Ten years of work for director Shane Salerno to whittle a celebrated three and a half hour cut into what is now an epic compilation of interviews and stories about J.D. Salinger’s life. Fans and lovers of the writer’s work can finally peek behind a curtain that’s been tied tight for longer than we have ever wanted.
I met Holden Caulfield in grade 10. My English teacher held a small white book in front of our class and told us that it was one of the most controversial books ever written. She said it’s been banned in numerous schools because of its content and effect but that it also held strong as one of the best-selling stories of her lifetime. She encouraged us to form our own opinion and it was then that I fell in love.
“Like a whole generation, I thought he was writing about me.” Robert Towne
A last minute addition to the festival roster, Salinger, Salerno’s documentary about writer and “recluse”, J.D. Salinger, had its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on September 5th to a half-packed theatre (half-packed more a result of the last minute screening than a reflection on the greatness of this film). The doc showcases a landslide number of never before seen photos that will make your heart flutter – he was a handsome man! – and incredibly intriguing stories told by the multiple women and friends that loved “Jerry” and who openly offer insight into the life of a man the world never got to know.
The biggest shock? Salinger wasn’t a recluse at all… but more on that later.
I hesitate to refer to the women interviewed in Salerno’s doc as Salinger’s lovers or friends; their relationship to Salinger somewhat undefinable to me after seeing this film. Simply “lucky” (or unlucky) enough to experience the man on a personally intimate level, all with different views and experiences, Salinger’s brilliant mind and wholehearted dedication to his characters clearly allowed him to exist in the modern world with an insatiable need for youthfulness.
It was as though writing would strip away layers from his soul, explained Jean Miller, an old flame of Salinger’s who he picked up on Miami beach in 1949, then at age 30, when she was only 14 years old. Miller admittingly made the first move after a five year friendship with Salinger, kissing him when their planes home from Montreal were delayed. He responded by changing her flight and sending her off, ending the relationship altogether. Miller confessed she knew she had gotten between his work and their relationship, and his work always came first.
“He was put on this earth to work. To write.” Jean Miller
The film opens with Michael McDermott recounting his time at Newsweek Magazine when he was assigned the task of photographing Salinger in 1979, almost 20 years after he seemingly disappeared from the public sphere. The photo (left) was one of only a few photos of the writer and the hype around its publication quickly labelled Salinger a recluse. Salerno’s doc, however, takes you through the writer’s life and shows viewers that – surprise! – he wasn’t a recluse at all.
Stories from friends paint Salinger as a jovial and social butterfly, constantly inviting them out for a beer at Chumley’s where he would talk about his characters as if they were real people. He showed no guff in proclaiming that no better writer than him had ever come out of the town, and his friends didn’t hesitate to agree.
Salinger began his writing career at Valley Forge Military School in 1934, making his first wages publishing a piece in Story Magazine. His ultimate goal, however, was to get his work published in the New Yorker, the only publication that made Salinger feel as though he could deem himself a real writer and, after years of rejection and persistence – even writing the editorial team letters on the content they should be publishing – his hard work paid off. His dedication to this goal and to his work, especially the construction of Holden Caulfield’s life, took precedence. Going into battle on D-Day, Salinger carried six chapters of Catcher In The Rye with him. He had to.
The juxtaposition of Salinger’s experience as a soldier and this influence on his writing is both harrowing and powerful. The weight of what Salinger experienced overseas is graphic and difficult to digest, but integral to understanding Salinger’s psyche and the way he approached the world. Salinger became troubled emotionally and spiritually, harbouring a definitive family of fictional characters instead of embracing the outside (and real) world with openness. Salinger existed as Holden Caulfield, except Holden Caulfield wasn’t real.
The film stresses that 200 days of combat for a soldier regardless of mental, emotional, or physical strength was enough to drive any person insane. Salinger was in combat for 299 days.
It is at this point that the Glass family, fictional characters in multiple stories by Salinger, began a virtual combat against his real family – his wife, son, and daughter. When asked why Salinger’s children were not interviewed in the documentary, Salerno had a vague and “legal” answer.
“It didn’t pan out.”
In 1950, Salinger’s short story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” was made into feature film “My Foolish Heart” that, for Salinger, also didn’t pan out. It sparked a violent response in him to which he vowed never to sell any of his work to Hollywood again.
According to Salerno’s documentary, Catcher In The Rye will not be made into a movie.
Salinger drew back from fans and friends after the war and eventually built a hideout in the backyard of his New Hampshire home where he’d put on a jumpsuit – a uniform – each morning before going to work at his typewriter.
Contrary to popular belief, even at this point he was not a “recluse”.
“You’re born with the right of anonymity,” explains actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who presented a total understanding for Salinger’s break from the limelight. But Salinger still went into town, attended events and nightclubs, and spoke to visiting fans. In 1974, Salinger called up Lacey Fosburgh, a reporter in San Francisco, to talk about why he’d been so silent in the written world. He explained that “there’s a stillness that comes from not publishing,” ensuring her, and the world, that he was still writing. He was very aware of the way he was living his life.
Two years earlier, in 1972, author Joyce Maynard received a letter from Salinger after being featured on the cover of the New Yorker. She moved into his home shortly after where they ate frozen peas drizzled in warm water and meditated – Well, she says, he meditated and I tried to meditate.
Maynard’s relationship with Salinger, however, was not at all as jovial and admirable as others describe in the film. When she realized her fascination of the world was in direct disagreement to Salinger’s societal outlook, their relationship soured. “I think he was indulging in a fantasy of innocence,” she surmises. Perhaps an indication of how greatly the war effected him, Maynard recounted Salinger’s stern words to her: “The problem with you, Joyce,” he told her, “is you love the world.”
The documentary makes it clear Salinger believed that you should not know anything personal about a writer; you should only know them through their work. Despite feeling as though I’ve dug through a box of personal treasures I was specifically told not to look at, I can’t help but feel lucky to know that Salinger wrote long and lovely letters to women – multiple women; that he met Ernest Hemingway, gave him a copy of Catcher, and Hemingway loved it; and that, when Jean Miller spent time with him, he listened “like you were the most important person in the world.”
After the screening, I asked Salerno if he felt guilty making this film knowing that Salinger didn’t want to be known and he replied with an easy “no.” Salerno explained that, if he did not interview some subjects or piece together this puzzle when he did, the world would never have it, and Jerry Salinger is such an important figure that we need to hold on to as much of him as we possibly can.
The documentary lists the upcoming work to be released under the rules Salinger set out in the J.D. Salinger Literary Trust. My heart skipped a few beats, hoping this information is accurate. Set to begin publication between 2015 and 2020, this little lowly fan can captively wait alongside all the others who hold Holden Caulfield in their hearts, with the author’s blessing, hoping he’ll come back to life in new and heartbreaking ways.
Originally published September 2013 by Andrea Wrobel for Toronto Social Review | Permalink