In April of 1968, the stamped date of the never-before-seen photograph above, J. D. Salinger would have been 49 years old. He was recently divorced, and three years into the seclusion that would span the last 45 years of his life. He has bags under his eyes and grooves in his face but, ever so faintly, he is smiling. The intimacy of his setting—the milky tangle of used blankets and sheets—is offset by the spare thrift of his Cornish, N.H., bedroom, with its humble furnishings: small wastebasket, austere dresser. Bare, blank walls. Pack of smokes. But the most telling detail is on the door, at the left edge: a flash-enhanced glint on the room’s steely lock. It’s a reminder of its tenant’s unflinching mantra: keep out.
But that lock didn’t just keep busybodies at bay. Reader, it guarded something else. Because in a small nook across that ascetic cell of a bedroom, Salinger kept a safe. A packed safe, a safe filled with piles and heaps of unpublished…
Call it a coming attraction, because to know any more, you’ll have to wait until Shane Salerno is good and ready to tell you. Salerno, a Hollywood screen-writer (Shaft), has spent six years and millions of dollars researching the author’s mysterious world—though the details, such as the story behind this photo, he won’t divulge just yet. Like Franny Glass, who clung to her copy of The Way of a Pilgrim as a kind of dog-eared talisman, Salerno has a spiritual relationship with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. He also has rules. “Do not read J. D. Salinger on a Kindle,” he says, with a snort of disgust. “Grab that broken paperback.”
Salerno’s disdain for inauthenticity—if a Kindle counts as such—is more or less his mission statement for what he calls “the very definition of a passion project”: writing, funding, and directing a two-hour documentary, Salinger, and an 800-page biography, The Private War of J. D. Salinger, co-written with David Shields. The pair of forthcoming works are as shrouded as their subject, but Salerno hopes they will be the definitive word on the writer. “We’ve been sifting through all this new material to contextualize this giant of American literature,” he says of the 15,000 pages of interview transcripts and more than 100 personal photos he’s amassed. “You’re going to see a very different Salinger than you’ve read about for five decades.” The Private War is arranged nonchronologically to help fill in the author’s “missing” years, and Salerno says both projects boast a variety of first-evers in addition to the photo collection, including interviews with Salinger intimates and former New Yorker colleagues, some of whom had never spoken about “Jerry.” “When you’re sitting two feet from someone who hasn’t spoken in five or six decades about this, there is just an electricity that surges through the room,” Salerno says—though, of course, he won’t name names.
It’s hard not to feel a little guilty peeping into the world Salinger tried so fervently to shield, but the motive seems pure: The Private War “will substantially rewrite the record of J. D. Salinger’s life, and correct many inaccurate stories that have been told for decades,” Salerno says. As Holden himself might say, there’s nothing phony about wanting to set the record straight.