The reclusive 'Catcher in the Rye' author didn’t exactly hate movies or the biz, but he didn’t much like collaboration
(UPDATE: The original version of this article contained a reproduction of the letter cited in the third paragraph below. Due to an unforeseen legal complication, it has been removed and consequently, the paragraph has been slightly modified.)
“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”
When Holden Caulfield makes that declaration on the second page of “The Catcher in the Rye,” most readers assume he was channeling his creator, author J.D. Salinger. But as Shane Salerno, director of the new “Salinger” documentary, discovered over 10 years of research, Salinger’s relationship to Hollywood, especially the movies, wasn’t so dour.
In a never-before published letter written by Salinger, the reclusive author repudiates the widely held belief that he disliked all film. It turns out Salinger communicated cordially with several Hollywood producers during the peak of his career. Contrary to industry lore, the writer was also open to translating a few of his short stories to the bigscreen well after he published his magnum opus, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
“The myth that he hated Hollywood and the movies is not true at all,” Salerno says. “He loved movies.” Salinger’s favorite picture was Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon,” and his living room in Cornish, N.H., was a film aficionado’s den, with a projector and fresh popcorn, which he used to entertain his young amours. His son, Matt Salinger, is a stage and screen actor.
Salinger’s initial rift with the silver screen occurred in 1949, before his career really exploded. He was devastated when indie producer Samuel Goldwyn adapted his New Yorker story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” leaving most of his ideas on the cutting room floor in “My Foolish Heart.” The movie opened to scathing reviews. As legend goes, every time Hollywood called after that, Salinger wouldn’t pick up the phone.
This became a source of particular frustration after “The Catcher in the Rye” was published in 1951, and everybody from Billy Wilder to Jerry Lewis (and later, Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein) wanted dibs on the film rights.
But Salerno makes the argument that Salinger’s animosity toward Hollywood never went that deep. The documentary’s companion book, which Salerno co-wrote with David Shields, includes a previously untold business deal that Salinger struck with the late TV producer Peter Tewksbury, who worked on “My Three Sons.” One snowy night in the early ’60s, Tewksbury traveled to Cornish with his wife, Cielle (who recounted the story to Salerno), hunting for the rights to the popular Salinger story “For Esme — With Love and Squalor.”
Salinger invited them into his house and the two men hit it off. Salinger told Tewksbury he could make the movie, but he wanted script approval. Tewksbury later sent Salinger a number of drafts, which Salinger always returned with notes that guided the screenplay back to his original text. An exasperated Tewksbury fi nally decided: “OK, we will just fi lm this exactly as he wrote it, because if we don’t, we won’t be doing this.”
The other stipulation that Salinger had set was that he would cast the young girl in the film. He wanted the daughter of his New Yorker writer pal Peter De Vries to play Esme. But after Tewksbury met with her, he realized she wasn’t right. He called Salinger with the disappointing news: “I really wish that I didn’t have to say this, but I do: She is too old. So there will be no film.”
Salerno also uncovered a 1957 letter from producer Jerry Wald to Salinger’s agent H.N. Swanson, who had evidently pitched another one of his client’s short works, “The Laughing Man,” as a movie idea. Wald wrote back to the legendary agent that he didn’t think there was enough narrative to adapt the story. But, he added, “Will you please convey to Mr. Salinger that I am still interested in his brilliant ‘Catcher in the Rye.’”
Salinger once reportedly said the only person who could play Holden was Salinger. Even though he’d had a reputation for shunning Hollywood, he always seemed to leave the door open just a crack. Salerno believes the real issue for Salinger was the collaborative nature of film. “I think he would have had a problem with casting or music or set design or any number of areas,” Salerno says. “I just don’t think that it would have fulfilled his wishes to the degree that he wanted.”
On Dec. 14, 1967, Danish filmmaker Henning Carlsen wrote Salinger with yet another request for “The Catcher in the Rye.” Salinger wrote back on Dec. 23, going out of his way to clarify that he really didn’t have any beef with Hollywood (see accompanying letter). “It’s interesting the pains to which he goes to clear up this misconception about himself,” Salerno says. But he refused to sell the rights, explaining, as only he could, “The only theater I want to write for is the little marvellous one inside the individual reader’s mind.”
Carlsen wrote back, pleading for Salinger to at least watch his 1966 film “Hunger” before making a decision. Salinger responded with a curt reply, dated Jan. 10, 1968. “I’m afraid I can only tell you that my decision not to have any of my fiction staged or filmed is quite final.” He never wavered after that, and no amount of money would change his mind. “Goddam money,” Caulfield says in “Catcher in the Rye,” expressing his disdain of materialism. “It always ends up making you blue as hell.”