J.D. Salinger --- Film Collector
I found out this week that J.D. Salinger was a 16mm film collector. While everyone was waiting for him to write another Catcher In The Rye, Jerry was holed up watching Bill Fields and The Marx Brothers. He fit the personality profile of many collectors I dealt with. Eccentric … check. Reclusive … yeah. Spoke in tongues and drank his own urine … well, that lost a few of us, although I knew one guy who stayed in the same pair of pajamas for three days as he ran through NTA’s entire package of Gene Autry westerns. So how much did 16mm shape this dean of American writers? I’ve never read a word of his output, being a functional illiterate as to fiction and not proud of it, but will confess to being intrigued by Salinger, more so now that I’ve learned he collected. They say he had lots of prints. Favorites included aforementioned Fields and the Marxes, plus The Thin Man, Lost Horizon, early Hitchcock, and bless him, Laurel and Hardy. Salinger’s daughter wrote a book about life around his Cornish, New Hampshire retreat. Our shared world was not books, but rather, my father’s collection of reel-to-reel movies, she wrote. Salinger would set up a screen in front of the living room fireplace, and they’d watch The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Foreign Correspondent, among others. He’d later switch to videocassettes, but Margaret found them a sterile substitute for the sensuous delight of 16mm. That last part struck a chord, for I’ve heard many a loyalist to film express similar feelings. Perhaps there is something sensuous about handling celluloid, and digital profanes it. Salinger’s ritual of threading and rewinding was crucial to the authenticity of experiencing movies, and his daughter lovingly describes reel changes and splices he executed with precision (He wasn’t scared of getting cut at all …). I particularly enjoyed the part where she talked of running out of the room terrified during suspense scenes in Foreign Correspondent, and how Salinger lambasted her lack of nerve. Christ, all you and your mother want to see are sentimental pictures about Thanksgiving and puppy dogs.
So how did Salinger come by his prints? Sooner or later, every collector has to deal with others. I’ll bet Salinger did too, perhaps under another name. Did we buy, sell, or trade with him without knowing it? Chances are good that his heirs will find old Big Reels when they dig through the house for unpublished novels. But who will get the 16mm stuff? Little of that is worth much now, other than for Salinger having owned it. Consider what The Bank Dick in 16mm might bring on Ebay … then imagine the same with J.D. Salinger’s Personal Print on the header. How many English Department heads can we figure to bid on that? I wonder if a fellow collector could have gotten through Salinger’s barricade. One who tried was Warren French. He’d written the first book-length study of Salinger in 1963 and sent a letter asking if they could exchange lists and maybe a few rare prints. Apparently, French got no reply (maybe Salinger suspected French was using the films as a device to engage the author about his books). Another writer, John Seabrook, was invited by Salinger’s son to come over and watch a movie. That was in the mid-eighties, according to an article Seabrook recently wrote for the New Yorker. He describes how Salinger made them popcorn and ran his print of Sergeant York, with a good time had by all. Seabrook described his host as friendly and sociable. Well, isn’t any collector pleased to share his bounty with appreciative guests? The more I read about this guy Salinger, the more I think we would have hit it off. Not having read his stuff, I wouldn’t have peppered him with dumb questions about Holden Caulfield, Uncle Wiggly, and the rest. It would have been enough for us to ruminate over a screening of Chickens Come Home and discuss finer points of the Marxes at Paramount vs. Metro. I might even have found him an original print of Young and Innocent. From such bonding as this, I’ll bet he’d have taken my calls anytime.