Shane Salerno Talks About Chasing the Elusive J.D. Salinger
Millions know J.D. Salinger's work -- after all, his 50+-year-old Catcher in the Rye still regularly appears on bestsellers lists and is the topic of countless teenage discussions in and out of the classroom. But it is his personal life that has always been more than a little mysterious.
A supposed recluse -- Salinger "disappeared" to a small town in New Hampshire at the height of his fame -- he never published after 1965. And while there were sightings of and occasional sound bites from him -- not to mention several biographies, tell-alls and who knows how many blogs -- only bits and pieces of his life have been revealed.
In his brand new movie and book, Salinger, screenwriter Shane Salerno and author David Shields pulled all those bits, and many others, together into a fascinating oral history that even those who wouldn't know a Franny from a Zooey will love. Salerno spoke with me about how and why he took on this 9+ year project.
J.D. Salinger in a never-before-seen photo with his dog, Benny.
Credit: Paul Fitzgerald/The Story Factory
Sara Nelson: Are you one of those Salinger nuts, obsessed since childhood with everything about him?
Shane Salerno: My mom always talked about Salinger when I was growing up in Washington, DC and San Diego. We always shared a great love of books, and do to this day. But the thing about Salinger, she would say, is that it is half about the work and half about the mystique. I mean, he wouldn't allow himself to be photographed for TIME magazine! It was just all very interesting... and then when I started to read the work, I was taken with Catcher in the Rye, and fell head first for the Glass family [characters from Franny and Zooey]. So, I was a passionate fan, but knew very little about his life.
Then when I started to find out about his life... when I found out that J.D. Salinger landed [as a soldier] on D-Day, it blew my mind. When I found out that the love of J.D. Salinger's life dumped him for Charlie Chaplin on her eighteenth birthday (or shortly thereafter), it blew my mind. I had to make this movie and write this book. They had me at hello. To show you how naïve I was, I thought this project would take six months and cost $300,000. It cost more than $2 million and consumed nine and a half years of my life. I really got hooked.
SN: There has been a lot of material floating around, in books and elsewhere, about Salinger's life: there are several biographies, many articles; his daughter Margaret wrote a book, his one-time girlfriend Joyce Maynard has written about him, etc. But you managed to pull together all the pieces and add some new ones. How and why did people who'd never spoken talk to you?
SS: I read what had been written about Salinger and I was troubled by how little was written by people who directly knew Salinger. So the same stories were repeated over and over again. It wasn't like the [Salinger] family said "Here's the closet, and good luck with your book." It was like a detective story: I spent years researching and calling people and one thing led to another.
[When I found Salinger's war buddy, Paul Fitzgerald] he was sitting on this extraordinary treasure trove of pictures and diaries. We were also the first people to get Salinger's military records: first they told me they were lost in a fire, then they were lost in a flood. Finally, we threatened to sue them under the Freedom of Information Act. One thing we found from those files was that in 1946, Salinger listed his occupation as "Playwright, author." In the middle of a brutal battle that others have described as "so awful that soldiers wanted to climb inside their helmets" Salinger was writing letters and poetry to the New Yorker.
SN: One of the relationships you turn up in the book is with a 14 year old girl named Jean Miller...
SS: Jean Miller had never told her story for 60 years. She had a relationship with Salinger that was 5 times longer than his relationship with Joyce Maynard. She was 14, he was 30. And the details! She had 100 letters from Salinger. She was with him in the two years prior to the publication of Catcher in the Rye and two years after. She stayed with him in Cornish.
SN: You suggest that his relationship with Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona, when she was a teenager and he was in his early 20s, was the most important romantic relationship in his whole life...
SS: What's fascinating is that Oona did imprint him with the moment in time -- the cusp between being a girl and being a woman -- that absolutely fascinated him and became the prototype. Every woman after her was judged by her. By the time he met Joyce Maynard, he was exactly the same age as Charlie Chaplin was when he married [18-year-old] Oona. There were patterns with women that would repeat themselves. I'd interviewed Joyce Maynard for 18 hours over two days. Several years later, I interviewed Jean. The seduction ritual [they described] was identical. It had not changed from 1949 to 1972. Both of them were courted through letters, made to feel they were the most important person in the world; both said they'd danced with him to Lawrence Welk. There was a pattern in his life with friends. He had really intense relationships for three, four or five years and then blew that person completely out of his life.
SN: It has long been rumored that Salinger was continuing to write, even though he wasn't publishing. You say in the book that there are at least two manuscripts ready for publication and will begin appearing between 2015 and 2020. How do you know that?
SS: All I can say is that I have two sources who are highly credible individuals, each of whom have seen the relevant documents. They are completely independent and have never spoken to each other. This is supported by details from nine or 10 separate witnesses who saw the work or were told about it, including his daughter, who said that the second time she was allowed into [his bunker office] he showed her manuscripts and said a red dot meant this was ready to go, and a green dot meant needs editing.
We found an article in Scotland in which Salinger alluded to a new manuscript and said "The Glass family has been getting older, just like you and I." I don't think there was any question that he was going to publish. But his religious beliefs [Vedantic Hinduism, to which Salinger was dedicated for the last half of his life] said "You don't publish for your ego. Writing is OK, publishing after death is probably OK."
SN: How did you meet up with David Shields?
SS: When I was starting on the movie, I interviewed David based on a letter he wrote in a book called Letters to J.D. Salinger. It was clear how much he knew Salinger's work. So, I asked him to stay around and we sat down and started talking about Salinger and it was suddenly one in the morning. I knew I had to do a book, because there was no way what I was finding would be containable in a two hour film. I had been really impressed by his writing. I'm a fan of Dead Languages and Remote, and I thought he understood Salinger deeply. Neither one of us had ever done a biography. I adore books, but I'd never written a book. David had never done an oral history. So we went on this journey together.
SN: How would you sum up the J.D. Salinger you discovered through these projects?
SS: There's a photo on the back of the book, taken at the liberation of Paris. Salinger is smiling; he looks like a movie star. I made the decision to put it on the book after months of thinking about it -- because he's not the Salinger we knew. After the war -- when he was the most damaged -- he was going to nightclubs and telling girls he was a goalie for the Montreal soccer team. He was really trying hard to acclimate himself into society. He was the ultimate iconoclast who wanted to belong.
I think that most people like a "clean story" and the "clean story" about Salinger has been around for decades. "Fame overwhelms him, he moves to New Hampshire and just wants to be alone." The problem with that story is it's not exactly true. What I think is that Salinger was a fascinating, deeply contradictory man. He said he hated fame, but when he wanted to, he called up [reporter] Lacey Fosburgh [then] at the New York Times. This is a guy who hated author photographs, but when he saw a photograph of Joyce Maynard on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, his hatred of author photographs went right out the window.
People say he hated the world, but he was also writing to friends about how much he loved the Whopper at Burger King.
Special thanks to Shane Salerno for supplying the images of Salinger with his dog Benny (Paul Fitzgerald/The Story Factory), after the Liberation of Paris, 1944 (Paul Fitzgerald/The Story Factory) and at home in his bedroom, 1968 (The Story Factory).