Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger, whose nickname as a child was "Sonny," was born on New Year's Day 1919, in New York, New York, the second and last child of Sol and Marie (Miriam) Jillich Salinger. He had a sister, Doris, eight years older. Salinger's father, a successful importer of meats and cheeses, was Jewish, his mother Scotch-Irish. Like most of Salinger's central characters, the family lived in the relative comfort of the upper-middle class.
Young Salinger's early ambition was in dramatics; he was voted "most popular actor" at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine, in the summer of 1930. An average student in public school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he was reported to be a quiet, polite, somewhat solitary child. His parents enrolled him in McBurney School in Manhattan in 1932, but he did not adjust well to the private school and struggled with grades. Concerned about their son's academic performance, his parents sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania when he was 15 years old. There, he was active in drama and singing clubs. He sometimes wrote fiction by flashlight under his blankets at night and contributed to the school's literary magazine. As editor of the academy's yearbook, Crossed Sabres, he published a poem in it that became the lyrics to the school's anthem. He graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in June of 1936.
Salinger's collegiate experience was brief but significant. He attended New York University following prep school but withdrew to try performing as an entertainer on a Caribbean cruise ship. His father tried, in vain, to interest Salinger in the import business during a trip to Europe in 1937. Returning to school at Ursinus College in Collegetown, Pennsylvania, in 1938, Salinger wrote a column of humor, satire, and film reviews, called "Skipped Diploma," for the college newspaper.
At the age of 20, in 1939, Salinger enrolled in a short-story writing course at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, a writer and important editor; Salinger sold his first story to Burnett's Story magazine for twenty-five dollars the next year. Salinger published a grateful tribute to Burnett in Fiction Writers' Hand-book in 1975.
Despite receiving a number of rejection slips, Salinger continued to write and submit stories. He sold his first Holden Caulfield story (eventually revised and titled "Slight Rebellion Off Madison") to the prestigious New Yorker magazine in 1941, but it was not published until 1946.
During the war, Salinger served as an enlisted man, reaching the rank of sergeant, and continued writing. He received counterintelligence training and landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, on D-day (June 6, 1944). Sergeant Salinger participated in five campaigns in Europe, witnessing some of the heaviest fighting in the war. He carried a portable typewriter in his jeep, serving his apprenticeship through commercially successful (if mostly forgettable) stories published in popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire. "I'm Crazy," appearing in Collier's magazine in 1945, included material later used in The Catcher in the Rye. But for the most part, Salinger tried to dissuade any republishing of these works. As he said in a rare interview with the New York Times in 1974, he preferred that such inferior efforts "die a perfectly natural death." A two-volume pirated edition of uncollected pieces did appear in 1974 despite the best efforts of Salinger and his attorney.
In 1946, a ninety-page novella (a short novel) about Holden Caulfield was nearly published, but Salinger withdrew from the agreement. Another five years passed before he introduced the classic in novel form.
In September of 1945, while still in Europe immediately following the war, Salinger apparently married a French professional, perhaps a physician, named Sylvia (whose maiden name is unknown). A divorce was granted in 1947. He married Claire Douglas on February 17, 1955. The couple had a daughter, Margaret Ann, and a son, Matthew, but divorced in 1967.