Sunday, January 19, 2014

Legacy of a Literary Recluse: Salinger, The Movie

J.D. Salinger

“I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody,” Jerome David Salinger wrote in Franny and Zooey. “I'm sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” That statement certainly seems emblematic of his struggle with the overwhelming success that followed publication of The Catcher in the Rye in mid-July 1951. Less than two years later, J. D. Salinger fled the instant celebrity status imposed on him in Manhattan for rural Cornish, New Hampshire. But, over the decades, fervent fans would stake out his remote hilltop home in hopes of meeting the increasingly iconic wordsmith.

One such determined admirer is Michael Clarkson, who drove 450 miles from Ontario to Cornish in 1978 and again in 1979. He’s a talking head in Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno, also the coauthor with David Shields of a similarly titled 698-page biography. After its Toronto International Film Festival premiere last year and a subsequent theatrical release, the fascinating but frustrating documentary will be broadcast Tuesday night (January 21) on the PBS American Masters series.

Clarkson was hoping that his idol might help him figure out “deep things,” but the stalking ended with a terse suggestion from Salinger that the Canadian zealot seek psychiatric help. The obsessive behavior of many Catcher in the Rye enthusiasts indeed sounds like a disorder. The deranged guy who killed John Lennon may be an extreme example, with Salerno’s painstaking nine-year effort to create a cinematic portrait of the writer a less lethal attachment.

During that period, Salinger died in 2010 at age 91, having fought to preserve his privacy for the better part of six decades. The film takes note of this struggle but brushes it aside to chronicle a remarkable saga: The New York City native, born to a mother of Scottish descent and kosher cheese entrepreneur father, initially was a disaffected student. Think Holden Caulfield. In 1939, a Columbia University professor inspired Salinger, who had dropped out of another college after one semester but was then enrolled in an evening class. The New Yorker magazine began accepting his short stories two years later. The U.S. Army sidetracked this fledgling career by drafting him in 1942.

Salinger, while serving in the U.S. Army during WWII

The documentary unearths several still photos of Salinger in uniform, even one in which he’s seen apparently working on early chapters of Catcher in the Rye along a European roadside. There’s also a brief snippet of silent footage that shows grateful French citizens giving him flowers after the liberation of Paris. But he must have been in pain then, having endured so much combat and witnessing the horrors at a concentration camp. In 1945, the soldier spent two weeks in a Nuremberg hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown. Despite the misery wrought by the Third Reich, Salinger wed a German woman who had been a member of the Nazi Party. This madness could have been a result of his PTSD. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when he introduced her to his rabbi grandfather.) At any rate, the marriage lasted only eight months.

California-based filmmaker Shane Salerno  among the credited screenwriters of Armageddon (1998)  theorizes that Salinger’s wartime travails were his defining experiences, and why wouldn’t they be? In his 1948 short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the fictitious Seymour Glass (older brother of Franny and Zooey) is a troubled veteran who commits suicide following a cryptic conversation with a three-year-old girl he has met on a Florida beach. But Salerno’s approach is anything but subtle. He recruited an unnecessary laundry list of luminaries, including Edward Norton, Judd Apatow and Danny DeVito. They share their observations about Salinger, a man who loved watching make-believe movies but no doubt would have detested the Hollywoodization of his own profile.

Fast forward to the remote New Hampshire town with few amenities where the real-life damaged soul exiled himself from a too-adoring public. Salinger, then 32, nonetheless sought a measure of civilization in nearby Windsor, Vermont. On a daily basis, he drove or walked across the covered bridge linking the two states to buy The New York Times, pick up his mail at the post office and eat at restaurants like Nap’s Lunch  where he socialized with local teenagers. Some of them offer their reminiscences in the film and the biography.

Salinger’s proclivity for younger women might have been a typical male bias. Perhaps it also was a way of trying to reclaim his own innocence, lost in the throes of battle. In the opinion of Windsor resident Joyce Burrington Pierce, “Jerry was not a predator.” During my interview with her in November, she said he had seemed like a mentor who wanted to know to what life was like for the high school crowd. They were treated as equals. Salinger’s Jeep transported them to ball games and square dances. He invited some to the Cornish house to seek mystical messages from a Ouija Board and listen to his extensive record collection of jazz, classical and Broadway shows. His sophistication surely came across as exotic. It certainly dazzled Pierce, who thought of Salinger as “the most handsome man I’d even seen in my life, with chocolate brown eyes that just melted you. He was completely charming. That appealed to a little dumpling like me.”

Salinger introduced Pierce to the music of Billie Holiday, recommended books to read and encouraged her to become more self-confident. They often went to the movies together. When Lili opened at Windsor’s only cinema in 1953, the two were particularly entranced by the musical about a 16-year-old girl’s improbable romance with an anti-social carnival puppeteer injured in World War II. “Jerry had a terrible crush on Leslie Caron,” Pierce recalled, referring to the gamine-like French actress in the title role. “I thought (costar) Mel Ferrer was pretty nice. We saw the movie more than once and knew the dialogue by heart.” When many of her classmates were planning for college, Pierce couldn’t afford any further educational opportunities. She was adrift. “I really felt lost but Jerry’s kindness saved me,” she acknowledged. “I think maybe he was Holden Caulfield and I was one of the kids he caught in the rye.”

Salinger stopped hanging out with the teens thanks to a betrayal. A girl who ostensibly interviewed him for the school newspaper instead sold the piece to a New Hampshire daily. But soon there was another reason for the change in his routine: In 1955, he married a woman named Claire Douglas and they had two children. Writing became more and more of a daily ritual, though publishing was no longer his goal after 1965. Salerno contends that Salinger’s myriad spiritual beliefs  Buddhism and beyond  were the foundation of this decision. He was determined not to “make a splash,” never again to give voice to his own ego. That pattern held fast before and after his 1967 divorce, throughout his other dalliances and the 22 years in which he enjoyed a peaceable bucolic existence with his third wife, Colleen O’Neill. (I love the image of them going to the nearby Vermont hamlet of Hartland every Saturday evening in winter for the $12 roast beef suppers served at the First Congregational Church basement.)

The clumsiest moment in the documentary is when big, bold letters appear on the screen announcing that five additional Salinger books will be released between 2015 and 2020, including one that revisits Holden Caulfield. Salerno’s sources for this information remain anonymous. True or not, the claim is evidence of the film’s tendency to veer into sensationalism, gathering a wealth of material only to stitch it together crudely. So, who knows? Would a scribe who guarded his secrets for half a century allow the world in by not signing an ironclad last will and testament?

Salinger picking up his mail in Windsor, VT
Dr. Beach Conger, Salinger’s personal physician in Windsor and the man who pronounced him dead on January 27 in 2010, told me he’s highly doubtful more books are forthcoming. Asked if Salinger had been aware of his impending death, Conger nodded. “I think that, as he grew older, Jerry accepted his physical limitations. His hearing was long-gone. He could still talk, of course, but I had to communicate with him by writing.” Those communications, however, were enlightening for Conger. “Jerry was an impressive person,” he said. “A real egalitarian. He didn’t put up with any nonsense, even from his doctor. His expectation was, ‘Your job is not to tell me what to do. Your job is to give me your opinion and I’ll decide what to do.’”

Conger, for one, is certain Salinger had decided not to do any posthumous publishing of his work. The idea of mortality may not have freed him from the fear of egotism. As Holden Caulfield says, “If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good any more.” Better to die good.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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