Sneak Peek

‘Salinger,’ the Documentary on Reclusive Author J.D. Salinger, Premieres at Telluride

Director Shane Salerno, joined by Salinger's old flame Jean Miller, discusses the film at the Telluride Film Festival.

Weinstein Company

Salinger, the decade-in-the-making documentary on reclusive author J.D. Salinger—he of The Catcher in the Rye fame—has been buzzed about for quite some time. Just last week, news leaked that the film reveals five posthumous works by Salinger that are scheduled to be published between 2015 and 2020. And then, if things weren’t mysterious enough, the plane carrying the Salinger team crash-landed at Telluride airport (thankfully, everyone was fine).

Without further ado, here are the titles of Salinger’s unpublished works, as revealed in the documentary:

A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary

This book is based on Salinger’s time serving in the counterintelligence division when he interrogated prisoners of war during the final months of World War II.

A World War II Love Story

This book is based on Salinger’s brief marriage to Sylvia, a Nazi collaborator, just following World War II.

A Religious Manual

This book concerns Salinger’s adherence to Ramakrishna’s Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which he found later in life.

The Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family

This book contains five new short stories about his recurring character Seymour Glass.

“The Last and Best of the Peter Pans”

This short story was written by Salinger in 1962, and tells another tale from the perspective of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye.

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Shane Salerno’s documentary, which is a tad over two hours in length, is equal parts fascinating and exploitative, but one can’t deny the astounding level of comprehensiveness on display. The film opens with an ex-Newsweek photographer recounting how, in 1979, he was hired to snap a picture of the notoriously reclusive Salinger in his hometown of Cornish, New Hampshire—eventually capturing him leaving his local post office. It then jumps back in time, tracing Salinger’s upbringing as the child of a cheese merchant who grew up on Park Avenue and came from “country-club society,” as one talking head puts it, before being kicked out of numerous prep schools. Once someone asked him what J.D. stood for, and he famously told them, “juvenile delinquent.”

His parents enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy, where he began writing. But his first love was acting. When he signed his school yearbook, he signed not only his name, but the names of all the characters he portrayed in school plays. Salinger, it’s later noted, tended to treat everyone in his life, especially his revolving door of younger women, as characters whom he could, to a certain degree, manipulate to do his bidding.

Later his romance with Oona O’Neill, the debutante daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, is documented. After Salinger signed up for World War II, he’d brag to his Army friends about the relationship and send her letters daily—that is, until she stopped replying and began seeing Charlie Chaplin. This crushed Salinger, but also perhaps provided some creative inspiration, for it was during World War II that he wrote portions of The Catcher in the Rye, allegedly carrying six chapters of the novel on his person during D-Day to protect him.

The documentary shows a brief, never-before-seen clip of Salinger in the Army during August 1944. A woman gives the soldier a bouquet of flowers, and Salinger seems so touched, he removes his hat.

But WWII traumatized Salinger. In one letter to a friend he writes, “I dig my foxholes down to a cowardly depth.” After serving 299 days in the army, including participating in D-Day, V-J Day, and the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau, Salinger—oddly—married a woman named Sylvia, who is a former Nazi. They divorced soon after, and the documentary then chronicles his flings with numerous young women, including Jean Miller, who met Salinger when she was 14 at Daytona Beach. They spent quite a bit of time together, but the relationship didn’t get physical until he took her virginity one night at a hotel in Montreal. Afterwards, he left her.

Then there are the numerous rejections he received from The New Yorker, which initially refused to publish his short stories; then his successes there and the chaos surrounding the release of The Catcher in the Rye, which eventually sent him into seclusion. He still wrote until the day he died and, according to his brief fling Joyce Maynard, who was in attendance at this very screening, would write in a secluded hut called “the Bunker” and wear a canvas jumpsuit, like “a soldier going to war.”

Salinger is a thoroughly engrossing film that provides a full-bodied portrait of the man, the myth, the legend J.D. Salinger through brief reenactmentts, archival footage, and more than 150 interviews with lovers, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, super-fans, journalists, and modern-day admirers like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen. It is truly unbelievable how much research went into the making of this film, and it shows on screen. But Salinger is also a bit of a Catch-22, since you know that the late author, who passed away in 2010 at age 91, would have hated that this film was made.

In a Q&A following the screening moderated by famed documentarian Ken Burns, Salinger director Shane Salerno and his collaborators, including Salinger fling Jean Miller, spoke about the man behind the mystery.

On a strange correspondence with Salinger:

BURNS: “We had a correspondence that went on for some time that was distinguished by the fact that he would send me passages from Christian Science manuscripts of how to cure ailments.”

On how they documented someone so mysterious:

SALERNO: “Salinger was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life. It consumed 10 years. Having people speak for the first time was a huge challenge. It was a bit like All the President’s Men, where doors just slammed in your face for the first couple of years, but I was very grateful to finally have people come forward and share their stories. I felt that only the people that knew Salinger could really speak to how complex and contradictory he was, and people who had spent important time with him, people who had shared real experiences with him at different stages of his life. Salinger had an interesting pattern of having people in his life for three, four, five years, and during that time he would be completely focused on them, and then there always seemed to be a big blowout, and that person would be banished from his life for one reason or another. So convincing people to speak, who in some cases were really wounded for 30, 40, or 50 years, was very difficult. But to be fair, everyone said that at other times, he was a very warm and sweet man who was always known as Jerry—no one ever knew him as J.D.”

On feeling like an expendable muse:

MILLER: “Certainly, at the time, I didn’t feel expendable, but looking at this movie, I have to say, yeah, I suppose I was expendable. But the point is, everything about [Salinger] was warm, and kind, so another way you could look at it, from my point of view and my life, was what a privilege it was to have that time with him, even if it did have quite a dramatic end.”

On Salinger’s posttraumatic stress disorder following World War II:

SALERNO: “World War II really was the transformative trauma of J.D. Salinger’s life. It made him as an artist, but it broke him as a man. He was living with PTSD throughout his life. This is something that we believe in very strongly, and I placed a fellow veteran of his from the Fourth Division in the film talking about seeing bombs falling in his living room, because I do think that that is an area that is not associated with Salinger—that shell-shocked tone is directly from his experiences in WWII, and it really is the ghost in the machine of all his stories. When you reread the work with that in mind, you even realize that The Catcher in the Rye is a disguised war novel.”

On using re-creations to depict portions of Salinger’s life:

SALERNO: “The re-creations are something that we went back and forth on. There is so little material on Salinger; there are none of the traditional tools you have. There are no interviews, no audio recordings, very few pictures. The re-creations are probably a cumulative 7 minutes of a 2-hour and 4-minute film, but we felt they were really necessary to put you in that place—to have you experience a person—because there were just inherent limitations.”