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Salinger Documentary by Shane Salerno, a Revealing Homerun

01/23/2014 02:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

Shane Salerno succeeds in solving the riddle of J.D. Salinger's reclusive behavior. Salinger chose to be a recluse when it suited his needs. Folks interviewed during Salerno's documentary said he detested phonies, yet he was a bit of one himself. An oxymoron. Sometimes a lovable oxymoron. Sometimes a spiteful oxymoron. Paul Alexander, author of Salinger ('99) interviewed in the film, said: "A true recluse would never call a reporter for The New York Times." There are examples of how Salinger worked the press and ended up on the front page of The New York Times because he knew how to schmooze when it was convenient for him.

Salinger wrote many, many letters to young women whom he barely knew, and one of these was the enchanting Joyce Maynard. While his second wife, Claire Douglas, left him because he chose to isolate in a bunker-like studio in the pines of Cornish, N.H., Salinger wrote Maynard when he saw her on the cover of the New York Time's magazine section. Maynard was hardly press shy when the so-called press shy Salinger wrote to her. Their love affair ended when she wanted children and he cringed at the thought. He had a gorgeous daughter, Margaret, with his second wife, yet he abandoned his duties as a father for solitude in his bunker in the pines to write.

Salerno catches the hypocrisies in Salinger while loving him at the same time. Edward Norton, John Cusack, Martin Sheen, Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, J.Scott Berg, and A.E. Hotchner -- who ends up being sympathetic while tearfully not accepting responsibility for Salinger's ending their friendship over feelings of betrayal when according to Hotchner's own words, A.E. betrayed him -- are some of the stars in the fascinating biopic.

The film begins with Salinger in love with Oona O'Neill, Eugene O'Neill's. But war called the well bred, blue blood boy, and he abandoned Oona, who fled to Hollywood where she married Charlie Chaplin.

As with Vonnegut and Mailer, WWII gave Salinger grist for his pen, and he worked on six chapters of Catcher in the Rye while bombs blasted away. Finally, after the war, he published his first story and became the darling of The New Yorker and of New York. Catcher in the Rye was finally published by Little Brown and in a PR dinner celebrated by the literati, a much fawned over Salinger excused himself from the table for a cigarette and never returned to the table or to N.Y. Loathing the pretense of publishing, he moved to Cornish.

At first his privacy was challenged by a high school girl who interviewed him then betrayed him by publishing it nationally. Throughout his life, Salinger sought women much younger, as young as 14, and with all of his games about wanting privacy, his love of control came out in his desire for very, very young women. The less experience a woman had, the more he could fill in the dots and play Svengali. His identity was threatened by a strong woman, which Maynard, who had published nine books had become.

Salinger's stories and books are flashed on screen to correspond to the events in his life to explain the factors addressed within. While this is a Herculean task, Salerno does this with aplomb, and has a clear through-line that could easily have been a muddled mess.

After a love affair with Norman Mailer, who said about Salinger, "I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school," I was most drawn to the women in Salinger's life and the respect he gave or denied them. His first wife, Sylvia Welter, was a Nazi whom he divorced one week after returning home from the war. His third wife, Colleen O'Neill, was an au pair who lived with him for thirty years. An au pair knows how to care for children and when to be subservient. Salinger appreciated these qualities. Whatever. Jerry's books live on and what mattered to him most was not the publishing but the writing.

Thanks to Salerno, Salinger, as Mailer used to say, remains an inspiration to writers -- warts and all. And while he also inspired Chapman to murder John Lennon, Hinkley to attempt to murder Ronald Reagan and Robert Bardo to murder Rebecca Schaeffer, he also inspired a multitude of unknown writers, one of whom drove four hundred and fifty miles to see the Howard Hughes of Literature. When this Average Joe had the good fortune of meeting him, Salinger said, "You need a psychiatrist," then, in effect, said for him to go home and write.

After 45 years writing in isolation, J.D.Salinger died at age of 91 in 2010. What he was creating in secret will be published in 2015, to the joy of all the Salinger stalkers, die-hard fans and simply readers of good literature. This important documentary will be rebroadcast on PBS.