It was a beautiful afternoon in August 1994 and I had driven up from New York City to Cornish, New Hampshire, where J.D. Salinger lived. I was the latest in the army of fans, among the millions of people who had read The Catcher in the Rye since its publication in 1951, to travel to Cornish in hopes of catching a glimpse of Salinger, now in his fourth decade of being the literary world’s Greta Garbo — famous for not wanting to be famous.
Some fans who made the journey got more than a glimpse of the reclusive writer. On a street in nearby Windsor, Vermont, Betty Eppes, a reporter from New Orleans, had a strained yet extended conversation with Salinger, which she secretly tape-recorded. Her account of the interlude appeared in The Paris Review. Michael Clarkson, a “super” fan, was bold enough to approach Salinger at his home. The description of their strange encounter ended up in The Niagara Falls Review.
On that trip in 1994, I was not lucky enough to interact with Salinger, but I did manage a sighting of him as he drove out of his driveway in his car, heading into town. I had been studying Salinger’s life and career for years, but that passing moment triggered six years of research and writing that culminated in my book Salinger, published in 1999. I was apprehensive about writing the book, since Salinger’s colossal effort to block the publication of A Writer’s Life by Ian Hamilton was legendary in literary and legal circles.
My book was announced, but there were no legal maneuvers from Salinger. The book appeared — still nothing from Salinger, not even a threatening letter from his lawyer. Finally, I spoke to one of my confidential sources, who was so close to Salinger I suspected he cleared with him each time he talked to me. Why no legal fireworks? “He likes your book, Paul,” the source said. This seemed odd, since in my book’s opening pages I provided, for all those fans like myself who wanted to make the pilgrimage to Cornish, a detailed set of instructions on how to drive to Salinger’s home.
After the initial publicity surrounding its publication, Salinger sold steadily through the years, largely to Salinger fans. Then, five years after it was published, I received an unsolicited email. It was short and to the point: “I just read your excellent biography of J.D. Salinger. Please call me.” A number was provided. The email was signed “Shane Salerno.” Researching him, I discovered he was an A-list Hollywood screenwriter whose credits included commercial hits like Armageddon and Shaft. As a writer, I had never had a positive experience in Hollywood, where meetings often end with all parties agreeing to do a deal yet no deal ever materializes. Still, there was something intriguing about the email’s pithiness. I picked up the phone and called.
Any writer enjoys hearing his work praised, but Shane was especially effusive. He had bought a used copy of my book at a bookstore because he loves books; he had a 5,000-book library, he said, in his home in Los Angeles. He started reading my book and couldn’t put it down. He finished it in one day. He was so moved by the way I told the story of Salinger’s life he wanted to turn my book into a feature-length documentary.
Here was the kicker. Shane wanted to keep the project top secret, since Salinger was alive — and litigious. A documentary, even one based on a book he liked, would be too much for him to bear. To ensure absolute secrecy, Shane was going to finance the film himself. In Hollywood, no one — I repeat no one — finances his own movie. The fact that Shane was willing to start writing checks convinced me he was serious. I worked out a deal with him and sold him the film rights to my book.
Before long, Shane started work on the film. I was happy to provide introductions to the sources I used for my book — Tom Wolfe, Leila Hadley, among others — and Shane interviewed any who was willing to talk on camera. But then Shane didn’t stop. He kept interviewing people — from writers like E.L. Doctorow and Gore Vidal to film stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen. One year faded into the next. An initial budget of several hundred thousand dollars ballooned into $1 million, then $2 million, then more. I can only imagine the backbreaking work Shane put in as he wrote and produced other projects — Oliver Stone’s film Savages was just one — to keep the cash flowing to finance Salinger.
So many years passed I decided Shane had turned into a character like the one played by Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys — the novelist who could never finish his novel. Then I saw a rough cut of what Shane was doing. I was stunned. He was trying to make a documentary like none before it. If he could pull this off, he would have something extraordinary.
On Tuesday night, a decade after I received the unsolicited email, I saw the premiere of Salinger in New York. Cinematically engrossing and emotionally gripping, the film paints a complete portrait of the man and the artist. It is difficult enough to bring a person to life on film, but it is especially hard when that person has tried to destroy any biographical trail of himself. Yet there it all was — photographs, artifacts of his life, reminiscences by friends and lovers. And for any fan of Salinger, the film’s ending will leave you breathless.
What was especially affecting for me was seeing my book on the screen. Watching the footage of the roads in and around Cornish, I remembered driving those roads myself so many times in the past — the roads Salinger himself had driven. Friends of his I interviewed — like Ethel Nelson, who helped with his children when they were young — were hauntingly emotional as they remembered Salinger. Episode after episode from his life, so vivid in my mind when I wrote them, played out live before me, fully realized on film.
But, most importantly, the film echoes my book’s tone of fascination and reverence. I tried to delve as much as I could into Salinger’s life and work, but I was always mindful that I was writing about a seminal American author who had produced one of literature’s most enduring novels. I could be curious but I had to be respectful. The film strikes a similar tone, which is why it is so profoundly moving. A masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, Salinger is an effort worthy of its subject.