LiteratEye #44: Disinformation: Did Jewish Author J.D. Salinger Really Marry a Nazi Official after World War II?

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the forty-fourth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #44: Disinformation: Did Jewish Author J.D. Salinger Really Marry a Nazi Official after World War II?
By W.J. Elvin III
December 18, 2009

200px-JD_SalingerJ.D. Salinger, the quirky author of The Catcher in the Rye fame, slammed a door in the world’s face many long years ago. But he pops up now and then, mostly in the form of legal representatives, to whomp up on anyone invading his privacy.

Salinger is very much in the news these days due to his efforts to block publication of a “copycat” book.

There is another story, though, that hasn’t caught the attention of literary pundits in the U.S. – yet. It relates to an allegation in his daughter’s highly publicized “tell all” biography, Dream Catcher: A Memoir.

Just a bit of background: The Catcher in the Rye, as readers from Melbourne to Murmansk certainly know without it being said, is one of the most influential books of the last century.

Most survivors of the education mill of the ’60s and ’70s have probably read the book, either because it was required or because it was forbidden. Having sold 35 million copies, sales figures still run to 250,000 copies a year.

The book was denounced as a corrupter of youth. And, given certain sinister associations, maybe the tight-sphincter set was on to something in fearing its impact.

Among obsessive Catcher fans were John Hinckley, who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon.

But that’s another story, and so, back to the “Salinger married a Nazi” allegation.

My guess is that the American press hasn’t played up the latest twist because it appears to spotlight yet another fact-checking failure.

One of the key “gee whiz” elements of daughter Margaret Salinger’s “tell all” book, parroted over and over again in the press, was the revelation that Salinger was briefly married to Sylvia Welter, a Nazi party official whom he had first arrested while he was serving with military intelligence in World War II.

Most references I’ve found simply give prominent play to the allegation, though some go sensational, as in one announcing that Salinger “may be one of the only Jews in history who knowingly and willingly married a Nazi.”

If that’s true then, of course, it is fairly sensational literary gossip. But fact-checking reporters in Germany, where the marriage took place, say the Nazi accusation appears to be false. In that case, it would seem the charge is slanderous.

By the way, while Salinger’s father was Jewish, his mother raised Scotch-Irish Roman Catholic. Salinger himself has been Zen Buddhist, doctrinaire Yogic, Scientologist and quite a few other things, at least at the dabbler level and often beyond.

If the Nazi anecdote is false, what can we believe of all the other fascinating tidbits framing Salinger as remarkably idiosyncratic?

Is it true he claims his mother walked him to school until he was 24 years old? (That would have been until one year after he was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II, so it must be his way saying Mom was overprotective).

Was he indeed a cruise ship entertainer?

Was he actually close to marriage with Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who dumped him for Charlie Chaplin?

Did he “lose it” mentally for a while as a result of WWII experiences, which included participation in five major battlefronts as well as liberation of Dachau?

Is there another side to the story of his relationship with Joyce Maynard, a teenager 35 years his junior, who gave her side in the book, At Home in the World?

Did his explorations of various nutritional and spiritual paths really lead to ingestion of his own urine and speaking in tongues?

As for the Nazi allegation, should it prove false, it’s like a bog fire that can never be extinguished, put it out here and it flares up there. A charge like that, making so many unchallenged appearances in the press, then makes its way into biographies, literary criticism, student papers and a wilderness of blogs, becoming “fact.”

Some reviewers say verification is to be found in Salinger’s short story, For Esme with Love and Squalor, wherein a U.S. soldier marries a Nazi woman he has arrested.

However: fiction coaches, and Salinger had one of the best in his early writing days, advise creative writers drawing on personal experience to ratchet it up, to exaggerate, to push beyond facts toward a fictional cliff-edge.

I was able to verify that recent investigations by reporters in Germany call the Nazi allegation into serious question. The reports state that Sylvia Welter wouldn’t even join a Hitler youth group, which was demanded of youngsters at the time.

Further, they say she wasn’t German, as has been stated over and over again, but had French citizenship because her mother was French. She was apparently a doctor, sometimes reported as a psychiatrist Salinger met while recovering from some form of PTSD, and she is also identified as having been an eye doctor. Even the location of their home in Germany is contested, some naming one town, others another.

From what I have seen, I believe a cautious biographical sketch posted by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas has it as right as can be at the moment: “While in Europe he met and married a French doctor named Sylvia. They divorced in 1946.”

Apparently the full story, to the extent it can be documented, will be told in a new Salinger biography by Eberhard Alsen, a scholar who has devoted considerable attention to unraveling Salinger mysteries. Unfortunately, the publisher will not release Alsen’s biography until Salinger is dead, because Salinger would undoubtedly sue.

I haven’t found mention of the German press investigation in any U.S. or English language newspaper. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been mentioned, but it certainly doesn’t look that way. I have seen only a casual report of it in a newsletter article by Cora Lee Kluge, professor of German at University of Wisonsin Madison. Be advised the link will come up in pdf format.

I did search German newspapers, where I am fairly much at sea without the assistance of a translator. For that I relied on Google’s translations, which leave a bit to be desired.

For example: “Sylvia Welter, which is already dead, you will certainly have a not insignificant presence.”

And another: “The testimony that has dusted off the old woman after 63 years out of their personal documents, which is perhaps the only written document, which proves the Jerome David Salinger’s mysterious six-month stay in the Middle Franconian town Gunzenhausen after the war.”

I have to say, in the course of dragging the story this much further into the light, I’ve found Salinger and companions far more intriguing than I ever imagined. As daughter Margaret summed up: “What other people might call weird is just regular for us.”

photo: J.D. Salinger from

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