'Salinger' book, film: A new page in author's story
05:00 AM, Aug 18, 2013
For the first two years that he pursued a film and book biography of J.D. Salinger, Shane Salerno could measure progress by how quickly someone slammed the door in his face.
It typically happened the moment he said the word “Salinger” to friends of the notoriously press-shy author.
“They loved him and wanted to protect him,” Salerno says. “Usually, they slammed before I got to my last name. But over time, I was able to say my whole name before they said no.”
After nine years of coaxing and digging, though, Salerno managed more than 100 interviews with Salinger’s friends, war buddies and zealous fans, all of whom form the fulcrum of Salinger, a biography and accompanying documentary about the author of The Catcher in the Rye. The book hits shelves Sept. 3, followed three days later by the film.
For both, Salerno uncovered correspondence and more than 170 photos, including one provided to USA TODAY, that have never been made public. Taken together, Salerno says, they paint a man far less reclusive and anti-social than Salinger’s reputation.
“He traveled the world and had long-term friendships and relationships,” says Salerno, who directed the film and co-wrote the book (with David Shields). “Even without the writing, he was a compelling figure forever changed by the war.”
The photo provided to USA TODAY, Salerno says, is the first public shot of Salinger from World War II, when he served as a counterintelligence officer in the Army and took part in the Normandy invasion and Battle of the Bulge. During his military tour, Salinger would meet war correspondent Ernest Hemingway, visit freed concentration camps and spend several weeks in a mental hospital after the war.
“He thought the war was going to be a romantic experience that all writers needed,” Salerno says. “But it had a profound effect and changed the way he wrote.”
The war picture, taken after the campaign on Utah Beach, shows a mustached Salinger also a first in photos with his counterintelligence buddies from the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. The men, who would remain friends and correspondents for decades, called themselves “The Four Musketeers.”
Salerno says he discovered war journals by the men, who are all dead and whom he declined to identify until the book is published. The journals referred often to Salinger, known to them as “Jerry” (he was born Jerome David Salinger).”They’d have to pull over on the side of the road so Salinger could write down an idea for a story,” Salerno says. “Or it would say, ‘Jerry lost his watch again. We’ll have to get $3.’ “
Salinger, who died in 2010 at age 91, was notoriously press-leery. He once refused to let Time magazine photographers take a picture to put him on the cover, forcing them to use a drawing. Salinger’s friends, Salerno says, were reluctant to speak. But when the author died, “the floodgates kind of opened. People had great stories about him, but they never wanted to disappoint him while he was alive.”
The book and film feature interviews with several stars who love Salinger, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ed Norton. “Ed knew more about Salinger than most of the professors we met.”
Salerno says he knows Salinger may have raised an eyebrow at the idea of a book and movie. “He might have been annoyed. But hopefully he would appreciate that we spent nine years to get it right.”