The biggest revelation in the new documentary Salinger is that The Catcher in the Rye author was not a recluse. Rather fame averse and a champion of innocence as his signature books show, he simply removed himself to a New Hampshire retreat and wrote more books without a plan for their publication. The second reveal, and more significant for book lovers: over the forty years he retreated from the public, he wrote books in a woodsy bunker, producing manuscripts that will now be published. Are they any good? No one in Salinger could say, but J.D. Salinger's literary reputation will change, and contrary to the midcentury notion held by many writers--that we should know an author only through the books he wrote-- the Salinger life story unfolds like a thriller. A literary Garbo, Salinger's presence in absence remains catnip for celebrity culture.
Writers write. Few live lives as compelling as Salinger's, as shown in the film opening theatrically this week, and in an altered form on PBS's American Masters in January. It would be unimaginable to write books in a foxhole, but Salinger, according to others with whom he survived combat in World War II, did. Deeply affected by the experience of seeing Dachau, he committed himself to a mental institution. Spurned by Oona O'Neill, post-war, he married a woman with a Nazi past, and had a fondness for women just past jailbait. In mostly platonic relationships, he talked to them, often referring to his fictional characters as real people. Aware of his place in the mainstream of American literature, he sought out Hemingway as Paris was liberated. Filmmaker Shane Salerno funded this 10 year labor of love with money made as an expert screenwriter. However coy, Salinger gives him this movie's final image: a man who lived his life the way he wanted, looking out of a car's passenger window, grinning.
On Tuesday night, the audience for the premiere at MoMA and the party at The Royalton Holel was strategically a who's who of writers and media elite: John Patrick Shanley, Susan Brownmiller, Amanda Foreman, Susan Cheever, Tina Brown and Harry Evans, Barbara Walters, Liev Schreiber, Stella Schnabel, Steve Kroft, and filmmakers, among them D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, and Paul Haggis. Erica Jong marveled at Salinger's manipulation of media. Harvey Weinstein exulted at being in a room with Elie Wiesel, and wondered if, in the huge body of Salinger's correspondence, a letter from him requesting to make a film of Catcher in the Rye was found.
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