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Shane Salerno's decade-long obsession with J.D. Salinger

The film and book that have consumed the screenwriter's life since 2003 began with two photos. Along the way, there have been many revelations. Now he awaits the public's judgment.

September 05, 2013|By Nicole Sperling
  • Shane Salerno is a screenwriter, producer, director and author who has turned his obsession with J.D. Salinger into a book and film.
Shane Salerno is a screenwriter, producer, director and author who has… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

When Shane Salerno turned 40 last year, he decided it was finally time to let his obsession go.

The screenwriter, best known for his collaborations with Michael Bay ("Armageddon") and Oliver Stone ("Savages"), had toiled for close to a decade trying to document the mysterious life of J.D. Salinger. The author of the bestselling "The Catcher in the Rye" had stopped publishing in 1965 and retreated from the public spotlight, leaving fans to wonder why — and to guess about what he had been doing in the 45 years until his death in 2010.

Over the years, Salerno had discovered juicy details about the enigmatic author — a short-lived marriage to a Gestapo informant at the end of World War II; a long-term relationship with a teenage girl that became the inspiration for the short story "For Esmé — With Love and Squalor"; a previously unknown best friend with whom he had corresponded over five decades. But the biggest revelation of all? Two sources saying that Salinger had left behind five unpublished manuscripts to be released between 2015 and 2020.

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The plan was to pour all the research into an exhaustive biography co-written with David Shields and simultaneously release a two-hour film. But every time Salerno thought he had uncovered it all, new information would trickle in.

At last, he had reached his limit. "I turned 40 and I was done," recalled Salerno, sitting in his Brentwood office last week among the letters, photographs and documents that have consumed his life. "The film was sitting in my house as a finished master and I thought: 'This is ridiculous, enough.' On Dec. 3, I called my lawyer and I said, 'I want to do this now.'"

Nine months later, the result is a 698-page oral biography, "Salinger," published Tuesday, and a documentary of the same name that's arriving in theaters Friday after premiering last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Early reviews have described both works as engrossing as well as exasperating, and time will tell how deeply Salerno's passion project resonates with a wider audience.

"I always trusted that he had what he said he had," said Salerno's attorney, Robert Offer. "What I didn't trust was that anyone would care as much as they did."

Project's birth

The Salinger project began as a lark. Although the author's work and mystique loomed large in Salerno's household as a child (Salerno's mother loved "Franny & Zooey" while her son was partial to "A Perfect Day for Banana-Fish" and "Esme"), his quest started in 2003, when he was in a bookstore and found the cover of Paul Alexander's biography of Salinger which featured two incongruous photos of the author superimposed — a youthful cover portrait from "Catcher in the Rye" and a candid shot taken much later at the writer's home in Cornish, N.H. The images depicted a man young and old, optimistic and deflated.

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"I was so taken with that image that I spent 91/2 years trying to find out what happened," said Salerno, who originally thought he would spend $300,000 and six months investigating Salinger. He wound up using $2 million of his own money.

After a privileged New York upbringing, military school as a teen and a brief stint in college, Salinger was struggling as a writer when World War II broke out. He entered the Army and was sent to Europe; Salerno said it was Salinger's trajectory during and after the war that kept him in the hunt for so long.

"The moment I said, 'No matter what it takes, I'm going to finish the film,' was when I learned that he went into a concentration camp [at the end of the war], went to a mental institution as a result and did what no other person on the planet would do: He signed up for more," Salerno said. "He joined the de-Nazification program and decided to go hunt these guys down. The minute I heard that, I was there."

Salerno made trips to Germany, Chile and many places on the East Coast, trying to piece together Salinger's back story. He says that although certain members of the author's family initially cooperated with his quest, they ultimately didn't participate in formal interviews. But Salerno, Shields and his crew, which included cinematographer Buddy Squires ("The Central Park Five"), were propelled by gets, such as a photograph of Salinger in his bedroom or a trove of letters that Salinger exchanged with author Joyce Maynard.

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At times, Salerno seems to adopt a Salingeresque secrecy about his own work; ask him, for example, whether he's seen any of the actual manuscripts he says are awaiting publication and he refuses to answer. And he says he never sought to interview the man directly. Yet Salerno is happy to wax on about what he sees as the significance of the book and film.

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