LOS ANGELES – Shane Salerno’s phone never stops ringing.
Known until now as a screenwriter for “Armageddon” and “Savages,” working by day on a sequel to “Avatar,” he has taken on a surprising and news-making identity: the latest, and, apparently, greatest seeker of clues about J.D. Salinger.
Salerno is finally opening up about a private quest he worked on for a decade, spending $2 million of his own money. Stating that he has found more than even he had imagined, including what the author might have written over the last half century of his life, Salerno is presenting his case in “Salinger,” a unique, three-way project: a 700-page book, co-authored with David Shields; a theatrical release distributed by the Weinstein Co.; and a TV documentary that will air on PBS in January as the 200th installment of “American Masters.”
Earnest and energetic with sharp, narrow blue eyes and dark, brushed-back hair that could qualify him as an honorary Baldwin brother, the 40-year-old Salerno seems an unlikely candidate for breaking Salinger ground. He is not an experienced biographer, a trained academic or investigative journalist. He is, instead, a lifelong Salinger fan, a believer and a go-getter who has often succeeded simply by refusing to quit.
“When I get something in my head, I go after it with extreme passion, and I went after this for a decade with extreme passion,” Salerno, who reportedly negotiated seven-figure deals for each edition of “Salinger,” said during a recent weekend interview.
Salerno has come as close as anyone to giving the public a peek into the safe in Cornish, N.H., where Salinger allegedly stashed his unreleased manuscripts. Citing two independent sources, he has alleged that several more Salinger books are on the way, including new material on Holden Caulfield and on the Glass family that Salinger featured in “Franny and Zooey” and other books. No one, so far, has disputed Salerno. Salinger’s longtime publisher, Little, Brown and Co., has declined comment. So has Salinger’s son, Matthew.
The results of his work can be found, in part, in a four-room office suite in Brentwood. There are rare editions of Salinger books, including a reviewer’s copy of “Franny and Zooey” that includes the critic’s handwritten notes (“Owes a lot to Faulkner,” reads one comment). He has a rejection slip The New Yorker sent to Salinger, informing him they were not interested in “The Catcher In the Rye.” He has folders marked “Personal Letters,” “Divorce Papers” and “The Vault/The Safe.”
Salerno interviewed hundreds of people and has amassed hundreds of documents, letters and photographs. For a time, he had an agreement with a Salinger family member – Salerno won’t say who – to cooperate on the project, but the deal fell through. But “Salinger,” the book and movie, still features notable new material:
• Photographs, letters and other materials from Salinger friend Paul Fitzgerald, whose close bond with the author lasted from World War II to 2010, the year Salinger died. (Paul Fitzgerald died just months later.) Fitzgerald’s son, John, said in an email that his father had always respected Salinger’s privacy, but that the family also believed it was time to “shed light” on misinformation. “After many lengthy conversations with Mr. Salerno, I knew that this would be the very vehicle to do so,” he said.
The great prize was a World War II snapshot so tiny that no one at first could make out what it contained. “He (John Fitzgerald) called up and he said, ‘I don’t know what it is. It looks like he’s at a table,”’ Salerno said. “I remember sending out my assistant to run out and buy a magnifying glass.”
There was indeed a table, with an open notebook or journal on top, in or near a forest. A mustachioed Salinger looks up with a warm but careful smile, a cigarette in hand. Salerno verified that the snapshot was the only known photo of Salinger working on “The Catcher in the Rye.” (A caption on the back reads: “The writer in our outfit, Jerry Salinger, taking time out to pose”).
• The end of a decades-long silence by a woman who, as a teen in the 1950s, formed an intense bond with Salinger and was a model for the title character in his story “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” Jean Miller spoke at length about their relationship and provided letters Salinger sent to her.
“I felt now I was in a position to tell my side of the story without, as Salinger was dead, betraying him,” Miller said in an email. “I trusted Shane to tell my story. He had worked on this for so many years. He had Salinger’s best interest at heart. He was not one of these parasites chasing down Salinger.”
• Unprecedented detail about his war years and brief, first marriage.
• The discovery, based on an interview with the widow of TV and movie director Peter Tewksbury, that Salinger strongly considered allowing Tewksbury to adapt “Esme” into a feature film.
Salerno was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1972, and was raised primarily by his mother as the family moved from Memphis to Washington, D.C. to San Diego. He went to the movies all the time – “theaters were kind of like a baby sitter” – and cites two films as fundamental – the blockbuster “The Empire Strikes Back” and a cult thriller, “Thief.”
“Basically, my career has lived in those two worlds,” he said.
By high school, he was serious enough about movies to make one himself, an anti-drug documentary, “Sundown,” that attracted national attention after Larry King aired it on CNN and interviewed the baby-faced filmmaker. Salerno was in such a hurry to get to Hollywood that he didn’t bother with college or even attend his high school graduation. Instead, he found work as an apprentice on the crew for “NYPD Blue” and by age 30 had worked on projects with Winslow, Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg.
The idea for the Salinger project came about a decade ago. Salerno was in a Burbank bookstore and picked up a copy of Paul Alexander’s 1999 biography, “Salinger.” Anxious to be his own boss, fascinated both by what he knew and didn’t know about Salinger, Salerno acquired film rights to Alexander’s book. His original plan: Make a narrative feature and get Daniel Day-Lewis to star.
“I thought Daniel Day-Lewis not only perfectly encapsulated Salinger, but when Daniel Day-Lewis is made up for events he can look strikingly like Salinger at certain angles,” Salerno said.
“But I knew that … he would want to know so much, there was so much research and diligence. So I really began preparing the research in order to prepare for a meeting that I hoped would happen with Daniel Day-Lewis. Then I did a couple of interviews (about Salinger) over the phone and interviews in person and it became clear to me that this was a documentary.”
The “Salinger” movie and book have a diverse, unpredictable cast. There are authors (Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe), biographers (Paul Alexander, A. Scott Berg), friends and former lovers, an unnamed man that former Salinger lover Joyce Maynard once dated and such film stars as John Cusack, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton. Salerno says he wasn’t trading in on Hollywood connections or simply trying to add brand names for box office appeal. The actors he chose were dedicated fans.
“My belief is that there are people that have pieces of this story, or perspectives on this story, that are valid without them being Harvard or Princeton professors of literature,” Salerno said.
“Ed Norton’s point of view on certain things can be looked at one or two ways. You can look at it as, ‘Ugh, some actor’s talking about J.D. Salinger.’ Or you can say, ‘You ever listen to that guy? He really has an extraordinary perspective on Salinger.”’
Salerno, like any top Hollywood writer, is an old hand at never asking for something just once. He was willing to work for years to get contributors. He remembers calling Berg so many times that the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, whose subjects have ranged from Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn to President Woodrow Wilson, lectured him on protocol: Be persistent, but don’t nag. Call every few weeks, not a few times a week.
“In my memory, I told him the story of a cat that once went under my house and how at first I kept trying to shout at it to get out,” said Berg, whose comments are used in both the film and the book. “And then I realized that I should just pour a dish of milk and place that a few feet from the house and leave the cat alone. I recall telling him to `Let the cats come to the dish, even if it takes days, months, or years.”’
Salerno didn’t get everyone he wanted. He wrote to director John Hughes, a Salinger obsessive whose “The Breakfast Club” was influenced by the author. But Hughes, a Salinger-like figure within Hollywood who left town in the 1990s, declined. John Updike also turned him down.
The book and film feature the famous and the infamous, like old TV footage of John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, who has often cited “Catcher” and its condemning of “phonies” as a reason he shot the ex-Beatle. Salerno even considered speaking with Chapman, currently an inmate at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, N.Y.
“We started to go down that road, and felt it was such a slippery slope,” he said.
Salerno doubts that the film and book will stand as final statements; the recent publicity has brought in a wave of new materials. Sorting through his papers, Salerno shows a Salinger letter from 1967 he just received in which the author disputes his image of being a man who dislikes movies. A tip Salerno learned of the other day could lead to “global news,” he says with characteristic enthusiasm.
“There are some surprises ahead,” he adds. “This is not over.”