‘Salinger’ a revealing portrait of elusive author

J.D. Salinger, author of ‘Catcher in The Rye’ is profiled in the new film, ‘Salinger.’   

By Cate Marquis Special to the Jewish Light

J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” is a perennial on high school reading lists. Salinger became one of the country’s most famous authors following the publication of that novel about teenager Holden Caulfield in the years after World War II. Yet the author became increasingly elusive and secretive as the book’s fame grew, eventually ceasing to publish and dropping from public view. 

“Salinger” is a documentary about this famous yet mysterious author. Director Shane Salerno worked on his film over 10 years, working in his own kind of secrecy to avoid drawing attention from its aggressively private subject. When Salinger died in 2010 at 90, this barrier dropped.

Born in New York to a wealthy Jewish family, Salinger’s father was the son of a rabbi who had instead gone into the food import business. According to some sources, Salinger discovered after his bar mitzvah that his mother, whom his family called Miriam, wasn’t actually Jewish but merely passing to appease his father’s family. According to the documentary, Salinger’s Jewish upbringing and self-identity played a central role in his experiences in WWII, where he was one of the American soldiers who liberated the Nazi death camps

According to the documentary “Salinger,” that experience haunted the author to the end of his life and was one of the central influences of his work. One of the many revelations of the film is that Salinger continued to write unpublished works and that some of those books deal with his war experience, and are to be published in coming years.

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Among the other information about the author the documentary reveals is his romantic involvement with a 16-year-old Oona O’Neil, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil and later the wife of Charlie Chaplin, a relationship that played a pivotal role in Salinger’s life. Another focuses on Salinger’s meeting with Ernest Hemingway in Paris at the vend of the war.

Interviews with famous people who knew him dot the film. Talking about Salinger’s influence on their lives are celebrities and authors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, John Guare, Martin Sheen, David Milch, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal and Pulitzer Prize winners A. Scott Berg and Elizabeth Frank. Footage of others who knew Salinger, such as his estranged daughter, paint a portrait of strikingly different men, as if they were describing different people.

The documentary is a fascinating film about an elusive subject, though the story often moves at slow pace. Of course, making a film about an author of whom there are few photos and almost no film footage is a difficult task. Yet despite Salinger maintaining his privacy so aggressively, the documentary manages to bring out a number of startling bits of information that shed light on the author’s work and his motives for secrecy. As the film reveals, Salinger was not the hermit he is sometimes painted as, but a publicity-shy person who became very good at evading journalists.

 “Salinger” is worth a look for the intriguingly complex person at its center and for the insights it offers on the author’s work and reasons for withdrawal from public life.