Well, it looks like I am never going to own J.D. Salinger’s toilet.
Just for the record, the word “toilet” appears five times in Salinger’s masterpiece, “The Catcher in the Rye,” usually in the context of “toilet articles.” Twice it is modified by “crumby.”
Earlier this month, what may have been the Salinger toilet was being auctioned on eBay for$1 million. That is the equivalent cost of 4,386 standard-issue Kohler toilets at Home Depot. It is also, in all fairness, about $999,000 more than I would have paid for it, and I like Salinger’s work a lot. But it doesn’t matter because the auction was halted before I could even put in my two cents. The man behind the toilet sale was Rick Kohl of www.webuytreasure.com, which is headquartered in Kernersville, N.C.
Kohl told me that the toilet came from a house the late writer had lived in a quarter-century ago in Cornish, N.H. He said that not long after the auction went live on the Web, “The family of Salinger put pressure on me and on the family who sold me the toilet. They said I wasn’t entitled to it.” And so he called off the auction.
Kohl has tracked down a lot of interesting memorabilia in his career, including Elvis Presley’s first guitar and Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer Paul Hornung‘s championship rings. He claims he has letters from convicted serial killer, Son of Sam, though he has no plans to sell them: “I’m not much for exploiting weird people,” he says.
Salinger’s toilet, however, was a first, even for him.
Nevertheless, there may be something of a tradition of artistic porcelain among our nation’s literary luminaries. Years ago, when my wife and I visited Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, we saw a urinal on the ground that was serving as a water bowl for the house’s dozens of six-toed cats. Apparently, Hemingway had brought the urinal home from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s.
Kohl did not necessarily expect to get a cool $1 million for the Cornish commode, but he thought there was a chance the bidding might climb to six figures — which is not bad for a run-of-the-mill toilet that was nearly 50 years old and, according to Kohl, “had some stains.” As Kohl asked rhetorically, “How special can a toilet be?”
Indeed. Its value, he explained, was driven by the fact that Salinger was such a renowned recluse. Kohl likened the writer to Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. While Armstrong is not a recluse, he is known for going to great lengths to prevent his autograph from being sold. The result is that Kohl has sold five of Armstrong’s high school yearbooks that include the astronaut’s signature, and each one went for at least $10,000.
Now, I have a literary executor who will be in charge of managing my estate when I am dead and gone. In other words, she will be responsible for making decisions about if and where my work should be published, and which unpublished work should never be sold. Dead writers have these executors since, obviously, they are not especially accessible. (You think Salinger was a recluse? Just trying getting a straight answer from Virginia Woolf or William Shakespeare.) I can’t imagine a toilet of mine would ever be worth anything, given that I am not in the slightest bit reclusive. Also, unlike Salinger, I have written a lot of work that is (let’s be kind) not memorable. In fact, I wrote the single worst first novel ever published, bar none.
But when I made the list of all the things that should never be sold, it never crossed my mind to include bathroom fixtures. So, consider this column a sincere expression of a postmortem wish: Please don’t sell my toilet.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 25, 2011. His new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 9, 2013.)