Jessica Helfand | Tributes

Remembering James Salter


Some women, in the early throes of courtship, receive romantic gifts—poetry, jewelry, even lingerie—gestures that pique the senses and warm the heart. 

I am not one of those women. 

The first gift I ever received from my husband was a book by James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime. This would be followed by many more books by his favorite writers—Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, Bruce Chatwin, among others—because to Bill, there was nothing more captivating than literature. To share his love of books was romance writ large.

So. Many. Books. Even now, eighteen months after his death, I am still sorting out where to put them all. 

Yet the fact that he chose Salter as his opening move strikes me, now, as particularly endearing. Salter was a magnificent writer, empathic, lyrical, observant. Looking back, that book probably felt like a love letter, and I suppose in a way, it was. As a part-time publisher, Bill once cooked up a project so he had a reason to work with Salter, which he did long before we met. I’d forgotten that they became casual acquaintances after that, exchanging the occasional letter or holiday card. 

When I read of James Salter’s death earlier this week, I has a sudden recollection of a note he’d sent us upon the birth of our first child. Miraculously, I found it yesterday—on Father’s Day—and am sharing it here. A note from a seasoned father to a then-new father, as touching today as it was nearly twenty years ago. He quotes, of all people, Sartre—almost a comical misspelling of his own name—then disagrees with his views on parenthood. “Much happiness to you,” Salter writes. “May he be a great kid.”

Both fathers are now gone, their love for their children as enduring as the literature that once united them: this note, I think, proves it. Which warms the heart, even, and especially now.


Jobs | June 18