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The Dangerous Attraction of Powerful Men

Salinger, Picasso and a King – The Seamy Side of Greatness

The reports about JD Salinger is a story as old as time.

A brilliant artist, leader or thinker inspires us, yet privately takes advantage.

Consider the story of King David, the greatest of all Biblical kings - and a man close to God. Yet, David falls for Bathsheba, and sends her husband off to war – and death – in order to secure this woman for himself.

David's repentance stands out in spiritual literature. His abuse of power does not.

JD Salinger & Joyce Maynard:

JD Salinger (d. 2010) is an iconic figure who's in the news by virtue of a new movie coming out about his life. His instant and timeless bestseller, Catcher in the Rye (1951) was his only published novel.

Yet, Salinger’s reclusive life was legendary, leading some to wonder if he was too “pure for this world.” Maybe so. But, like many creative and powerful people, Salinger may also have had a seamy side.

Enter Joyce Maynard, whose piece in the New York Times re-tells of her 10 month affair with Salinger, back in 1972; Salinger was 53 while Maynard was 18.

“I was 18 when he wrote to me in the irresistible voice of Holden Caulfield…within months I left school (Yale) to live with Salinger; gave up my scholarship; severed relationships with friends; disconnected from my family; forswore all books music, food and ideas not condoned by him. At the time I believed I’d be with Jerry Salinger forever.”

Maynard goes on to tell us that there were more such relationships to come. But first, he had to end theirs.

“I was 19 when he put two $50 dollar bills in my hand and sent me away.”

How many young women, how many broken hearts? We don’t know, nor do we need to know. What is important here is that mythologizing greatness; be they an artist or a leader, often opens the door for trouble. People exploit their strengths. Charismatic people exploit their charisma, handsome people exploit their beauty and artistic greatness lends to narcissistic specialness – often at the expense of others.

Intellectuals & Narcissism:

Picasso exploited lovers and friends; this according to the great British historian Paul Johnson. Bill Clinton’s charisma surely contributed to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Woody Allen’s choice of life partner (Mia Farrow’s adopted step daughter) leaves many wondering about his concern (or lack thereof) for his ex partner’s feelings or those of her other children.

Paul Johnson's The Intellecuals (2007), tells us that many of history's greatest intellectuals have been remarkedly self serving; a short list includes such luminaries as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Sartre.

Yet Sartre is the father of Existentialism and an important critic of fascism. Woody Allen’s movies are funny and heartfelt. Bill Clinton was an admirable president, despite the impeachment nonsense. Jean Jacques Rousseau still made an important contribution to intellectual history and Picasso, however narcissistic, is still among the twentieth century’s most important artists.

So, it brings us back to Joyce Maynard and JD Salinger.

Success Can Undermine Maturity:

I have often wanted to write a book entitled; Charisma, Talent, Wealth, Beauty & Power – How Specialness Can Stunt Development. Don’t worry, it’s not written yet. We probably don’t need another book on the market.

But, it is interesting to ask, what happened to King David, or to a myriad of Kennedys, or to Bill Clinton, Picasso, or for that matter, to Tiger Woods. Would any of these men have been so exploitative if they couldn’t get away with it? And, what does it tell us about the need for society to stop idealizing artists, leaders and the like?

So, Joyce probably fell into a trap.

Falling in Love with Love:

Was Mr. Salinger consciously exploitative, like Bernie Madoff must have been about money? Maybe not; more likely Mr. Salinger had a love affair with being in love. If we believe Maynard, and, from what I read, she's credible, then it was less about lust than about love – and control.

There are people, often with narcissistic tendencies, who fall in love with falling in love.

  • Falling in love is a high.
  • Falling in love is intoxicating.
  • Falling in love doesn’t last.

Salinger gave Maynard two fifties and sent her away.

Falling in love with love is an understandable pursuit. It feels so special to be special. It activates the Field of Intimacy, a psychological place of endless possibility, bringing together past yearnings with the present. It’s a state of emotional depth that can elevate life to a vibrant time of freshness and hope. Past becomes present becomes future; and when it’s working, we live in another universe. Who doesn’t love being love?

But, ultimately, you have to love being in love with a PERSON. And, that can bring you back to the ground. For healthy people it’s the start of the real relationship. For narcissists and others, it’s time to start over with someone else.

Here are Joyce Maynard’s words (I wonder what Bathsheba may have felt):

“…we are talking about what happens when people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status — use their power to lure much younger people into sexual and (in the case of Salinger) emotional relationships…. And when they are done with the person they’ve drawn toward them, it can take that person years or decades to recover.”

Icons are People Too:

Maybe it’s time for us all to grow up. Salinger, Allen, Picasso, Clinton, Woods and, yes, women too, can exploit. --- Sometimes, simply because they can. Some are better people than their actions show. Some got to where they are by virtue of their self aggrandizement. I leave it to historians like Paul Johnson to tease out those powerful people who make bad mistakes from those who are truly malignant. (For instance, I think history will be kind to Clinton, as it’s been to King David.)

What about Salinger?

This story will unfold over time. JD Salinger, grandson of a Rabbi, and one of the greatest writers of his generation was obviously a controlling fellow. He controlled access and, according to Maynard, was controlling in his love. He is not the first or last artist to retreat to his own peculiar world – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is another contemporary example.

But there’s a pattern here that feels familiar. Salinger was a man who celebrated youth, but he may have exploited it as well. He was a man who apparently knew the effect of his greatness on young women – with Maynard’s story reportedly being one of many. Salinger was an iconic recluse. But, that does not mean he was an iconic personage.

You see, greatness is great. But, sometimes it’s not very nice.


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