The Love Story Behind The Catcher In The Rye You Definitely Didn't Know

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If you graduated from an American high school, you've probably read The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger's coming-of-age novel has practically become mandatory reading for anyone in adolescence.
Even if you're familiar with Holden Caulfield's rage against the machine, you might not know much about Salinger's life. The film Rebel in the Rye, released on September 8, exposes the fascinating love story that took place just before Salinger wrote Catcher. The film depicts J. D. Salinger's (Nicholas Hoult) love affair with Oona O'Neill (Zoe Deutch).
O'Neill had a life of legendary proportions. She was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, the Nobel Prize-winning American playwright behind Long Day’s Journey into Night. She was embedded into 1930s and ‘40s elite society, and partied with the Vanderbilts. Mostly, though, she had a fascinating love life that led to being disowned and having eight children — a story that probably merits a film of its own.
Here’s why Oona O’Neill is really the most interesting part of Rebel in the Rye.
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In 1941, Oona O’Neill met J.D. Salinger.

When Salinger met her, Oona O’Neill was a 16-year-old with a reputation — a mythic one. She partied with Gloria Vanderbilt and Carol Marcus Saroyan, the inspiration for Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She had a secretive demeanor that would later be likened to Jacqueline Kennedy’s. And in 1941, she met one of her main suitors while on vacation in Brielle, New Jersey: 22-year-old Jerry Salinger.

“Little Oona is in love with little Oona,” Salinger told the friend who introduced him to Oona. Still, he was totally smitten.

“He fell for her on the spot,” writes Gloria Murray, the daughter of Oona’s friend, Elizabeth. “He was taken with her beauty and impressed that she was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. They dated when they got back to New York.”

Pictured: O'Neill at 17, after she was crowned Debutante of the Year in 1942.
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At the time, O'Neill had a few other suitors.

She was dating New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno and writer and filmmaker Orson Welles, who was 26 at the time. Imagine being a high-school senior and dating the man who was in the process of making Citizen Kane.

Pictured: Welles in 1941.
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Salinger courted O'Neill by way of bonkers love letters.

You can tell Salinger was a unique thinker from the wording in his love letters. Elizabeth Chaplin, Oona’s daughter with Charlie Chaplin (we’ll get to that later), read one of the unpublished letters at an open mic.

“Oona, de luna. Here in Venezuela the forsythia is in bloom. All postcards and California aside, i’m damn happy you’re not off to daddyland. I’d have missed you bc You have such pretty bue legs. You do not tell the trut[h]. You are a liar. Liars do not go to heaven. Only girls with braces on their teeth go to heaven. And Rita Hayworth. I’m taking a horse to the show on friday night but we’ll stop at the Whelan on friday for a drink or three. If you haven’t left for a game of postoffice at Lawrenceville Prep, why don’t you bring one of your little men to the Whelan? We’ll make up a small, very distinguished group, and you can explain life to my horse and me. I’ve seen the folly of my ways and never again will I shovel heavy amor into your pretty ear. In the future II shall be gay. I shall ride up and down Park Avenue on a white horse, throwing bottles of champagne at blind beggars. Cordially, Thiero Santi Winslow.”
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Salinger and O'Neill's relationship dissolved in 1942.

Salinger joined the army after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, and was still sending O'Neill letters while he was stationed in Georgia. Suddenly, she stopped responding. He found out why when reading the papers. O’Neill had moved to Los Angeles to become an actress; while there, she met and married Charlie Chaplin, a man 36 years her senior.

A very shocked, very jilted Salinger sent her a letter supposedly imagining what it was like marrying a man who needed monkey glands — the ‘40s version of Viagara — to power through the wedding night. Below, he drew a cartoon of Charlie chasing Oona with his penis out.

"It made me glad I was with Charlie and not with Salinger," O'Neill later said about the letters in the book Salinger.

Pictured: J.D. Salinger.
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Salinger never quite got over Oona.

In the book Salinger, author David Shields explores the repercussions O'Neill's actions had on him. He spent the rest of his life dating girls in their late teens.

"It's significant and revealing that he carried a life-long torch for a relationship that apparently was never consummated. He would replicate this relationship with a series of very young women The girls that followed Oona were time-travel machines. His lifelong obsession with late adolescent girlhood was at least in part an attempt to regain pre-Fall Oona. She reformatted him forever."

Writer Joyce Maynard has written extensively about her affair with Salinger, which happened when she was 18 and he 53 (almost the same age gap as Chaplin and O'Neill).

Pictured: Maynard in 1992.
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But back to Charlie Chaplin...

A month after she turned 18, O'Neill married the actor and comedian Charlie Chaplin. Oddly enough, Orson Welles had read O'Neill's palm when she moved to Hollywood, and he told her she'd marry Charlie Chaplin. O'Neill met Chaplin on a movie set, and it was history.

The relationship was met with skepticism, and it's easy to see why. This was Chaplin’s fourth marriage; two of his previous wives had been 16 when he married them. Eugene O’Neill, Oona's father (who left Oona and her mother when she was two), was so furious that Oona was marrying a man his own age that he disinherited her. Oona never saw her father again.

Yet Oona and Charlie remained devoted to one another until Chaplin’s death in 1977, 34 years later. When Chaplin had to leave the country in 1952 due to his leftist political beliefs, Oona renounced her citizenship and left for Europe with him. They raised their eight (eight!) children together in a mansion overlooking Lake Geneva.

“They were always holding hands, even when he was an old man,” their daughter, Jane recalls. “They were kept together by magic.”
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Read Charlie Chaplin’s thoughts on Oona, and swoon.

Chaplin finished his autobiography with the following meditation on his wife.

“Schopenhauer said happiness is a negative state- but I disagree. For the last twenty years I have known what happiness means. I have the good fortune to be married to a wonderful wife. I wish I could write more about this, but it involves perfect love and perfect love is the most beautiful of all frustration because it is more than one can express. As I live with Oona, the depth and beauty of her character are a continual revelation to me. Even as she walks ahead of me along the narrow sidewalks of Vevey with simple dignity, her neat little figure straight, her dark hair smoothed back showing a few silver threads, a sudden wave of love and admiration comes over me for all that she is – and a lump comes into my throat.”
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Life after Charlie.

O'Neill lived the remaining 13 years of her life in seclusion, bouncing between New York and Switzerland. She struggled without Chaplin, and died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 65.

Jane Scovell, O'Neill's autobiographer, attempts to explain her attachment to Chaplin. "A lot of what happened to Oona later in life had to do with the fact that her father abandoned her. She spent life looking for a replacement, and she found one in Charlie Chaplin. Charlie just took her and brought her into another world."

O'Neill, in her own words, didn't disagree.

"He is my world," she said of Chaplin in Salinger. "I've never seen or lived anything else."
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