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Miss Scarlet

Joyce Maynard, Whose memoir is a Tell-All of Her May-December relationship With Literary Legend J.D. Salinger, Knows Something About Being Branded a Naughty Girl

September 27, 1998|IRENE LACHNER

We wanted to see what a scarlet woman looked like.

And, yes, we are referring to that fashion statement that never seems to go out of style. So you thought that if a chick was wearing a scarlet letter on her chest these days, the big red S stood for Supergirl? Feminism, shmeminism. S has always stood for Siren. S is for Sexuality, that irresistible force of nature that has brought down the reputation of many a helpless great man.

Never mind that the guy has decades of experience on her.

It's still the same old story. Pablo Picasso had his Francoise Gilot; in another sort of scenario, Gary Hart had his Donna Rice. And of course, there's the notorious Joyce Maynard, who is being savaged in the press for ravishing the reputation of J.D. Salinger, virtually branding him the Humbert Humbert of the literary world.

You thought we were going to mention Monica Lewinsky, the incredibly seductive undoer of the president? Hey, 77% of Americans may view her as an opportunist and not a victim, according to a recent Time/CNN poll. But let's hear it for someone in the other 23%--someone who's been there.

Not that Maynard wasn't reluctant to leave the sniggering majority.

"At first, I distanced myself utterly and focused on all the ways that I was nothing like this person," Maynard is saying. "She had very aggressively sought him out, she was this very worldly sort of seductress and I was this very inexperienced small-town girl, I mean, an odd small-town girl, no question. But an inexperienced one whom [Salinger] sought out.

"But when I read the Starr report . . . "

It's a few days after the release of the report heard 'round the world, and we are shooing the sun from our eyes at an outdoor table at the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. Maynard, who writes in her new memoir, "At Home in the World" (Picador) that Salinger schooled her in bulimia, is picking at the bread tray like a reasonably normal person.

She is saucer-eyed, slight and nearly there in a loose lavender shift. She wears chunky brass jewelry and no makeup. If the mother of three has any scarlet left in her, it is drowned out by her PTA-ness.

"Then there was this sudden recognition. It was just so clear that [Clinton's] value to her was so completely out of proportion to her value to him. If [the relationship] hadn't been discovered, he would have gone on with his life, never missed a beat. Whether or not this had broken as it did, she was going to be changed forever. He had complete disregard for a young person's future and development."

Did that make you angry?

"Oh, enormously! I got to this line where he calls her 'kiddo.' It's not just a discrepancy in age, it's power and maturity, life experience. We all understand that people in their 40s and 50s know some things that people in their teens and 20s don't and have certain responsibilities because of that. It made me very angry."

Indeed, some literati have skewered the 45-year-old Maynard for getting back at the obsessively reclusive Salinger, lo these many years after he discarded her. The iconic author of "Catcher in the Rye" sparked their romance a quarter-century ago with fan letters gushing over the precocious publication of Maynard's first memoir: "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life" marked Maynard's controversial debut in the New York Times Magazine as a presumptuous spokeschick for her generation.

At the beginning of their relationship, Salinger declared them "landsmen," soul mates to you. Nine months later, Maynard was dead meat.

She went on to endure a sterile marriage and fractious divorce, an abortion, her parents' divorce and deaths, near-poverty, a rape, breast implants, and other trials she details in her new memoir. She also her eased her feelings of isolation by becoming the mother of three.

But those nine months with the then-53-year-old Salinger tower over her life, consuming a third of the book while his shadow looms over the rest.

No wart is safe from Maynard's scrutiny, from Salinger's eccentricities--his daily breakfast of frozen peas, his distrust of doctors and publishers--to his cruelties. Still, Maynard pleads innocent to accusations that she was motivated by revenge to break her silence. She says her revelations sprang from her growth as a writer.

"I think if a man writes this kind of story, he's considered brutally honest and brave and macho. But it is the job of a woman writer to first take care of protecting everybody else. And if you can do that and still write a book, OK.

"I know this because for 20 years I did that, and my work was the lesser for it. This is the first time that I decided I'll tell the real story."

But did she?

One curious pattern that emerges in Maynard's memoir is the extreme reactions she repeatedly provokes in all sorts of people, not just the literati, snooty or otherwise. Maynard's own family members go to great lengths to put distance between themselves and her, often at moments that would bring other families closer together.

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