I flexed my fingers, squirmed slightly on the plano bench, and tried to sneak a glance out at the audience. Even though I'd been practicing the piece for months, it was all I could do to remember the opening bars of Joseph Haydn's Piano Sonata No. 2 without being distracted by the presence of my parents, my brother Herbert, and various friends and relatives. But then, I had reason to be nervous - it was June 21, 1931, and I had just turned six.
More than sixty years later, as I was gathering material for these memoirs, I ran across an old blue copybook, covered in oilcloth. Inside the front cover, in my mother's distinctive handwriting, it says: "Pierre's homework when six years old, at 3965 Sacramento Street, San Francisco." It is dated January 27, 1932.
On the first page, in my handwriting, which was distinct, if not as yet distinctive, is a poem for St. Valentine's Day. ". . . The paper is lacy, The rose is Red, I made the words up in my head. I love you."
The next page has only four words: "deux inventions par Bach.
Those uxtapositions - from English to French in language and from verse to music in form - quite accurately reflect the main concerns of my early life.
The first of four sons born to an American Jewish father and a French Catholic mother, I was a child prodigy (that really is the only word for it) on the plano, and as a result my early life was rather unusual.
The rest of the little copybook contains more verse - some in English, some in French - and page after page of multiplication exercises, plus a few letters in both languages. The pages of arithmetic are in the book because, like most children who display a gift for a musical instrument at an absurdly early age, I was tutored at home.
In fact, I did not have what some might call a "normal" childhood until I was almost twelve years old. But that's getting ahead of the story.
It's pretty much of a toss-up as to which of my parents had the more interesting background. My father, Herbert Salinger, was born in New York City to a Jewish family that had come over from Germany in the mid-1800s. Part of the original Salinger clan went south, where, I'm told, they set up a dry-goods company that helped supply uniforms for the Confederate army during the Civil War, while the other half stayed in New York and got heavily into real estate. Unfortunately for the southem Salingers, they were paid in Confederate money, and as a result they went bust when the war was over, while their northern cousins did very well indeed.
It has long been my recollection, based on discussions with various family members, that when my father was still in his twenties, he turned his back on Judaism to join a Christian sect, as a result of which, by the time my brothers and I arrived on the scene, there really was no Jewish influence to speak of. I am now told, by other family members, that this is not so; they say that while he did display an interest in the Ethical Culture movement, he never became a Christian, formally or otherwise. In fact, he was buried in a Jewish cemetery in San Francisco, with a rabbi performing the ceremony.
My father was a mining engineer - that was the interest that drove him west - but he loved music deeply. Along with his brother, Edgar, an excellent cellist, he founded a symphony orchestra in Salt Lake City, where, for a time, he was also an impresario, staging concerts for the likes of pianist Harold Bauer and the soprano Madame Schumann-Heink. From Salt Lake City, my father moved to San Francisco, where he married and had a daughter, my half sister, Anne (who, along with my brothers Herb and George, recently set me straight as to the extent of my father's Judaism).
The route that brought Jehanne Bletry, my mother, to California was even more unusual. Born on March 29, 1897, in an area of eastem France known as the Territoire de Belfort (in the city of Feche l'Eglise), she was the first of two daughters of Pierre Bletry, a figure of some controversy in French history. The founder of the Syndicat des Jaunes, or the Yellow Labor Union, an anti-communist group that replaced striking workers, he moved to Brittany in 1906 to start a newspaper. The real purpose of the paper, however, was to drum up support for my grandfather's candidacy for the Assemblee Nationale, the French parliament. The ploy worked. Elected to that august body by eighty-six votes, he served from 1906 to 1910, when he declined to seek reelection.
The highlight of my grandfather's public service was his vigorous defense of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who had been convicted of treason (the betrayal of military secrets) in 1894. He had been sent to the infamous Devils Island, to be imprisoned for life. After it came to light that evidence proving Dreyfus innocence (and a Major Esterhazy's guilt) had been suppressed by the military, Dreyfus became, to many Frenchmen of the day, but especially to liberal intellectuals, a symbol of injustice and right-wing repression.
At one point in 1906, my grandfather's remarks on behalf of Dreyfus became so heated that the Assemblee was shut down for the day and my grandfather ejected. Several years later, in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, having fallen for another woman, he moved to Indochina, where he again set up a newspaper, this time in Saigon.
In 1918, while my mother and her sister, Irene, were still in school in Paris, they received word that Pierre Bietry, their father, had died suddenly at the age of thirty-nine. With that, the two young women - Maman was twenty-one and Irene eighteen - set off for Indochina, to protect the family's interests. My mother (who, as I write this, Just celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday) has always been one to meet life's problems headon. She managed to find a writing assignment while her sister scandalized the family by falling madly, and unrequitedly, in love with the handsome young chauffeur).
While in the Far East, my mother traveled to China and Cambodia, met a number of people, and, as a result of her own diligence, her intelligence, and her personality, made such a favorable impression that the governor-general of Indochina asked her to cover the first Pan-Pacific conference, in Honolulu, as a journalist. After the conference, she decided to visit the United States, so she and Irene then set sail for California. The year was 1921.
Two weeks into their visit, my mother went to a party in San Francisco, and it was there that she met my father. They fell very much in love. She stayed on in the States, and one year later, in 1922, his divorce newly granted, they were married.
At the time, there was an important French community in San Francisco, and my mother became editor in chief of Courrier du Pacifique, a daily French newspaper that had a circulation of ten thousand. At the same time, she was special editor for art and music for the San Francisco Examiner. My father continued his work as a mining engineer, and from the beginning their home was a haven for writers, musicians, and other interesting folks.
My parents had been married for more than two years when I appeared on the scene, the first of four Salinger boys. I was born on June 14, 1925, my brother Herbert in 1926, followed by George in 1929 and Richard in 1931.
With the Wall Street crash signaling the start of the Great Depression, my father, like so many other Americans, lost his Job. Fortunately, he was offered a position in Canada, and in 1929 we moved to Toronto. The next few years, while tough, were far easier for us than for many of my parents' friends and neighbors back in San Francisco.
It was in Canada (where my mother continued her art and music criticism) that my musical bent was taken seriously by my parents. The following, taken from an oral family history, is my mother's account of how she and my father originally came to see that my interest in and aptitude for music was different from and deeper than that of other precocious youngsters.
"When Pierre was a little fellow, we had a baby grand piano in the house. Even before he could get up on the Stool, Pierre would not hit on the keys as most children do, but would put his finger and his ear to the key, just one key, to see how it sounded.
"I had a friend who was often at the house in those days, a very extraordinary man. One day when he was there, he was watching Pierre, who was only four years old, and he said, 'Do you know what's going on with your little boy? It's very interesting. He is listening to sound. He is not just putting his fingers on the piano; he is listening to what it is like. He is a born musician, and you should watch him.'
"When we moved to Toronto the next year, we met some wonderful people who were musicians and teachers, and my husband said, 'We have this friend who thinks that our little fellow has an ear for music.' I asked Pierre if he wanted to play the piano, and we sat him on the stool and let him loose, and the same thing occurred, except this time he was playing on a black note. So we said, See what you can do with him,' and that's how it happened."
Not long thereafter, my parents enrolled me in the Toronto Conservatory of Music, where my teacher was the brilliant Clement Hambourg, and my life as a student took on a regimen well known to any very young music student. Each weekday, a tutor came to the house for three hours of academic instruction, and when she left, I was "free" to practice the piano for four or five hours.
I had the same basic instruction given to any beginning student of the piano, except that there was more concentration on the ability to move the fingers and hands around the keyboard properly. There was even a separate book for that, because it was the most important basic skill for a very young player who was being groomed for a career as a concert pianist.
My "classroom" education, while only a half-time operation compared with that of my friends back in San Francisco, was also fast-paced and rather demanding. The teaching was in French, but that presented no real problem, as I had always been bilingual. In fact, I made my first trip to Paris when I was only six months old. We'd gone over to get my mother s mother, who was to I've with us n the United States for the rest of her life. As my grand-mere would never learn English, I was exposed to French, in amounts at least equal to English, from the very beginning of my speaking days.
As the blue copybook indicates, I was very interested in verse, my own as well as that of others. For example, an early page contains this one:
New year's day Janury 1st last night while we were fast asleep, the old year went away. It can't come back again because A new one's come to stay.
Another entry was in French.
Copie de la Dictee. La table est ronde. Il ya six tasses sur la table. J'aime la musique. J'aime le piano. Je joue le petit berger par Debussy et aussi La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin et deux inventions par Bach
What this means, in its baby French, is simply that this was a dictation exercise. In English it reads: "The table is round. There are six cups on the table. I love music. I love the piano. I play The Little Shepherd' by Debussy and also 'The Girl with the Flaxen Hair' and two inventions by Bach."
I did indeed love music and the piano. During that time, in addition to Bach and Debussy, I was falling in love with Beethoven and, a somewhat unlikely addition to the list, the American George Gershwin. (Just a few years later, when we were again living in San Francisco, I was taken backstage by my mother, by then the art and music critic of the Examiner, to meet and shake the hand of Gershwin himself.)
In 1932, after a year of home tutoring, and with my family now back in the States, I was placed in an actual school for the first time in my life. I can still recall how very nervous it had made me to be surrounded, suddenly, by so many other youngsters. Within a year, I went from a parochial school (where the nuns did not believe in sparing the rod) to a public school and then to a private secular school with the unlikely name of the Presidio Open Air School.
The Presidio was everything that the other schools were not., It was totally free-form, no structure whatsoever. My class had all of six students, and the school's total enrollment was probably twenty. Classroom instruction as it is normally known did not exist at the Presidio School. We sat around "discussing" topics, writing poems, and drawing whatever we felt like drawing. No one ever got hit. (That would have been unthinkable.) By that point, I had two more brothers, George and Richard having been born in Toronto, and if memory serves, eventually all four Salinger boys graduated from the Presidio School.
Art Hoppe, the distinguished columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was one of my classmates. Years later, I asked Art if he knew why it was called the Presidio Open Air School.
"Perhaps," he said, "because there was an open field next to it where we grew vegetables that ended up in the school lunch program. That was the only thing that was open-air about it. The school, which was founded in 1918 by two Jewish grandes dames after a visit by Madame Montessori, offered a progressive education. But you progressed individually. They just let you sit there, if that's what you wanted to do, and in some subects I did. And so I got passed in math by a little nerd named Pierre Salinger."
My memories are much the same as Art's, and equally fond. Like him, I too remember in particular one of the founders, Flora Arnstein, an extraordinary teacher. But all the teachers there truly inspired us to seek higher education. That was a very happy period in my young life.
San Francisco, a wonderfully open society in those days, was filled with great characters. You never knew where you'd run into them, or what impact they might have on your life. For example, in the summer of 1937, the year I graduated from the Presidio School, my mother sent me for a month to a camp run by the ILWU, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. The camp, which was absolutely wonderful, and which gave me my first opportunity to play with both black and white kids, was totally nonpolitical. Yet years later, I would be criticized for attending, and my mother for sending me.
Our crime? The head of the ILWU had been Harry Bridges, the Australian-born trade unionist, and, allegedly, a hard-line Communist who was later the object of numerous (unsuccessful) deportation proceedings. Neither my mother nor I had ever had any truck with Communists, but for some people, especially in my home state of California, guilt by association was guilt period.
While it was my father's new job that brought us back to "that city by the Bay," it didn't take my mother long to land a wonderful position on her own: director of the music project of the San Francisco section of the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, created by President Roosevelt. Her section aided writers, artists, and musicians. If our house had been a refuge for such people prior to our sojourn in Canada, after our return it became a haven.
Every night, it seemed, there were grand figures at our dinner table - musicians and writers, poets and photographers. They all came, and, for the most part, they all held forth, and the effect on me and my brothers was enormously beneficial. At the time, I was increasingly interested in becoming a composer rather than a performer, and I was much influenced by the stream of musicians, several of whom were composers, that flowed through my parents' house. Among the people I recall most vividly are Edgar Varese, the French-born composer; Yehudi Menuhin; Plerre Monteux; Ernst Bacon; Henry Cowell; and Ernest Bloch. It was at about this same time that I met and concertized with a young Russian who had just moved to San Francisco. His name was Isaac Stern, and we became grand friends.
I remember the look of intense concentration my father would get when listening to Ernest Bloch play his cello, especially if he was playing one of his own works, such as "Schelomo." Perhaps the fact that Bloch based a lot of his themes on traditional Jewish modes and melodies accounted for that faraway look on the faces of my father and his brother. As for Henry Cowell, I can still recall my shock and dismay at seeing him, for the first time, smashing the piano keys with his elbows. That technique would hardly have met with the approval of my piano teachers.
As for my own piano career, after moving back to California, I continued to play concerts, often with other young students. My teacher was Lev Shorr, the famous Russian who shaped the careers of so many fine pianists who went on to musical fame.
In 1937, I left the Presidio School to enter Lowell High. I was all of twelve, and thus a full two years younger than my classmates. In those days, twelve was about the age at which American boys who were training to become classical musicians began to show signs of restlessness. They wanted to go outside with their friencls and play ball, go to parties and picnics (sometimes even with girls!). But not me.
I was quite happy in my pursuit of a professional career in music. It was my parents who were not! This is how my mother described (in the oral family history mentioned earlier) the enforced turn of events.
"When we came back to California, he had a teacher of Russian origin by the name of Lev Shorr, who was a great pianist, so we put Pierre in his hands. He was completely taken by the musical ability of Pierre, who by then was older. He came to us and said, You have to take this boy out of school because he should have full time to practice, and you should have a tutor for him. You should not allow him to waste his time in school. He can progress just as well in his education with a tutor, but the major part of his time should be spent on the piano.'
"His father and I talked it over and we both came to the same conclusion: We do not want our son to be a concert pianist. He will not be able to have a family because he will be traveling everywhere and will never be home."
When that interview took place, in either 1986 or 1987, my mother was not unaware of the irony of her earlier statement. She then amended, "This could not have been destiny, because of the life Plerre has been [living] as a journalist with the Chronicle, and later when he moved in a more busy circle. He has been traveling more than he's been at home, as is still the case today." When the interviewer commented that, seeing as how I ended up traveling extensively anyway, apparendy I sbould have become a concert pianist, my mother said only, "When I look back, I think what he is doing is fascinating."
One should not quarrel with one's own mother, but I do remember that time and that decision somewhat differently. It's true that I had gotten into music very heavily. Not only was I studying the piano assiduously but I was also studying composition and conducting, and I'd recently taken up the violin. It is, however, also true that I was becoming less and less pleased with the life I was leading. I'm afraid Art Hoppe was right - I was a nerd. I had no friends my own age, and I had rarely swung a bat or thrown a ball. My only nonmusical, nonschool activity was chess (which I'd learned from the French composer LaViolette, with whom I was studying conducting); and with my usual level of intensity, it took me only one year, until I was twelve, to become a Junior champion. So the decision to de-emphasize music and to attend Lowell High School Just like all the other students (well, almost just like them) was my decision, as well.
Looking back, it's clear this was one of the major decisions of my life. In effect, it ended my carcer as a concert pianist. A few years later, I'd make a stab at it again by studying music composition with the composer Ray Green and by doing more conducting work with Laviolette, but it would never be the same.
Many years later, I would play for friends and do family musicales with my children, and twice I would even play the piano in the White House for two musical greats, Igor Stravinsky (who got up and left before I had finished) and Van Cliburn (who did not). But never again would I define myself as a musician.
In 1940, when I was fifteen, my world turned upside down. The date was November 18, and my brother Herb and I were at a concert, listening intently to a performance of Sibellus's First Symphony, when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.
"Are you Pierre Salinger?"
"Yes," I replied.
"You should go home right away. Your father has had a serious auto accident."
Two days later, in a hospital in British Columbia, where he'd been traveling on a business trip, my father died. I can still remember the contretemps I had with my mother over my refusal to go to the funeral home and view his body, which was laid out in an open casket. Even in the face of my mother's insistence, I was adamant. He had been a wonderful father, and I preferred to remember him as he'd been when he was alive.
As might be expected, my father's death had a major impact on our family and its circumstances. At fifteen, I was the eldest. My brothers were fourtee n, eleven, and nine, and our grandmother, who still lived with us, was quite elderly. My mother's job, while a very responsible one, paid very little; thus, our total family income was drastically reduced. I learned one of my first lessons in the importance of familles, and how they stick together in times of trouble, when my mother told us that our uncle, My father's brother, was sending us a check every month. Still, things were tough, and, as a family, we had to hunker down.
I may have been only fifteen when my father died, but I was already a high school Junior. I cannot say that those high school years, even the two while my father was still living, were particularly memorable. Being so much younger than my classmates made it hard to make friends or to compete athletically, and, to tell the truth, there were many times when I realized I missed the life I'd led, different as it was, and also the dream of concertizing. As for any kind of fun, even the most innocent, with girls, forget about it. I had my first and only date in high school on the very las day, for the senior graduation dance.
One very good thing did happen to me in high school. It was there that I discovered my love for oumalism. Up to that time, most of my writing had been poetry, which is not usually thought of as a training ground for reporters. However, I learned that in addition to enjoying words for the way they could evoke emotion, I also loved them for their usefulness in conveying the kind of information that made news stories. I became so interested in journalism that in my last year at Lowell High School I decided to try and become the editor of The Lowell, the school newspaper. But Lowell was a most democratic place, which meant that you had to be elected to the editorship. So I screwed up my courage and ran - on a platform of eliminating Lowell's sororities and fraternities. I lost big. The victor was a young man with brains enough to know that the Greek societies were the most popular groups in school.
Quite a few years later, when I was John F. Kennedy's press secretary, a most interesting thing happened. We were in dire need of a communications director in Saigon, and I was asked to find one. I turned to Edward R. Murrow, then the head of the United States Information Agency (USIA), and asked him to suggest some candidates. Murrow soon sent me a list of six names, along with their resumes, and, lo and behold, there on the list was Charles Davis - the same man who'd defeated me in the race for editor of the Lowell High School paper!
What else could I do but send him to Vietnam? I did not, however, send him there as retribution for having beaten me out of the editor's job; I did so because I admired and respected him highly. He did a great job in Saigon.
My social life would probably have improved in college (even though I was still handicapped by the fact that I was barely sixteen when I started San Francisco State) had circumstances definitely beyond my control not intervened. I matriculated in the fall of 1941, ust a few short months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The night of the attack on Pearl was one I'll never forget. We were at home when someone noticed that people were streaming up and down the streets, carrying newspapers that announced the apanese attack on Pearl Harbor, incredible news that had not yet been on the radio. We turned on the radio and heard an alert telling people of the attack and of the possibility that the Japanese navy had a whole armada ust off the coast of San Francisco readying an attack on our city.
We were told to turn off our lights immediately and to spread the word to others. So my brother Herb and I ran through the streets of San Francisco getting people to turn out their lights. Had we not been so frightened, it might have been fun, but everywhere we went we heard the same rumor: The Japanese were going to bomb America, starting with San Francisco!
When Herb and I got back home that night, we were greeted by the news that our Japanese cook, who had been with the family for three years, had disappeared. Months later, we learned that his work at our house had been merely a cover - he was, in fact, a Japanese intelligence agent.
When I went to bed that night, I had difficulty getting to sleep, as did millions of other Americans. We were going to war; there was no longer any doubt about it. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt older than my years.
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