’ curiosity, and likely continued spinning his cranial wheels for days. Was Cooney trying to tell him something? Was he firing a starter’s pistol to ignite a chase? Hmmmm? Phillips reviewed Weaver’s Phoenix prose and found many clues that he believed fit the Salinger oeuvre stylistically, philosophically and spiritually. When he revisited Cooney to further pursue the Weaver/Salinger mystery, the publisher refused to discuss it, telling Phillips that Weaver was a mental patient who vanished as fast as he had appeared. The exchange did nothing to diminish Phillips’ curiosity.

Out of the Phillips inquiry eventually came a speculative, four-page paper making his case that Giles Weaver was most likely a Salinger pseudonym. Soon respected biographer Kenneth Slawenski came forward to agree, despite never mentioning a word about Weaver in his acclaimed J.D. Salinger: A Life – widely accepted as the definitive Salinger biography. To this day, Slawenski believes Giles Weaver was Salinger. On his website www.deadcaulfields.com he opens a post on the Weaver question with, “Here, I risk being tarred and feathered by Salinger purists who recoil in horror over the mere suggestion that Salinger may have been the secret author of the Giles Weaver entries. …. The entries (exploring the possibility) were once carried on this site but were removed due to a thunderstorm of recrimination. Since then, I have come to the careful conclusion that Giles Weaver and J.D. Salinger were, in all likelihood, the same.”

Having myself grown up in South Deerfield at the time of Weaver’s visit, I was long ago intrigued by his 1970 Phoenix ramblings, live from the Hot’l Warren. When I recently reviewed the entire Weaver package on a sunny-afternoon whim, the reading triggered online keyword searches about the Cooneys, The Phoenix, Giles Weaver and – Bingo! – I found the Phillips and Slawenski material exploring the Weaver/Salinger question.

In September 1970, I was walking and driving the South Deerfield streets as a senior in high school. It seems very likely to me that I would have passed this stranger in my travels, be it on the sidewalk or at Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy restaurant counter. Even though 50 years have passed since then, I thought maybe I could solve this hometown riddle with a little digging. I knew I had a clearer understanding than either Phillips or Slawenski of all Weaver’s local references: from Brattleboro and Putney, Vt., to the Warwick Commune, Wendell Depot’s general store, Connecticut River boat cruises, the railroad tracks from South Deerfield to Northampton, Coolidge Bridge, Forbes Library, Childs Park, and Miss Florence’s Diner (incidentally, on the road between downtown Northampton and the VA). Plus, I was familiar with the Cooneys, their West Whately neighborhood and stately Federal home. I even shared a few mutual friends.

Because Cooney and Salinger have been dead for years, I thought old confidentiality issues may have passed and could now be ethically broken. Maybe Cooney’s grown children would be willing to disclose a long-held family secret. When feelers I put out to a source who maintains a close relationship with the Cooneys were not pursued after a few weeks, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I reluctantly telephoned Cooney’s son, Gabriel, a well-known local photo-artist. What did I have to lose? If Weaver was indeed Salinger, Cooney may after all these years be willing to let the cat out of the bag.

Although we had met briefly some 45 years ago in front of his Poplar Hill home, I knew he would not remember me. Still, he picked up the phone and seemed willing to talk. Maybe he recognized the Caller-ID from my newspaper days in Greenfield. Maybe he was familiar with my name for another reason. Perhaps my surname’s deep Whately heritage did the trick.

When asked if he had ever met and could confirm or deny that Giles Weaver was J.D. Salinger, Gabe Cooney paused for a moment and asked if I could hold while he spoke to his wife. When she didn’t respond to his call, he suggested that I call back in 10 minutes. OK. Sounds good.

When I called back, he answered on the first ring and admitted, yes, he had met Weaver, but he was not J.D. Salinger. I tried to deftly pursue the conversation, but Cooney politely cut it off, reminding me of that old Phillips conversation with his father. Like father, like son? Maybe. A convincing denial? Hard to say. Why did he want to speak to his wife?

Whether or not he was being truthful, I respect Gabe Cooney, especially if he’s still honoring a solemn vow of confidentiality between Weaver and his father. I see dignity in such a decision, if that’s how it played out. I’d say Phillips nailed it when he praised Cooney’s dad as “the kind of man Salinger could count on to protect his identity and be faithful to his wishes to be left alone.” How could a faithful son interfere with that?

Oh well. What can I say? I gave it my best shot. Did my homework. Now, unless new information comes to light, I will accept Gabe Cooney’s gracious answer. Which doesn’t necessarily mean I and others view it as the final word.

“I hope it was Salinger who stayed here,” said Hot’l owner Shea. “So cool.”

Agreed. Cool indeed. I too hope so.

So, the J.D. Salinger mystique lives on 10 years after his death. Scholars and fans alike are still trying to figure the enigmatic artist out. Salinger never made it easy and is still elusive as an attic ghost creeping through the breezy cobwebs.

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