It was about five years ago that I got a phone call from Paul Alexander, a biographer of several writers, including, most significantly, J.D. Salinger. I’d later come to understand that he called, rather than e-mailed, because the latter would have been too public and traceable. Anyway, Paul said that a Hollywood screenwriter named Shane Salerno was making a documentary about Salinger. Would I be willing to talk to him?
My connection was that I had written a history of The New Yorker, a magazine that was very important to Salinger throughout his career. His short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” created a sensation when The New Yorker published it in 1948, and the magazine provided the first look at all his subsequent notable short fiction, including “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Seymour: an Introduction,” all the way up to “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published in 1965 and the last work of Salinger’s to appear in print.
He was alive when I was working on the book in the late 1990s (he died in 2010), but his intense desire for privacy was so well-known that I didn’t even bother to contact him for an interview. I did come upon an extensive and quite revealing correspondence between Salinger and New Yorker editors. I had permission to quote from the editors’ letters, and did so liberally, but when it came to the other side of the correspondence I was wary. Salinger was as famous for being litigious as for being private, and he’d successfully taken his first biographer, Ian Hamilton, to court, forcing Hamilton to tear up his about-to-be-published book and remove not only all quotes from his letters but also all paraphrases of them.
In 1944, just before being sent overseas by the Army, Salinger had written a letter to a New Yorker editor, Wolcott Gibbs, in which he provided a comprehensive and cold-eyed analysis of the fiction the magazine had been publishing. That did not yet include any of Salinger’s work, and all the rejections apparently made him voluble. I was sorely tempted to quote the letter at length but realized that would be rash. However, I did paraphrase, and I did quote an irresistible phrase, Salinger’s plea that the magazine “play just a little fairer with the short story.” I also quoted, from his 1951 letter to another editor, a comment that he had started work on “the novel about the prep school boy”—The Catcher in the Rye, of course. I held my breath, and to my relief, no cease-and-desist orders emerged from Cornish, N.H.
After my conversation with Paul Alexander, I looked up Shane Salerno and learned that he was a young guy (born in 1972), who while still in his twenties had written episodes of the TV series New York Undercover and the screenplays for such films as Armegeddon and Shaft. When he called me not long after that, he explained that he had poured a good deal of his own money into the Salinger project, a labor of love. He said my participation was essential; without an interview of me, in fact, the film could never achieve its potential. I recognized that as flattering Hollywood malarkey, but one of the things about flattery is that it works even when the recipient recognizes it as flattery. I asked in a perfunctory way if he paid his talking heads, but even after he apologetically answered in the negative, I signed on.
There was one thing he had to stress even before we met: the need for total secrecy. He had already obtained astonishing revelations, he said, and it was essential that I not talk to anybody about this movie. I said that was fine with me.
A short time later, I took the Acela Express from Philadelphia to New York’s Penn Station. A limo was there to take me to the Soho Grand Hotel; Shane felt it was important not to shuttle in and out on the day of the interview, but to get a good night’s sleep and have a relaxing morning before it. I reported to an address in Soho, and ultimately found myself in an office suite that had become the movie’s New York headquarters. I think the first thing I did was sign a formal confidentiality agreement. Then Shane introduced me to the cinematographer, Buddy Squires, and explained that Buddy had done all of Ken Burns’s films and was absolutely the best in the business. Then I went into makeup, which I remember and mention only because the makeup person told me I had “good eyebrows.” Flattery will get you everywhere.
Shane and Buddy took a great deal of effort getting the shot just right, adjusting the camera and my chair so that the Edward Hopper-esque rooftops of the neighboring buildings could be seen through the window in the room. I had brought with me photocopies of the New Yorker correspondence, and quoted from it liberally in the interview, which Shane conducted in a skilled and rigorous manner. I figured the legal ramifications were his issue now.
On the way out, he handed me an envelope, as if he were an uncle and I a bar mitzvah boy. I opened it in the hallway, a bit like Ginnie pulling half a sandwich out of her pocket in the last scene of Salinger’s story “Just Before the War With the Eskimos.” All I can say is, we should all have such uncles.
The years passed. I would hear from Shane from time to time, usually after some leak about the film had been published somewhere, and always with a caution that the vow of silence was still in effect. To tell the truth, I was afraid that the film would be a counterpart to all the stuff Salinger had supposedly written after “Hapworth,” and never see the light of day. Then, in January 2011, he e-mailed me:
I wanted to let you know that SALINGER will be released in theaters at the end of this year along with an 800 page biography that I have co-written with David Shields (Reality Hunger, the Thing About Life Is That One Day You Will Be Dead).
In fact, the process dragged on a bit longer, but finally, this month, the book and film both came out; the latter will be shown on PBS’s American Masters in spring 2014. I can finally tell my story, and you have just read it.
As for the movie, I haven’t seen it yet, but I did note that when David Edelstein reviewed it for New York magazine, he said, “Some of the talking heads—among them Gore Vidal, Ben Yagoda, Michael Silverblatt, Phoebe Hoban, and various Salinger biographers—talk well.”
I was surprised he didn’t mention my eyebrows.
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