The world premiere of “Salinger” at the Telluride Film Festival on Monday was a tale of two girlfriends. A pair of the late author’s former “muses” were in attendance — one pleased by the documentary, one not so much so.
A post-screening panel discussion led by an admirer of the film, director-producer Ken Burns, included Jean Miller, Salinger’s companion for five years in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Sitting quietly in the audience, meanwhile, was Joyce Maynard, who had a strange liaison with the legendarily reclusive author in the early ’70s.
Maynard’s attendance at the festival was bizarrely coincidental, and had nothing to do with promoting “Salinger,” which the Weinstein Co. is releasing on Friday. Maynard had come to town to celebrate the premiere of another film, “Labor Day,” Jason Reitman‘s adaptation of her novel.
“Joyce is in the front row,” Burns pointed out as the discussion wrapped up, “and if we had [a] time machine we would be able to go back and invite her up to add immeasurably to our understanding of this complicated person.”
But when TheWrap spoke with Maynard after the screening, she was displeased enough with what she saw as some of the film’s thematic omissions that the filmmakers will probably be relieved she wasn’t sharing her thoughts on the dais.
Maynard, who wrote a book about her experiences with Salinger, continues to see the author, who died in 2010, as just one step away from being a child predator.
“I thought the film was an extraordinary accomplishment–minus a crucial element, and yes, that’s very troubling to me,” said Maynard (below) outside the Palm Theatre. “I believe that no biography of J.D. Salinger will ever be complete without an acknowledgement that he was not simply a PTSD victim, he was a victimizer as well.
“And it’s very troubling to hear my 18-year-old self, and girls who were younger than I was, referred to as ‘women.’”
Some of those references took place in the panel discussion, which dwelled heavily on the idea of Salinger as a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “World War II really was the transformative trauma in J.D. Salinger’s life,” said “Salinger” director Shane Salerno, who participated in the Q&A via Skype. “It made him as an artist but it broke him as a man… He was living with PTSD throughout his life…
“When you re-read the work with that in mind, you even understand that ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is a disguised war novel.”
Whether it was Miller in 1949 or Maynard in 1972, said Salerno, Salinger “was having these women replicate a pre-war innocence for him, and used very young girls as time travel machines back to before various wounds. So there’s something immensely heartbreaking about this rather problematic pursuit.”
That pursuit, admitted Miller, “raises havoc in the muse’s life … That short story ‘The Girl With No Waist at All’ really represents [Salinger’s interest in] the moment before a girl becomes a woman.”
In the “Salinger” book, Miller reveals that her relationship with Salinger, who befriended her when she was 14, was platonic until he took her virginity five into their relationship, after which he immediately broke up with her.
Maynard was not nearly so sanguine as Miller about any afterglow from her live-in coupling with Salinger, which was similarly sexless until almost the end.
“When a 53-year-old man writes letters to a freshman at Yale, he’s not writing to a woman, he’s writing to a girl,” Maynard told TheWrap. “And when he suggests that she should give up her scholarship, leave college, leave her job at the New York Times and cut off all relationship with the world, that is also called a post-traumatic stress event, when it reverberates through her life.
“Not a day has passed in 40 years that I have not faced the residue of my relationship with Salinger — and in a professional way, profoundly. Which is why I was so happy to be at this festival with a movie of a novel of mine and projects having nothing to do with Salinger.”
Maynard does appear at some length in the last half-hour of the documentary.
Burns opened the discussion by noting that he lives four towns south of Cornish, N.H., where Salinger notoriously withdrew from public life from the mid-’60s until his death three and a half years ago. He said he grew used to Salinger seekers coming through his neighborhood wanting stalking tips.
Tantalizingly, Burns added almost as an aside that he did correspond with Salinger a number of times – “he would send me passages from Christian Science manuscripts that tell you how to cure ailments with prayer.”
At one point, Burns pointed out, “All the important muses of his life seem to represent some kind of attempt at innocence, perhaps a fantasy of innocence” with “an almost frightened-of-sex aspect.”
Miller called her relationship with him very asexual.
“I thought of him as my uncle for many years,” she said. “I don’t think really in a way he was all that interested in sex. Jerry’s power of you was absolutely mental and spiritual.”