Salinger's secrets: the man behind the legend
Towards the end of The Catcher In The Rye, JD Salinger's enduringly popular novel about coming of age in an adult world of sell-outs and fakes, the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, dreams of moving to a remote cabin. "I'd have this rule that nobody could do anything phony when they visited me," he says.
Salinger retreated to a house in the New Hampshire woods two years after the book was published in 1953, and eventually became the most famous recluse in America. A new Hollywood documentary claims this is a reputation he doesn't deserve. "Jerry" was a good neighbour who went to a church dinner every Sunday, attended the Cornish fair, shopped in book stores, dined at the Algonquin Hotel and habitually pursued malleable young women.
"There was nothing reclusive about JD Salinger," says director Shane Salerno. "Recluses don't travel all over the world. Recluses don't pursue numerous young women and girls, as Mr Salinger did. There's this Howard Hughes-like image of him, locked away in a room, and that's not who he was."
This is how Salerno rationalises making his unauthorised biopic, a project Salinger surely regarded as a gross invasion of privacy. "If I had wanted to do anything that was exploitative, I wouldn't have spent 10 years and $2 million of my own money," the director says. "I could have rushed it out after he passed away [in 2010]. I cared deeply about Salinger, but I also wanted to tell the honest story of his life."
There can be no doubt that Salinger would have loathed the film, from its reconstructions of the hunky young author sweeping typewritten pages onto the floor in frustration to the swelling, blockbuster strings that underscore every dramatic moment. Most of all, he would have cringed at the confidences betrayed by his former friends.
Salinger's aversion to discussing his own life is a matter of record, from the first line of Catcher, dismissing "all that David Copperfield kind of crap," through a series of lawsuits and every author's note he wrote. In the dust jacket of Franny and Zooey, published in 1961, he argued that "a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second-most valuable property on loan to him during his working years." After being tricked into granting an interview in 1980, Salinger never spoke to the press again.
In 1984, he asked biographer Ian Hamilton to desist from writing about him and later sued to prevent publication of the book. "I have borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime," he wrote. But in his later years, there was an inevitable drip of intimacies, notably in his daughter Margaret's memoir, Dream Catcher, which portrayed him as a deeply eccentric man who demonstrated more love for his characters than for his own family.
The new film is not short of revelations. Jean Miller, who had a five-year platonic relationship with Salinger as a teenager, while he was in his 30s, tells her story for the first time. The family of Salinger's lifelong friend Paul Fitzgerald, who served with him in World War II, have opened up their archive. "These are people that had remained silent for six decades," says Salerno. "It was a long process to convince them to share their stories, their letters, their photos and their deepest memories."
The accompanying book claims Salinger was born with only one testicle, an assertion backed up by two anonymous women. More persuasively, it argues that he suffered from post- traumatic stress disorder stemming from his combat experiences, from the D-Day landings to the liberation of a sub-camp of Dachau, and that this was the defining influence on his post-war fiction.
All this pales, of course, next to the only question that matters to Salinger fans: "What's in the vault?" Salinger once said there was a "marvellous peace in not publishing" and the letters that have leaked since his death confirm that he continued to write fiction, almost every day.
The film states, again citing anonymous sources, that there are five completed books scheduled for publication: A counter-intelligence agent's diary, a World War II love story, a manual of Vedanta Hinduism, a collection of five new stories about Salinger's recurring character, Seymour Glass, and a reworked tale about Holden Caulfield, The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.
The author's son, Matt, who runs Salinger's literary trust, has declined to comment, other than to tell The New York Times that none of his father's closest friends or relatives contributed to the documentary. Salinger kept a notoriously tight rein on his published texts, once upbraiding a New Yorker editor for a comma that had been inserted without his permission. Three years after his death, despite Hollywood's best efforts, he remains in complete control of his legacy.
Salinger is now showing.