Just a few years before he stopped publishing and went into seclusion, J.D. Salinger urged his friend and editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, to accept the dedication of "Franny and Zooey" "as nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean."
Matthew Salinger is 24 now, tall and rangy like his father, handsome like his mother Claire, an actor like his father's creation Zooey. He has appeared as a hyperlibidinous lacrosse coach in the soap opera "One Life to Live," as a crusher of slide-rule-bearing pipsqueaks in the movie "Revenge of the Nerds." And he is now the star of Bill C. Davis' "Dancing in the End Zone," which opens Jan. 3 at Broadway's Ritz Theatre. He plays a college football star tormented by the demands of his mother, his coach and his tutor.
"This is it for me," Matt Salinger says as he urges a luncheon companion to take a seat. "You don't get a chance on Broadway every day of the week."
Salinger is sitting now in an Upper East Side bistro that serves 300 varieties of omelet. "I don't know about fame," he continues. "I want to be successful as an actor, and if fame is a byproduct of that, well, then it's a necessary evil. It's not something I aspire to."
Dudley Moore is sitting over in the corner. An excruciatingly casual couple enters the restaurant. They notice Moore and start fumbling with their coats a little longer than absolutely necessary so they can stare at the movie star (but not forever, of course, this being just about the center of the sophisticated universe).
Salinger is the first to notice this little drama: "Fame is . . . well, you look over in the corner there at Dudley Moore. Everyone's staring at him. It's a loss of privacy."
Fame has been a constant and nagging companion to the Salinger family. "Catcher in the Rye," published 34 years ago, was precisely the sort of intimate book that (in the words of Holden Caulfield) "when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
J.D. Salinger is about the last author in the world you could call up on the phone. It's unfair to speculate on what he felt or why, but something made him stop publishing and keep his distance from the public world. His last published works were "Franny and Zooey" (1961), "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction" (1963) and one final story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," which appeared in a 1965 edition of The New Yorker. His physical seclusion has been nearly as complete as his literary silence. The gambrel-roofed Salinger house in Cornish, N.H., overlooks the Connecticut River and is protected by high walls.
Salinger shuns interviews and makes it clear to his family and friends that he would rather not be talked about in public. He gave a brief interview to a girl from a local school in 1953 and to Betty Eppes of the "Fun" section of The Baton Rouge Advocate 27 years later. Eppes arrived at her meeting with Salinger wearing a hidden tape recorder.
Matt's father and mother, a Jungian psychologist, divorced when he was 6 years old. But his parents lived close to one another and Matt divided his time between them before leaving for a series of boarding schools and Princeton and Columbia universities. Throughout his childhood, people would show up in Cornish bearing notebooks, cameras or worse.
"I remember that stuff happening way before I even knew what it meant," Matt Salinger says. "Obnoxious people would show up at the house and start demanding things. There were reporters, photographers, aspiring writers. He was as polite as they were. I just sort of accepted it all like you would a surrealist drama. My sister Peggy and I used to tell people when they asked about my father that he wasn't a writer, he was plumber.
"I see red now when I hear about people bothering him. My father does not want a public life. That's been clear for many years now. He wants to write for the page and he wants his characters to be on the page and in the readers' minds. He doesn't want people to make him into something he's not. He thinks it's bad for him and his work to have a public life."
Happily not everyone joined in on the crush. "I read my father's books at the usual age, junior high and after. I love his writing. But my teachers were always sensitive enough not to teach them in the classes I was in, even though they normally would have. That was wonderful that they were so thoughtful."
Salinger began his acting career as Mouse Soldier No. 17 in a production of "The Nutcracker" at Norwich Elementary School in Norwich, Vt., just across the river from Cornish. At Andover, Salinger had the lead role in "Charley's Aunt," which, he says, "was about the biggest thing I've done in theater until now."
"Dancing in the End Zone" is a drama marked by rather preachy writing and a set of conspicuous parallels and symbols. But the acting is strong and Salinger is a boyish, affecting presence on stage. At the opening preview last week, he fumbled his first line slightly, but as the play developed he looked comfortable and his performance was effective. Two highly experienced Broadway actors, Pat Carroll and Laurence Luckinbill, have been sage supports.
"Matt's doing great," Luckinbill says. "He sweats the details. He takes notes on what everyone says. He's not really that inexperienced. And if he's young, well, the kid in the play is supposed to be young in feeling. If he's not, he's not right."
Says producer Morton Gottlieb: "We auditioned about 100 guys for the part and we loved Matt. He's a wonderful actor and he looks like a football player. When we auditioned him, we didn't even know if he was related to the writer. It really doesn't matter. It may get us an extra mention or two in print but I don't think anyone goes and buys a ticket because one of the actors is related to J.D. Salinger."
In "Revenge of the Nerds," Salinger paid a multitude of Hollywood dues. As an apish football player, he somehow managed to ride a tricyle, dress as a woman and join in a group mooning session all within a couple of hours. "Great scenes in cinematic history," he calls them. Salinger turned down two movie roles to appear in "Dancing in the End Zone." For sizable sums he could have beaten hell out of Rob Lowe in "St. Elmo's Fire" and polished a Ferrari in "Summer Jobs."
Salinger is more than willing to work in the movies as well as on stage. "I'm getting married to jewelry designer Betsy Becker pretty soon and I do have to think about earning a living," he says. But Salinger's stint in Hollywood was not always pleasant.
"You're always having meetings with people you have little or no respect for. I've had people try to offer me things in exchange for doing something having to do with my father's work. You know, buy the rights to his work. You want to spit at people like that.
"When I first started acting I tried to make sure that as few people as possible knew who my father was. I was very self-conscious. My first agent didn't know and the agent that I've got now, her partner didn't even know until he saw a little squib in Time magazine. But I've finally realized that there's too much money at stake for someone to hire me if I didn't have any talent.
"Two years ago when I was first starting out, I never would have done an interview like this because it would have been all about my father. There would have been no purpose. Now there's a play. Maybe I can help the play.
"I love my father. I'm not rebellious against him at all. He's made a decision about how he wants to live. Why would I ever want to violate that in any way? It's me who's chosen a more public life. That's acting. That's the way it is."