Looking for Esmé’s 'children'
Where are you, you ‘children’ of Esmé, posing here for evermore on this old paperback of JD Salinger’s For Esmé - with Love and Squalor? Did you live well? Did you love well? Let me reach across the years and across the ocean and ask how your lives have been. How your lives are.
Salinger’s 1953 title, whose two most famous stories ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ and ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ both predate The Catcher in the Rye, is one of the world’s most famous collections of short stories. It was first published in the States by Little, Brown as Nine Stories, and then published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, also in 1953, under the longer title. Between 1968 and 1978 it was published in numerous editions in paperback in the UK by New English Library, in the curious edition you see here – curious, because as everyone knows, for most of Salinger’s career he would not allow any illustrations on his jackets. It is difficult to ascertain when this stipulation came in, but almost all of us have grown up with various editions of Salinger’s works that are distinguished only by various different typographical designs. For people in the UK of my generation – born in the late Fifties – it is Penguin’s silver paperbacks we remember. They stood out in that sea of orange.
I have an old copy of the edition seen here which I re-read recently. As I did so, I kept looking at the cover and wondering about those children. Do they remember the picture being taken? Did they call out to the photographer, “Hey Mister!”? What were they doing that day? Whatever happened to them? Have they read the book? Do they know they were once on the cover of such a famous book? Do they have children of their own who studied it high school, allowing them to say, “Well, do you know, when I was a bit younger than you are now, I appeared on the cover of that book.”
So many questions came to me. Just look at how heartbreaking those poses are. These tough guy stances are being taken by children who might even be at primary school. How old do we think they are? Nine? Ten? Eleven? Look at me with my raised fists. I wondered: did they make it out of those streets?
The more I looked and the more I thought about it, the more the idea of trying to track them down took hold of me. It would be so cool to recreate the picture. But how? Contacting the publisher was out of the question – New English Library of ‘Barnard’s Inn, Hoborn, London’ is long gone. However, in tiny print on the back of the book, I saw the photographer’s name: John Benton-Harris. Was he still around?
Not only was he still around, but he lives just a few miles from where I write these words. Benton-Harris lives in Croydon, south London’s very own ‘mini-Manhattan’. By coincidence, I grew up in that much maligned suburb and might even have sold books to him when I worked in Websters Bookshop (later subsumed through successive parent companies, into Waterstones).
Benton-Harris was born in New York 1940, but came to Britain in 1965 where he joined London Life magazine as a staff photographer. At first he said it would be impossible to help me – that he received requests like this every month and usually too much time has elapsed for him to be able to remember. But his response was different when I sent him a copy of the book (he never received one from the publisher). “I clearly remember when and where I took the picture of these kids,” he said. “It was in New York, in the spring of 1969 on the Lower East Side. I took it on one of my regular adventures around the five boroughs of my home town – something I continue doing to this day – recording all aspect of that vibrant city, with a particular passion for people and children. I do this partly because I was born and raised in ‘FortApache’ the South Bronx, one of 12 children that survived that experience. This ‘caught moment’ wasn’t an outtake from an assignment; it was a real life reaction to my large and diverse interests in using the world as my studio to capture particular moments.”
So far, so good, and I was thrilled to have this link with that ‘caught moment’. But unfortunately, he wasn’t able to help any further. However, he did add some interesting remarks about his approach to photography. “I am sorry that I am not able to provide you with the information you were hoping to obtain. However, I am happy that you appreciate this felt moment lifted from time’s stream. Whenever I take an image, I also voice a story – that's what stealing moments from time is all about. So if I have nothing to say, there is nothing to snap. And when I do, a multitude of memory’s and influences, poetic, literate and artistic come to my immediate aid, because that's how it is when you're one of Photography's Boy Scouts – ‘Always Prepared’.”
The phrase ‘photography’s Boy Scouts’ reminded me of one of the stories in the book, ‘The Laughing Man’ – a lovely coming-of-age story about a group of nine-year-old ‘Commanches’ on a school holiday adventure in Central Park. Commanches, Fort Apache, Boy Scouts – it all swirled around in my head.
So, no, I haven’t yet found the boys, but I am hopeful. Who knows whether the Net will work its wonders and they might emerge when this piece appears. Once again I ask: Where are you, you ‘children’ of Esmé? Did you live well? Did you love well? Let me reach across the years and across the ocean and ask how your lives have been. How your lives are.