At one point in J.D. Salinger’s novella “Seymour: An Introduction,” the narrator, Buddy Glass, says, in a parenthetical aside about his sainted older brother:

(When Seymour was twenty-one, a nearly full professor of English, and had already been teaching for two years, I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn’t think anything about it got him exactly down, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library.)

I was reminded of that quote the other day when I opened a copy of Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution that I had taken out of the Swarthmore College Library. This is what I found when I got to page 52:

Seymour to a T, except that the stuff was written in pen, not pencil. And unlike Seymour, it got me down.


Thanks, Mr. Harnick


A year or so ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheldon Harnick, lyricist ofFiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, and other musicals, in connection with my book-in-progress, The B Side: The Fall of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. I asked him about “Do You Love Me?” a Fiddler duet between Tevye (Zero Mostel in the original cast) and his wife, Golde (Maria Karnilova). You can see a YouTube clip of the movie version here. (Tevye is played by Topol and Golde by Norma Crane.

This has nothing to do with my book, but I’ve always loved that song and I was curious about what he remembered about its composition. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

In the scene, Tevya is trying to bring up the fact that he’s given permission for the second daughter to marry a poverty-stricken radical. I was watching rehearsals in New York, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny, if a song started where he said to Golde, ‘Do you love me?” and she said, “What?” I’d read enough history to know they didn’t marry for love, they married for economic security.

When we went to Detroit for out-of town tryouts, I thought I would see if I could develop that into a song.  It was very hard; I went for long walks thinking, ‘What would they say to each other?” At the end of a week I had a lyric, but it looked more like a dialogue scene than a potential song. But I gave it to Jerry Bock [the composer of Fiddler] and I said, “Do what you can with it. If you write music that needs a new lyric, I’ll change it.” To my absolute surprise, Jerry set what I gave him exactly as I gave it to him. We played it for Hal Prince, and Jerry Robbins [the producer and director], and they played it for Zero and Maria Karnilova, and everybody kind of liked it. Nobody loved it, but they kind of liked it. They said, “Yeah, let’s put it in.”

So they put it in and it worked better than we thought. My thought was that I needed something that was funny, but I couldn’t find it, so I would settle for something that I thought was true. What surprised me was the audience laughed–they chuckled at the end. I thought, “Thank God, that one works, I can go on to the next one.”

About two days later, I went to the matinee, and they started to sing that song, and I started to sob.  I didn’t know what was happening, and I left the theater–I didn’t want to disturb the audience.I thought, why am I sobbing like this? And then I realized–I grew up in the Depression, and my father and mother had terrible battles. They were so terrible, my younger brother used to hide under the bed when they were fighting. And I looked at Tevye and Golde and I thought, “I wish my parents had had a relationship like this.” It was just so moving to me.  I’m sure I put that into the song without knowing it. As Edward Albee said, “What do we know? Most of what we write is from the unconscious anyway.”

Hollywood Ending


Tonight (January 21, 2014), PBS’s “American Masters” series is airing “Six Degrees of Salinger,” Shane Salerno’s J.D. Salinger documentary. When the film was released in theaters, a few months back, I wrote this piece about my participation in it for the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

It was about five years ago that I got a phone call from Paul Alexander, a biographer of several writers, including, most significantly, J.D. Salinger. I’d later come to understand that he called, rather than e-mailed, because the latter would have been too public and traceable. Anyway, Paul said that a Hollywood screenwriter named Shane Salerno was making a documentary about Salinger. Would I be willing to talk to him?

My connection was that I had written a history of The New Yorker, a magazine that was very important to Salinger throughout his career. His short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” created a sensation when The New Yorker published it in 1948, and the magazine provided the first look at all his subsequent notable short fiction, including “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Seymour: an Introduction,” all the way up to “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published in 1965 and the last work of Salinger’s to appear in print.

He was alive when I was working on the book in the late 1990s (he died in 2010), but his intense desire for privacy was so well-known that I didn’t even bother to contact him for an interview. I did come upon an extensive and quite revealing correspondence between Salinger and New Yorker editors. I had permission to quote from the editors’ letters, and did so liberally, but when it came to the other side of the correspondence I was wary. Salinger was as famous for being litigious as for being private, and he’d successfully taken his first biographer, Ian Hamilton, to court, forcing Hamilton to tear up his about-to-be-published book and remove not only all quotes from his letters but also all paraphrases of them.

In 1944, just before being sent overseas by the Army, Salinger had written a letter to aNew Yorker editor, Wolcott Gibbs, in which he provided a comprehensive and cold-eyed analysis of the fiction the magazine had been publishing. That did not yet include any of Salinger’s work, and all the rejections apparently made him voluble. I was sorely tempted to quote the letter at length but realized that would be rash. However, I did paraphrase, and I did quote an irresistible phrase, Salinger’s plea that the magazine “play just a little fairer with the short story.” I also quoted, from his 1951 letter to another editor, a comment that he had started work on “the novel about the prep school boy”—The Catcher in the Rye, of course. I held my breath, and to my relief, no cease-and-desist orders emerged from Cornish, N.H.

After my conversation with Paul Alexander, I looked up Shane Salerno and learned that he was a young guy (born in 1972), who while still in his twenties had written episodes of the  TV series New York Undercover and the screenplays for such films asArmegeddon and Shaft. When he called me not long after that, he explained that he had poured a good deal of his own money into the Salinger project, a labor of love. He said my participation was essential; without an interview of me, in fact, the film could never achieve its potential. I recognized that as flattering Hollywood malarkey, but one of the things about flattery is that it works even when the recipient recognizes it as flattery. I asked in a perfunctory way if he paid his talking heads, but even after he apologetically answered in the negative, I signed on.

There was one thing he had to stress even before we met: the need for total secrecy. He had already obtained astonishing revelations, he said, and it was essential that I not talk to anybody about this movie. I said that was fine with me.

A short time later, I took the Acela Express from Philadelphia to New York’s Penn Station. A limo was there to take me to the Soho Grand Hotel; Shane felt it was important not to shuttle in and out on the day of the interview, but to get a good night’s sleep and have a relaxing morning before it. I reported to an address in Soho, and ultimately found myself in an office suite that had become the movie’s New York headquarters. I think the first thing I did was sign a formal confidentiality agreement. Then Shane introduced me to the cinematographer, Buddy Squires, and explained that Buddy had done all of Ken Burns’s films and was absolutely the best in the business. Then I went into makeup, which I remember and mention only because the makeup person told me I had “good eyebrows.” Flattery will get you everywhere.

Shane and Buddy took a great deal of effort getting the shot just right, adjusting the camera and my chair so that the Edward Hopper-esque rooftops of the neighboring buildings could be seen through the window in the room. I had brought with me photocopies of the New Yorker correspondence, and quoted from it liberally in the interview, which Shane conducted in a skilled and rigorous manner. I figured the legal ramifications were his issue now.

On the way out, he handed me an envelope, as if he were an uncle and I a bar mitzvah boy. I opened it in the hallway, a bit like Ginnie pulling half a sandwich out of her pocket in the last scene of Salinger’s story “Just Before the War With the Eskimos.” All I can say is, we should all have such uncles.

The years passed. I would hear from Shane from time to time, usually after some leak about the film had been published somewhere, and always with a caution that the vow of silence was still in effect. To tell the truth, I was afraid that the film would be a counterpart to all the stuff Salinger had supposedly written after “Hapworth,” and never see the light of day. Then, in January 2011, he e-mailed me:

I wanted to let you know that SALINGER will be released in theaters at the end of this year along with an 800 page biography that I have co-written with David Shields (Reality Hunger, the Thing About Life Is That One Day You Will Be Dead).

In fact, the process dragged on a bit longer, but finally, this month, the book and film both came out; the latter will be shown on PBS’s American Masters in spring 2014. I can finally tell my story, and you have just read it.

As for the movie, I haven’t seen it yet, but I did note that when David Edelsteinreviewed it for New York magazine, he said, “Some of the talking heads—among them Gore Vidal, Ben Yagoda, Michael Silverblatt, Phoebe Hoban, and various Salinger biographers—talk well.”

I was surprised he didn’t mention my eyebrows.



There is a finite number of things that I possess and love. “Love” may be too strong a word. The objects I refer to please me. They do a significant job and do it well, they have lasted a long time, and most of them, it turns out, didn’t cost very much. Some months back, I wrote about my Merrell Jungle Mocs (which, by the way, are still going strong). I propose to regularly feature some of these things in this space; I welcome comments and suggestions.

First up is something whose manufacturer and brand name I can’t tell you. I have had it so long (ten years? fifteen?) and used it so much, leaving so much grime (ironically) on it that any words that were originally inscribed have been rubbed off. Here it is:

The object is a dish scrubber. My guess is that it came from Ikea. The yellow housing is hard plastic, and the blue bristles are plastic as well. In the past I’ve had scrubbers with natural bristles, and I had to throw them out because over time, the bristles took on some of the qualities of the things they scrubbed. One of those qualities was odor. It’s the sort of thing that always happens with sponges. These blue bristles stay clean, by what process I don’t know. Maybe the device secretly licks itself, like a cat.

The other thing is, it works. The bristles have stayed stiff. All my scrubber needs is a drop or two of dishwashing liquid on it. some hot water, and a little elbow grease.Much more efficient than a scrub, and if a physicist can tell me why this is the case, I’d be happy to know. Over those ten or fifteen (or maybe even more) years, I’ve used it on almost every dish, bowl or pot that hasn’t gone in the dishwasher. Of course, when there’s stubborn gunk, another object is needed. That will be the subject of the next The Things I’d Carry.

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