By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After nearly a decade of stalking the man and myth of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive American author director Shane Salerno kept returning to the writer's time amid the unrelenting bloodshed on World War Two's western front.
"The war made him an artist and broke him as a man. The war was really the transformative trauma of his life," Salerno, whose documentary "Salinger" opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, told Reuters.
"World War Two is the ghost in the machine of all of his stories," the director said about the "The Catcher in the Rye" author, best known for his small but mighty oeuvre.
So World War Two is where Salerno starts, lifting the lid on the troubles and traumas of literature's mystery man, who famously quit publishing at his peak in 1965 and lived out of the spotlight in a New Hampshire town until his death in 2010 at age 91.
"It's shocking how many true, devoted Salinger fans have no idea he served in World War Two or landed on D-Day, or lost the love of his life to Charlie Chaplin in a very interesting love triangle, or was in a mental institution," Salerno said.
Indeed, those were some of the devastating events in the ultra-private life of Salinger, who catapulted to literary and pop culture stardom in the 1950s and 1960s following the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye" in 1951.
The novel, which is narrated by teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield over a few days roving around New York following his latest prep school expulsion, has become a cultural touchstone of adolescent alienation, selling some 65 million copies since its publication and more than 250,000 annually.
Salerno's documentary interviews the author's friends, former lovers and those who knew him after he retreated from public view and never published again.
But the documentary, which is accompanied by a 700-page history of Salinger authored by Salerno and David Shields, also aims to tear down the myth surrounding the author of stories "Franny and Zooey" and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."
'PRIVATE,' BUT NOT 'RECLUSIVE'
"There was nothing reclusive about J.D. Salinger, nothing at all," Salerno said.
"What he was, was extremely private," he said. "And part of that privacy was to conceal a particular fascination with young, young girls. But he was not a recluse."
Salerno was able to coax Jean Miller, one of those young girls, to speak, but only following Salinger's death.
"She told an incredible story of this very special relationship and then had all of these extraordinary letters from Salinger," he said.
A teenage Miller met an adult Salinger in 1949 while both were vacationing in Daytona Beach, Florida, after the author, who had yet to publish "Catcher" and achieve fame, spotted her reading Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights."
"She had a very privileged view for those five years, from '49 to '54 and to tell this amazing story between a 30-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl that was a highly romantic, non-sexual relationship until she was of age," Salerno said.
"Salinger," the film and the book, pulls back the curtains on the author's marriages, digging up unseen divorce documents, and showing that Salinger traveled the world and often visited friends in New York.
But it also addresses the persistent question hanging above Salinger's legacy: did he, after abruptly quitting publishing, continue to write?
Salerno and his partner Shields said the answer is yes. Citing two independent sources, the pair claim Salinger has at least one novel, a novella and several short stories ready for publication, which will happen between 2015 and 2020.
So far, the agent for Salinger's literary estate, Phyllis Westberg, and his publisher, Little, Brown and Co, have yet to comment or confirm the existence of new work.
Any new work from Salinger, whose last story, "Hapworth 16, 1924" was published in The New Yorker magazine in June 1965, is likely to be one of the century's biggest literary events.
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Stacey Joyce)