Holden Caulfield, 74, patron of the ducks in Central Park, died September 9, after a ten-year battle with emphysema. He was a resident of the Bellington Hotel in Manhattan, though for nearly twenty years, he had lived in a shack and subsequently in a tent near the lagoon in Central Park. His brief moment of fame was triggered in 1967 because of a TV appearance by his older brother.
During the 1940s and 50s, Mr. Caulfield attended several prep-schools, including Pencey, Wooton, Elkton Hills, and Pendleton Military Academy, without graduating from any of them. He was admitted to Bennington on the basis of the essay he submitted on saving the wildfowl in Central Park, but he transferred shortly to Antioch and then to Kenyon, though he did not complete his B.A. Although reclusive and shy, Mr. Caulfield was jolted from obscurity suddenly during the 1967 Academy Awards ceremony when his older brother, D.B., won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for “The Secret Goldfish,” based on his earlier short story of the same title. During his acceptance speech, D.B. Caulfield announced to the millions of international viewers that he owed the entire concept for the story and the subsequent screenplay to his brother, Holden, “Who might now at this very moment be freezing his ass off in Central Park, defending the rights of our winged brothers.” Reporters pursued the cryptic statement by searching the Park, only to discover that Holden Caulfield had built a shed near the lagoon, hidden by shrubs, where he had already been living for several years in order to study the migration habits of the city’s most famous feathered creatures.
“I preferred the silence and the privacy that I have enjoyed here to this phony celebrity role. I really did,” Mr. Caulfield told a crew of surprised reporters from Channel 5. Though city authorities evicted him from the park and destroyed his hovel, Mr. Caulfield persisted by pitching a tent each night and then dismantling it the following morning before he could be cited for illegally dwelling on public property. “I only wanted to study the migration patterns of mallard ducks, for Christ’s sake,” he added on a later occasion, when he again drew attention to himself by getting into a brawl with several teenagers who had frightened the ducks with firecrackers.
In later years, when he inherited his older brother’s estate after D.B. had died in an automobile accident, Mr. Caulfield spent much of his time lobbying animal rights organizations to include ducks in their agenda. By that time he had moved from Central Park because his tent caught fire, the result of a cigarette that he had failed to extinguish properly.
As he immersed himself further in the flight patterns of mallard ducks, Mr. Caulfield began to submit notes from his observations to a number of well-known ornithologists. Their responses led to several co-published articles in scientific journals.
Nevertheless, as the regard for his work increased, Mr. Caulfield became more reclusive. None of his collaborators ever met him, though they had tried on numerous occasions to do so.
In one of the final acts of his life, Mr. Caulfield published an op-ed essay in “The New York Times,” bitterly excoriating those who were profiting from New York City’s ducks. “Duck tours, rubber duckies, stuffed ducks, duck videos, prints—even hats,” he cited as examples of the profiteers who were disrupting the natural habitat of the Park’s winged occupants. “Twenty dollars for a boat trip among the ducks! In whose pocket does that money go? That really depresses me.”
Mr. Caulfield’s brief marriage to Jane Gallagher in 1959 ended in an annulment. He is survived by a younger sister, Phoebe Hayes, a lepidopterist who resides in California with her husband and three children—the oldest, a son named Holden.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org