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Publisher Roger Lathbury recalls book deal with J.D. Salinger that went sour

Celebrated author and enigmatic recluse's 1951 novel "The Catcher in the Rye" became an enduring anthem of adolescent angst and youthful rebellion and a classic of 20th-century American literature.

Lathbury scurried to the cafeteria and saw a man standing by himself. "His back was by the wall," he recalled. "He was waiting patiently. I shook hands with him and apologized for being late and explained about the briefcase. He said, 'I was afraid of that.' He was trying to make me feel at ease but he was probably nervous, too."

They ordered. Salinger "recommended the Parmesan soup, or a soup with Parmesan flavoring. I said, 'I am a vegetarian' and he said, 'I am largely a vegetarian.' I didn't know what that meant -- sort of like saying, 'I am a little bit pregnant.' "

That lunch would be their last face-to-face session but the start of a friendship built through long, revealing letters. Over lunch, Salinger asked whether Lathbury had read any books by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement. Salinger was a fan; Lathbury, not so much. They discussed the hot novel of that year, "Primary Colors," by journalist Joe Klein posing as "Anonymous," based on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. "He sort of said, politely, 'That's not my kind of book,' " Lathbury said.

Finally, they got down to business. Salinger insisted on having no dust jacket, only a bare cover with cloth of great durability -- buckram. They talked pica lengths, fonts and space between lines. They were going to do a press run somewhere in the low thousands. No advertising whatsoever. But for how much? Lathbury remembers that Salinger did not ask for an advance and that any money to be made would come from sales.

Shortly after the lunch, Lathbury made a decision that would end the business deal and the budding friendship. Working toward publication of "Hapworth" in early 1997, Lathbury went to the Library of Congress to file a cataloguing record, data that facilitates the processing of books about to be published.

Lathbury and Salinger exchanged a series of letters, some of them deeply personal, Lathbury said. "He wrote about the doings of his family, publishing matters, opinions on this, that."

An Alexandria business journal got wind of Lathbury's filing and called the publisher for more details. "I foolishly gave an interview, but I thought nobody would see the article," Lathbury said.

But The Washington Post did. The Style section's David Streitfeld wrote a 1,200-word feature on Jan. 17, 1997, under the headline "Salinger Book to Break Long Silence." Lathbury spoke only briefly to Streitfeld, but the article reached Salinger and torpedoed the deal. There would be no more phone calls or letters with a Cornish, N.H., return address.

"My general feeling is anguish," Lathbury said. "I am very sorry. Those stories by Salinger provide release and delight for millions of people, and I could have helped to do that. I never reached back out. I thought about writing some letters, but it wouldn't have done any good."

He has never considered publishing their correspondence. "The letters are infectious and delightful and loving," Lathbury said, his voice trailing off. "But I haven't pulled those letters in years. It has caused me such pain."

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