There were once two men named Jerry: Salinger and Lewis. And one of them wrote a famous novel, Catcher In the Rye, which the other wanted to turn into a movie, starring himself as Holden Caulfield. Burt Kearns explains why J.D. Salinger wouldn’t let him.
The fictional Holden Caulfield, a bright, nervous preppy with a disdain for phonies, became an iconic symbol of teenage angst after the publication of J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Preserved in literary amber at the age of seventeen, the troubled, smart-alecky rich kid would seem tailor-made for the movies. And who better to play this eternal adolescent than the adult Jerry Lewis?
Yeah, Jerry Lewis! Jerry Lewis was 25 and already a show biz veteran when Salinger’s book was published in 1951. Ten years later, when he first blurted his intention to buy the movie rights and play the leading role, Jerry was the comedy king of Hollywood, a megalomaniacal skirt-chaser with a wife, five sons (and trying for a daughter), fourteen cars, a phone in each car, Louis B. Mayer’s mansion, and 15 years of film roles in which he largely played braying, squeaking, annoying, yelping, scenery-chewing, slapstick, sentimental and socially-retarded halfwits. His only sustained dramatic performance, in a television version of The Jazz Singer, was mostly flayed by the critics (maybe because the climactic scene had Jerry singing the holy Yom Kippur song “Kol Nidre” in clownface and red nose).
Yeah, that Jerry Lewis. You maybe should have a problem with that maybe?
All right, it does sound crazy, I’ll give you that. And that’s why the story’s always had legs and why it popped up again recently, two years after Jerry Lewis’ death, at a time so many people are still so outraged that he cut his five sons out of his will. Of course, there’s more to that family situation, more to Jerry Lewis, and a lot more to the Holden Caulfield story that doesn’t fit the popular narrative.
IT WAS YOUNG film critic Peter Bogdanovich who first broke the news about the alleged abomination in his profile of Jerry Lewis published in the November 1962 issue of Esquire magazine. The bit about Catcher was buried deep. Jerry talked about his invention of video assist for motion picture directors, sighed over the resistance to his commonsensical elimination of the shadow-making and time-consuming boom mike, and confirmed his genius when he explained that his films are essentially plotless “so the kids can come down the aisle with mommy or uncle anytime. They don’t have to worry about gettin’ there at the beginning.” Then, Bogdanovich had this:
“Did you ever read The Catcher in the Rye?’ he asked. I told him I had. “Well, you never saw a more Holden Caulfield guy than you’re sittin’ with right now.” He grinned slightly. “And Salinger’s sister told me she used to call him ‘Sonny.’ That’s what my grandmother used to call me. It’s frightening…
“If a person ain’t genuine, I know it. I can spot a dirty, lying, phony rat—I can smell ’em.” He smiled. “See what I mean about Holden Caulfield?”
Though it wasn’t mentioned in the Esquire piece, Jerry Lewis was attempting to buy the rights to The Catcher in the Rye, with plans to play Holden Caulfield in the movie. At the time he spoke to Bogdanovch, Jerry was 35 — twice Holden Caulfield’s age.
But wait a minute! If you know the book (and to be honest, I haven’t gone near it since a passage in Catcher was used to trigger the Manchurian candidate who shot a former Beatle — see Fenton Bresler’s Who Killed John Lennon?), the idea might not seem so crazy. It could even work in a bizarro, Yentl, Kevin-Spacey-as-Bobby-Darin kind of way. Take the scene in Chapter Thirteen, in which a depressed Holden is in a hotel room with a young prostitute, and tells her he can’t have sex with her:
“Whatsa matter?” she said.
“Nothing’s the matter.” Boy, was I getting nervous. “The thing is, I had an operation very recently.”
“On my wuddayacallit — my clavichord.”
“Yeah? What the hell’s that?”
“The clavichord?” I said. “Well, actually, it’s in the spinal canal. I mean it’s quite a ways down in the spinal canal.”
“Clavichord down in the spinal canal?” Close your eyes and you hear Jerry Lewis in that line, picture him sitting there, hair greased forward, in the red hunting cap with the ear flaps down, maybe with the fake buck teeth, all nervous, the preppy with the Joisey accent: “Yes, the clavichord with the hoison glaven and the spi-i-nal down in the canal with the spine and the thing with the — I don’t feel so good in the — LAY-DEEE!!!” And running out of the room with his knees knocking together…
And Holden Caulfield’s obsession with “phonies”? Jerry couldn’t stand them either, especially Hollywood phonies, who he went after bigtime in his 1964 comedy, The Patsy. Originally titled Son of The Bellboy, The Patsy‘s about a talent-free nebbish who’s recruited by a slimy Hollywood management team to replace their “meal ticket” — a comedy star who’s been killed in a plane crash. It’s a raging, angry — and very funny — attack on the Hollywood machine that chews off the hand that had been feeding Jerry Lewis quite well for the previous 15 years. The Patsy features many stars in cameos, but as Shawn Levy observed, “the script asks them all to play phonies.”
SO BACK TO the Salinger connection: In that Esquire piece, Jerry expressed delight and amazement that he and J.D. Salinger shared the nickname Sonny. They shared a lot more. It’s still common belief that Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, and acquired the nickname “Jerry” as he entered professional show business. It’s odd that this factoid persists, because in his 1997 biography, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, Shawn Levy writes that “the Newark, New Jersey Bureau of Vital Statistics has no record of a Joseph Levitch, or Lewis, being born on March 16, 1926. What it does have, however, is a record of one Jerome Levitch, born to Daniel Levitch and Rae Brodsky on that date. Although everyone knew him as Joseph or Joey when he was growing up… his name was properly Jerry from the day of his birth.”
J.D. Salinger was born on January 1, 1919. Like Danny and Rae, J.D.’s father Sol was a Jew. Salinger’s mother, Marie, was German Scotch-Irish, but changed her name to Miriam, and considered herself to be Jewish after marrying Sol. They say J.D. didn’t know his mother was a shiksa until after he was bar mitzvahed. As for his name, the “D” stood for David, the “J,” Jerome. A little-known fact: throughout his life, J.D. Salinger’s friends called him Jerry.
Shawn Levy revealed that Catcher apparently came to Jerry Lewis’ attention thanks to a Time magazine cover story on Salinger in September 1961. Jerry wasn’t alone in his interest in the property, but Salinger, already beginning to slip from public sight into seclusion, was not going to allow his work to be cinematized — by anyone. “For me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it… in a word, his thoughts, ” the author wrote in a letter in 1957. “He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique… I find that idea if not odious, at least odious enough to keep me from selling the rights…. Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion, is essentially unactable.”
Nevertheless, Jerry Lewis persisted. He found out that Salinger’s older sister Doris worked as a buyer for a big department store in Manhattan. He wrote her many letters, and it seemed, to him at least, that she was an ally. “Salinger’s sister told me if anyone would get it from him it would be me,” he told an interviewer in the late 1970s. “I’m still trying. He’s nuts also. And that’s the only reason that he’s entertaining talking to me. Because he likes nuts.”
Wait — so who was the nut? We know at least one Jerry was nuts. Consider that when Jerry Lewis was trying to play Holden Caulfield onscreen, his only real competitor for the role was seven years his senior, and also named Jerry. Joyce Maynard, the writing prodigy who became Salinger’s teenage live-in lover in 1972 (she was 19, he was 53) wrote in her memoir, At Home in the World, that “Jerry” Salinger told her, “Jerry Lewis tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden. Wouldn’t let up.” She added, “This is never going to happen, we both understand. The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been Jerry Salinger.”
TO PUT THIS ALL in the proper perspective, you’ve got to be aware of the power Jerry Lewis held as the most successful comedy movie auteur of the early 1960s. This wasn’t a case of signing over A Catcher in the Rye to somebody like Adam Sandler or Seth MacFarlane — more like Steven Spielberg or the pre-Me Too Harvey Weinstein (who both made plays for rights to the book in later years — and imagine how Spielberg would have fucked it up). As a filmmaker, Jerry had been influenced, befriended and consulted by the likes of Jacques Tati, Stan Laurel, Jean-Luc Godard and Charlie Chaplin (who, at 54, married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill in 1943, shortly after she’d been dating J.D. Salinger).
I’m not walking alone here. In the scholarly volume, Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film, Murray Pomerance reminds readers that Jerry was “a veteran of virtually every form of show business… a paragon of stand-up comedy, a conductor, a composer, a writer, a singer, and a serious actor of notable talent,” as well as “the only Hollywood comedian to rise from mere performer to (in his own, quite accurate phrase) ‘total filmmaker’ during the sound era.”
“When I watch Jerry Lewis onscreen,” he writes, “I am often stunned to reflection and meditation… I see something startling and suggestive, even profound.” Though the style and language of his films are stuck in a bygone era (in the words of Pomerance, “innocent of so much that young contemporary viewers take as a requirement for the diegetic authenticity that alone seems to merit their full engagement” — you can translate that when you have time), Jerry’s cinematic genius and talent as a dramatic actor can’t be denied. A recent bootleg version of his abandoned Holocaust drama, The Day the Clown Cried, that combined found footage with dramatic readings of remaining scenes, revealed the unfinished film and Jerry’s performance to be powerful and affecting. It’s far from the “fiasco” that snarky hipsters like Patton Oswalt lampoon, and undermines the credibility of actor Harry Shearer, who claimed to have seen the complete movie in 1979 and whose ridicule of it has until recently been the defining word on the project.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Jerry Seinfeld has said, “If you don’t get Jerry Lewis, you don’t understand comedy.” I’ll leave the comedy to experts like my pals Jeff Abraham and Kliph Nesteroff, but Jerry?
I know, you noticed I refer to him as “Jerry.” I’m a fan. I’m — look, put it this way: Richard Belzer got some attention when he revealed he sports a Jerry Lewis tattoo. I have two. It’s probably because I was a kid around the time Jerry Lewis the solo family movie star was hitting his peak. I grew up with Jerry Lewis comic books and Saturday afternoons watching Jerry Lewis double features at the Norwalk Theatre. I ran Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy carnivals in my driveway. Later, I was obsessed with the psychocraziness of each year’s telethon, would fill VHS tapes with them, and in 1987 wangled my way in as a production assistant for the telethon in Las Vegas. The first task I was assigned in the trailer outside Caesars Palace was to correct a misprint on the show rundowns that were distributed to all studio personnel. Someone had typed “Muscular Dystrophy Telethon” at the top of each page, and Jerry himself caught the error. My job was to “white out” the words “Muscular Dystrophy” and type in “Jerry Lewis.” It would always be the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
Every facet of 20th-century show business was personified and projected by one man in a bespoke Sy Devore tuxedo — all the disciplines, the insecurities, the abilities, all the showmanship. Jerry Lewis was the total entertainer.
My actual goal that weekend was to stay awake the whole time with Jerry, and to find out if he was a phony! In the telethon’s final moments, after Jerry blubbered his way through “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I waited backstage to see if he’d drop the emotional facade off camera. I was a foot away after he set down the microphone, walked off the set toward his wife — then fell into her arms, and wept some more.
In 1989, Jerry allowed me and a camera crew to follow him as he prepared for and performed another telethon (I’d written a letter and offered him one of my copies of his 1956 standards LP, Jerry Lewis Just Sings — he said he didn’t have one). That week, he put everything on display for us: the brilliance, the neediness, the arrogance, the pomposity, the hilarity… To me, that was what made Jerry Lewis so special. Of course he was a prick, he was all fucked in the head, he could go off on people, but when asked, most everyone I know who’ve worked or spent time with him — from Brett Hudson to Gilbert Gottfried — say the same thing I do: “He was always nice to me.”
Every facet of 20th-century show business was personified and projected by one man in a bespoke Sy Devore tuxedo — all the disciplines, the insecurities, the abilities, all the showmanship. Jerry Lewis was the total entertainer. He made me laugh. And he was always very nice to me. On the day he died, Jon Crowley and I were in Las Vegas on a shoot and we headed to join the tributes at the gates to his cut-rate mansion on Waldman Avenue within spitting distance of the 15 freeway. We were the only ones there. There wasn’t even a bouquet on the sidewalk.
THE EVENING BEFORE his 1989 Labor Day Telethon, Jerry sat with me for a formal interview on camera. I asked him how he reacted to the cynics, the ones who claimed he took money under the table from MDA, or who said that his performance on the telethon is — and I used the word thirty years ago — “phony.”
“It hurts,” Jerry Lewis replied. “It hurts because you’re giving every ounce of truth and every ounce of energy that you have to do a good thing, and I don’t believe there is a human who can say, ‘That doesn’t bother me.’ I don’t believe there is that human that isn’t bothered by a dissenter. The human condition is a very interesting, very, very wonderful laboratory study. It’s a study for me, because I learn when I write comedy, the best thing in the world for me to do is to sit at a street corner and just watch the traffic for six, seven hours, and watch people waiting to cross the street. And I don’t believe there’s anyone that does good work or that does something from his heart that isn’t hurt when he’s challenged or when he’s disbelieved or when he’s doubted or when someone is cynical about it or pessimistic about it.
“Now, I can get five thousand letters patting me on the back and wishing me all of the wonderful things in life. In that batch of five thousand letters, I need to read just one who disbelieves me, doesn’t particularly care about what I care about, and thinks that I’m a jerk, I’m shattered by that letter. And Sam, my wife, says to me, ‘Please help yourself get over that letter by rereading the five thousand.’ And I know she’s right, but the human condition says to me, ‘This is addressed to me. How do I get him?’ The human condition would like everybody should think they’re terrific. You can’t. And the only way you’re really gonna get wisdom is the day you wake up and honestly say to yourself as an introspective man, ‘I cannot please everybody.’ The day you can do that, you will have wisdom. I haven’t done it yet. So I do not have wisdom!”
(The guy who wrote that one-in-five-thousand critical letter? “An attorney, reputable attorney! Now I know the reason he wrote the letter… because (I) turned down going to his cocktail party! I don’t like cocktail parties. I don’t go to cocktail parties. But isn’t it interesting that it was a week later that I got this letter from him? Said nothing about a cocktail party!” What a phony!)
RIGHT. BACK TO the Salinger connection, and this is the part that most writers leave out, because it doesn’t fit the narrative. Along with the movies and albums and performance footage, one of the most valuable gifts Jerry Lewis left behind is a book called The Total Film-Maker. First published in 1971, it’s a distillation of transcripts from hundreds of hours of lectures Lewis gave at the University of Southern California. The classes in film directing were attended, and notes were taken, by future filmmakers including Bogdanovich, Spielberg and George Lucas.
The book is a straightforward, plain-spoken manual for making a movie, from beginning to end, germ of an idea to distribution. Chapter Four is titled Script and Writer. “Finding good properties to film is similar to mining 100 carat diamonds,” Lewis says — and then he clarifies his intentions for The Catcher in the Rye:
“I have been in the throes of trying to buy The Catcher in the Rye for a long time. What’s the problem? The author, J.D. Salinger! He doesn’t want more money. He just doesn’t even want to discuss it. I’m not the only Beverly Hills resident who’d like to purchase Salinger’s novel. Dozens have tried. This happens now and then. Authors usually turn their backs on Hollywood gold only because of the potential for destruction of their material. I respect them for it!
“Why do I want it? I think I’m the Jewish Holden Caulfield. I’d love to play it! That’s why actors buy any property. Producers and directors buy a property because they like the story. Actors buy it because they see themselves in a part.”
Then he adds two very important points that have been left out of many stories about Jerry Lewis and Jerry Salinger. “Additionally, Salinger and I had similar backgrounds and there is empathy. Yet, I’m not sure that Catcher in the Rye will work with an older guy. So, if age gets in the way, I’ll find a young one.”
“If age gets in the way, I’ll find a young one.” That’s the true punchline that ruins everyone’s joke when the joke is on Jerry Lewis. See? In the end, Jerry Lewis’ obsession with the teenage Holden Caulfield was really about one great artist seeking out another who he recognized as a kindred spirit. Someone who wasn’t a phony. Someone who was a nut, just like Jerry.
From The Total Film-Maker: “Another aspect of buying a property like this is the opportunity to work with an author of Salinger’s ability. With Salinger, projects open up; with a Salinger, you kill to retain the basic material. So I’ll keep trying to buy his story.”
Jerry should have made the movie. It would have been a classic.
Jerry Lewis video by Burt Kearns
(This week, Little, Brown is publishing the first digital editions of J.D. Salinger’s four books, including The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger died in 2010 at the age of ninety-one. Jerry Lewis died on August 20, 2017, also at ninety-one.)