By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; C01
In 1988, Roger Lathbury, an English professor at George Mason University and owner of a small literary publishing outfit based in his house in Alexandria, decided on a lark to write to J.D. Salinger, asking if he could publish "Hapworth 16, 1924," Salinger's last published work, which appeared as a story in the New Yorker in 1965 and never made it into book form.
Amazingly, Salinger wrote back promptly, saying, essentially, "I'll think about it."
Then, nothing. For eight years.
Until July 26, 1996, when Lathbury, just having completed teaching his morning classes, picked up the phone in his home office.
"Here was the voice, 'I would like to speak to Mr. Lathbury,' " Lathbury recalled. "People don't know how small the operation is here. His voice had a New York accent, and sounded like the recording of Walt Whitman that's available. He identified who he was -- I don't remember if he said, 'This is J.D. Salinger' or 'This is Salinger' -- and I said: 'Well, um . . . I am delighted that you called.' "
To his amazement, Lathbury's tiny Orchises Press had itself a deal with the reclusive novelist. But only briefly. Half a year later, with the book nearing publication, Salinger pulled the plug on the project, a turn of events that became just one more mystery surrounding the enigmatic writer -- until Thursday, when news of Salinger's death at 91 emerged, and Lathbury agreed to tell the tale.
Though brief, the relationship with Salinger still haunts and enchants the English professor, now 64. Lathbury was 14 when he fell in love with Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," but throughout his negotiations with the author and his representatives, the publisher was advised never to mention his passion for the novelist's works.
When Lathbury wrote his fateful letter to Salinger -- the publisher didn't have Salinger's address, so he just put the name and town on an envelope, and the post office in Cornish, N.H., took it from there -- Orchises Press was hardly a known entity in the Manhattan publishing world. Now more than 25 years old, Orchises specializes in largely unknown but serious writers and poets. Lathbury's enterprise is a one-man band: He edits the books, designs the type-settings and schleps the books to mail centers.
To this day, Lathbury has no idea why Salinger selected him to publish "Hapworth," which ran over more than 70 pages of the New Yorker. On the phone in 1996, the two discussed details of the book's type-setting. "He was concerned with the appearance of the book, and I also am very interested in that, so in that sense, we had kindred sensibilities," Lathbury said. "I remember saying that my idea is that the type should be unobtrusive."
The project moved on to a face-to-face meeting at the National Gallery of Art's cafeteria. Lathbury packed a briefcase with sample cloths for the book's cover for Salinger to assess, and Salinger's 24,000-word manuscript, which Lathbury had retyped from the original in the New Yorker. He arrived at the museum's entrance, where security guards balked at allowing the briefcase inside.
"I was a bit nervous," Lathbury said. "I told the guards, 'I just have to go to the cafeteria. Time is running out. Can you just walk with me?' "
Lathbury couldn't reveal the nature of his meeting but finally persuaded the guards he was not there to ruin the art on display.
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."