At the New York premiere of Shane Salerno’s “Salinger” at the Museum of Modern Art last night, all I could think of was how much “The Catcher in the Rye” author would have hated the whole shebang. He must have rolled around in his grave.
The media heavyweights seated in the packed audience included director Paul Haggis, Albert Maysles, Harold Evans, Tina Brown, Steve Kroft, Liev Schreiber and Barbara Walters. Before the film, Harvey Weinstein gave a special shout out to Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel.
During his introduction, Salerno said, “I’m a screenwriter [“Savages” and the upcoming “Avatar 4”], so being up here is terrifying.”
He added, “We had many times where we just didn’t look like we were ever going to finish this, and so to be doing this after 10 years, I was 30 when I started this film and I’m 40 as I stand here. I don’t recommend 10-year productions, personally or professionally.”
Salerno went on to thank everyone who contributed to the film, especially Jean Miller and the Fitzgerald family.
“They had never told their stories for 60 years, and you’re going to hear them for the first time.” Salerno dedicated the evening to his mother, Deborah Randall, a producer on the film who he said was very sick. (Her illness was the reason for his absence at the movie’s world premiere last week at the Telluride Film Festival.)
Holden Caulfield is Salinger
Most of the documentary is devoted to personal details of the author’s life. One of the not so surprising revelations is that Holden Caulfield is Salinger. Like the protagonist of “Catcher,” Salinger attended exclusive prep schools – getting thrown out of at least four – and had a fancy Park Avenue address. His father owned a successful cheese importing business. Salinger’s father was Jewish and his mother Catholic. His father wanted his son to join the family business, while “his mother approved of everything he did.”
The exhaustively researched two-hour plus documentary has been marketed as a mystery promising bombshells about the writer, who seemed to disappear at the height of his success in 1965. He became the Howard Hughes of his day, someone in the film said. His penchant for privacy continued until his death at age 91 in 2010.
A Brilliant but Tortured Man
This portrait of Salinger reveals a brilliant but tortured man. It dwells on his time as an officer during World War II. He had a nervous breakdown after the horrific events he witnessed first hand at Dachau. This also caused other mental breakdowns, including post-traumatic stress syndrome. And although he never wrote directly about his wartime experiences, the documentary suggests everything he wrote afterwards is informed by what he saw or did during that time.
The big reveal in the film is the names of the titles of the books and stories by Salinger – who never stopped writing – that are slated to be released from 2015 to 2020. One of them is about his time as a counterintelligence officer.
Stories from Former Friends and Lovers
What’s particularly fascinating are the stories by former friends and lovers, including dumped paramours Jean Miller and Joyce Maynard. There are interviews with literati friends A.E. Hotchner, Leila Hadley Luce, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and John Guare. E.L. Doctorow explained Salinger’s importance: “Like our whole generation, I thought he was writing about me.”
Judd Apatow, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Cusack also pass through the film, although their sole importance seems to be to add Hollywood glitz and glamour.
The documentary features never-before-seen video of the young Salinger at the end of World War II as an officer visibly moved when a French woman gives him flowers. There are a few photographs of the rarely photographed author that have never been published, including a blurry black-and-white image of the writer in old age sitting in a car next to his much younger wife.
“Everyone Else Was Inferior to Him”
Salinger always wanted to be a writer and was confident from a young age he would succeed, the film states. He had one goal, which was to be published in the New Yorker, which rejected his stories numerous times. His first published short story was “I’m Crazy,” narrated by Holden Caulfield.
“No doubt he had an enormous talent,” former editor pal A.E. Hotchner said of Salinger, who played poker with Salinger and a bunch of other writers twice a week. “Everyone else at the table was inferior to him,” Hotchner said.
In those days, Salinger also had a sense of humor. When someone asked what J.D. stood for, he replied, “Juvenile delinquent.” It actually stood for Jerome David, but his friends called him Jerry.
Teenage Girls & Failed Marriages
One real eyebrow raiser is Salinger’s obsession with teenage girls. It began with his infatuation with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, whom he spied at a party when she was only 14 and he was in his early 20’s. He wrote her long love letters while he was stationed overseas. He bragged about her to other officers. Then she stopped writing. He was mortified when he read in the newspaper that she had married the world’s biggest movie star, Charlie Chaplain. From then on Salinger became attracted to teenage girls who were around the same age as Oona O’Neill when he first met her.
Much time in the film is devoted to Jean Miller, who was only 14 when Salinger – nearly 30 – chatted her up on Daytona Beach. They soon took leisurely walks and had long conversations on the beach. He was mindful of her age even as they continued to correspond and visit each other. She was the one who initiated physical intimacy. She was 20 and they were on a weekend together in Montreal. She was a virgin, which she said made him uncomfortable.
At the end of the weekend Salinger’s flight was cancelled and Miller said she told him she was happy they would have more time together. His expression immediately soured. He was anxious to get back to his writing. She knew then that she had fallen off the “pedestal.” Just as likely her shelf life expired.
Miller inspired the story “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” Still, it’s her stories that reveal a softer and more likable side of the author. Miller, who now walks with a cane, attended the premiere, and up to now has never discussed their romance.
Joyce Maynard, another ex-lover, has less fond memories of their relationship. Maynard’s gamine face was on the 1972 cover of the New York Times Magazine where he noticed her. She wrote a “voice of my generation” story about how as an 18-year-old she looked at life. The 50-ish Salinger wrote her a letter, ostensibly to offer advice on how she should handle early success. He ended his letter with what would become his pick-up line: “I’m J.D. Salinger and I wrote The Catcher in the Rye.”
Maynard said of their quiet life together in his New Hampshire home, “We were dancing to Lawrence Welk while my friends were off doing drugs and listening to Led Zeppelin.” Salinger would go on to verbally abuse her. When their relationship ended, Maynard wrote a tell-all book and auctioned off the letters he wrote her.
The women in his life of course became his muses. His second wife, Claire Douglas, who divorced him because of neglect – he would disappear for weeks in his “bunker,” a shed behind the house to write – was Franny of “Franny and Zooey” fame. They had two children: Matt, an actor and producer, who obviously chose not to participate in the film, and Margaret, who wrote a “Mommie Dearest” like memoir about her father. The clips of her in the film are taken from television interviews she did over a decade ago to promote her book.
Of all Salinger’s relationships, none is more puzzling than his first marriage to a Nazi informer he met while he was an officer. He brought her back to New York. As you can imagine, she wasn’t exactly a hit with his parents. After a month he bought her a ticket and sent her back to the Rhineland.
The divorce papers cite that the reason for the divorce was because he discovered information about her that made it impossible for him to stay married. One of the stories that will be published before 2020 will shine a light on this mysterious marriage.
Stalkers & Determined Photographers
But the most disturbing part of the film is the interviews with determined photographers and crazed acolytes who stalked Salinger. They hid behind bushes where he lived in Cornish, New Hampshire, to snap unflattering images of him while he walked his dog. Then there’s the nut that waits 24 hours at the bottom of Salinger’s driveway to corner him. He guilts Salinger into talking to him. Like everyone else, this fan is hoping for life-changing words of wisdom.
“I’m not a seer. There’s nothing I can tell these people to help them,” Salinger told someone in the film. “I’m not a counselor. I’m a fiction writer.” (There are touching stories about how protective the people of Cornish were towards their famous recluse and how they cut off people who violated his privacy.)
On a more plaintive note, the film ends with someone who says that Salinger regretted writing about Holden, that writing “The Catcher in the Rye” was a mistake. It meant he couldn’t live a normal life.
The Weinstein Company will release “Salinger” Friday, Sept. 5, 2013. It will air later on PBS in the American Masters series. The nearly 700-page companion book, co-written by David Shields and Salerno, which was published yesterday, is packed with even more information.
Buy the book “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno
Buy “The Catcher in the Rye” paperback edition by J.D. Salinger