Home » Dining on Cornish hen with J.D. Salinger's mother-in-Law

Dining on Cornish hen with J.D. Salinger's mother-in-Law

Lorraine suggested that she was a writer, possessed a vague knowledge of everything and spoke in a warm, low-key, sensual tone of voice. She always seemed to be arguing with herself and you were always trying to console her.

“You saw that film the other night,” she’d say. “It was terrible, wasn’t it? Oh, you think I’m strange for saying that, don’t you? Tell the truth: I shouldn’t have said that.”

You spent most of your time defending her from her.

Anyway, I was dating her normal friend, so I learned to smile and say, “Well … ” during her self arguments. Well … she invited us to dinner at her studio apartment. Well …

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She lived on the ground floor of a brownstone on the Upper East Side. Lorraine was at the curved window as we approached; she was smiling and waving furiously behind a barrier of spiked bars a few feet below street level. We entered the tiny place. It was claustrophobic but livable. Lorraine welcomed us and something smelled like food.

She maneuvered us around a convertible couch to a table snuggled tightly into the half-round area of her only window. We squeezed into chairs. Across from me, about 14 inches away, was the glowing smile of an elderly woman. I remember thinking that she was Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple; “quality” is the word I’d use as a further description.

She spoke the niceties of introduction; said her name was Jean. We responded, poured the wine and toasted the evening. Lorraine scrambled nervously toward the doorway of a tiny room that I assumed was the kitchen. I wondered if there was a bathroom and whether or not I’d fit into it.

The “profession” question came up. “Artist? Cartoonist?” Jean responded with the usual disbelief. She was curious but dropped the subject because of constant interruptions from Lorraine.

“I hope everything is all right. Try the cheese.”

My friend smiled and reassured Lorraine about the cheese. The cheese was good and Jean drifted off into talking about her former son-in-law. She disliked him, whoever he was. “Disappeared … missing all of these wonderful cocktail parties … terrible …” I smiled, used my “well” response and then I heard the name, “J. D. Salinger.”

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Salinger’s my literary fantasy. He reaches the top and bails out. Talent! Mystique! Freedom! He goes for it. Howard Hughes with a typewriter. This sweet little woman was raining all over my parade. “How do you feel about Joe DiMaggio?” I asked facetiously. She’d never heard of DiMaggio, but Salinger was a scoundrel for sure.

She harped on the social aspects of his reclusive nature. She could not understand how he could possibly stay away from all of these wonderful New York cocktail parties. I choked at the reference, sputtering some wine and cheese into a dinner napkin. Cocktail parties are among the necessities of career moves. Boring. Salinger is (enviably) beyond that. I began to argue the point.

I recalled a quote from my old friend, Mischa Richter, one of the grand masters of the New Yorker cartoonists.

He said, “Artists don’t yell any more.”

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Cocktails and art were once a volatile mixture. In the 1950s, the Old Cedar Tavern in the Village drew a crowd of painters; belief in their art form was angry, confrontational; shouting produced the occasional brawl, but the dialogue must have been wonderful. Today’s cocktail circuit is the low-key maneuver of public relations accompanied by conversation from hell. With a constant media presence, the party guests behave as though they’ve been read their Miranda rights.

My arguments went nowhere as Jean continued her train of thought, still focused on the errant J. D.

“He’s still writing,” she said. Now she was smiling broadly. I’d like to think of that smile as an acknowledgment of his talent and maybe she didn’t really dislike him.

“He writes constantly. Squirrels it away. Just writes and pops it away in a safe.”

u      u      u

Incredible. I wanted to hear more, but Lorraine interrupted with a platter of Cornish hens; they’re small, as in studio apartment.

Lorraine exhaled an ear-bending shriek as the platter touched the table. Smoking pieces of burnt wax paper jutted out from the bird’s cavities. She hadn’t washed them properly and neglected to remove the vital organs in the paper wrap. She pulled at the paper, burning her fingers. My friend offered to help. Lorraine hauled the platter back into the kitchen, shouting painful “ooh, ooh, oohs” as she plucked the paper out of the hens.

Lorraine offered a mournful flow of apologies. We consoled her, pretending not to be disgusted by the hygiene problem with the main course. Dessert was OK. There was coffee and a quiet moment to enjoy the company of this wonderful little woman.

Jean spoke of the social world of her youth. She’d been the child bride of the owner of one of the great auction houses of London, just beyond the turn of the 20th century. Her memories were of another time. It was the world before hype — it was that Dashiell Hammett line, “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Her eyes moistened momentarily with a view of the last touch of sunset on the window.

“My husband’s best friend was Oscar Wilde,” she said.

Bill Lee lives in New York City and Sharon, and has drawn cartoons for this newspaper, and many other publications of note, for decades.

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