Salinger, the salacious, controversial, and come-to-find-out-maybe-not-that-good new J.D. Salinger documentary, is out today in limited release, casting a spotlight on America’s most notoriously reclusive novelist. And why, three years after his death and 60-plus years after the publication of his most enduring work, does he remain a figure of such fascination? Probably because he didn’t want to be. It’s the nature of American celebrity: once the public appetite is whetted, it can’t be satiated, and that goes double if you try to pull a disappearing act. After the jump, a look at some of the most famous — in spite of their wishes — recluses in pop culture history.
“It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.” So wrote Salinger on the dust jacket of Franny and Zooey, one of his last published works; by that time, he’d already withdrawn to relative seclusion in New Hampshire after the massive success of The Catcher in the Rye. After 1959, he only published one new story, “Hapsworth 16, 1924,” which took up most of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. The piece was panned by critics, and Salinger published nothing else in his lifetime, though he told The New York Times (in a rare interview) that he was still working: “I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” It’d long been rumored that he left a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts; the most significant revelation of Salinger is that five of them will be published posthumously, beginning in 2015.
Back when people would do Greta Garbo impressions (and there was such a time), the go-to phrase was “I vant to be alone.” The line was from her 1932 smash Grand Hotel, but it came to be known as the Swedish superstar’s defining principle. Brought to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer in 1925, Garbo quickly established herself as one of the cinema’s most fascinating and exotic actors, racking up four Oscar nominations and turning in immortal performances in Camille, Anna Christie, Ninotchka, and Anna Karenina. And then in 1941, at a mere 35 years old, Garbo retired from the silver screen. Even when she was working, Garbo avoided the spotlight; she steered clear of industry events, gave few interviews, and didn’t even go to the Academy Awards ceremony when she was nominated. But she had even less use for the industry once she retired; she moved into a large apartment on East 52nd Street in New York in 1953 and lived there until her death in 1990, glimpsed only when she took walks through the city in her large sunglasses.
Even before his self-imposed 20-year exile, Malick wasn’t exactly Mr. Hollywood; his second feature film, Days of Heaven, had been in the editing room for two years as the filmmaker tinkered with its structure and style, and though it astonished viewers and garnered four Oscar nominations, Malick was discouraged that it fell short of the perfection he sought. Though Heaven’s distributor, Paramount, signed him to a production deal, he couldn’t make his follow-up film — a massive origins-of-life project, not dissimilar to what became The Tree of Life, then titled Q — work. He wrote pages of poetic description but never completed a screenplay; nature scenes were shot all over the world. And then, one day, Malick just didn’t show up — and he didn’t make another film for 20 years. Between 1978 and 1998 he kept writing, but disappeared for long stretches in Paris and, ultimately, Austin, Texas; when he finally made a new feature, The Thin Red Line, his contract specifically forbade distributor 20th Century Fox from using his likeness to promote the film. He’s become more prolific in the years since, but still works in relative secrecy, doesn’t go to awards ceremonies, and refuses to give interviews or be photographed — though he was captured on camera last year by TMZ, who (of course) had no idea who he was.
Barrett was a founding member of the first incarnation of Pink Floyd, back when they were an underground London psychedelic music outfit. But not long after the band released its debut record The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett’s erratic onstage behavior and increasingly unstable mental condition (no doubt heightened by the copious amounts of acid he was putting into his system) got him removed from the organization. A brief solo career followed, with two 1970 albums (The Madcap Laughs and Barrett) and, throughout the 1970s, occasional recording sessions and attempts at performance. But when his money ran out in 1978, he retreated to Cambridge to live with his mother, gardening, painting, and living a life of relative obscurity until his death in 2006.
From the publication of his first novel, V., in 1963, Pynchon has been Salinger’s only rival for supreme literary recluse. Some jokers even suggested that they were the same person, since Pynchon’s work started appearing just as Salinger’s stopped. (Pynchon’s response: “Not bad. Keep trying.”) Precious few photographs have been taken of him — and most were from his high school and college days — and when CNN tracked him down in 1997, it didn’t go well. But, to his credit, he’s not without a sense of humor about his public image: witness his two hilarious appearances on The Simpsons (one with a bag over his cartoon head), joking about his reclusiveness and spouting dialogue inspired by the titles of his novels.
Few 1980s filmmakers were as prolific or as successful as John Hughes, whose high school comedy/dramas (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and broad family comedies (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Uncle Buck, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) made him a valuable brand name. But the smash success of 1990’s Home Alone (which he wrote but did not direct) seemed to paralyze him artistically; he kept turning out variations on its precocious-kids-and-criminals formula, like Dennis the Menace and Baby’s Day Out. Then, in 1994, his frequent collaborator and friend John Candy died of a heart attack, leaving Hughes devastated. He effectively quit the movie business, moving back to suburban Chicago. He never directed a film after 1991’s Curly Sue, and though he took several for-hire writing gigs (mostly on forgettable remakes like Flubber, 101 Dalmatians, Just Visiting, and Miracle on 34th Street), his heart was clearly no longer in it. Aside from a few interviews to promote Reach the Rock, an indie film he wrote, and his 1999 audio commentary for Ferris Bueller, Hughes basically disappeared from 1994 until his death in 2009 at 59.
“What was the end of John Hughes’s story? He walked away from Hollywood and really shut out the industry, too.” So said Risky Business writer/director Paul Brickman to Salon writer Jake Malooey, who tracked down the elusive filmmaker for a rare interview recently. Brickman’s story is especially strange: his fourth produced screenplay and directorial debut, Risky Business was a giant critical and financial success for the Chicago native. But afterwards, he tells Salon, “I had Hollywood coming at me full throttle. I found it very uncomfortable. I moved out of L.A. immediately… Some people like the visibility. I don’t. I’m more from the J.D. Salinger school.” He only directed one more feature, 1990’s Men Don’t Leave; he’s credited with two additional screenplays. In the years since, he turned down opportunities to direct several hits, including Forrest Gump and Risky star Tom Cruise’s Rain Man. “I squandered a really good career,” he says, with refreshing candor. “What can I say?”
Funk innovator and genuine genius Sly Stone had a bit of a rough go of it after the initial success of his band Sly & the Family Stone. The joy of their early works gave way to drug-fueled paranoia and Black Power influences on there’s a riot goin’ on — a brilliant, dark piece of work, but not what fans and critics were ready for in 1971. Stone spent much of the remaining decade attempting to recapture the magic and commercial success of the band’s early records, and trying to control an increasingly damaging reputation as an unreliable live act (often showing up late, high, or not at all). Things only got worse in the ‘80s, as Stone’s cocaine addiction spun further out of control; after the band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, he made no public appearances until 2006. “I feel like Sly just doesn’t wanna deal with it no more,” his friend and frequent collaborator Bootsy Collins told Mojo in 2002. In 2007, Stone tentatively began appearing on stage again, with a reformed Family Stone — but his rep as a live performer remains shaky. Meanwhile, stories hold that the enigmatic performer, nearly broke, is living in a van, though some say that’s by his choice. It speaks volumes about Stone that either take is credible.
A much happier ending — for now anyway — has come to pop music’s other reclusive genius, Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson. His ambitious aim to elevate the band above the “surf music” they were famous for resulted in the immortal 1966 album Pet Sounds, a modest commercial success but a favorite of critics. However, his self-imposed pressure to top himself (along with his steady drug use) led to the deterioration and ultimate cancellation of his follow-up album, Smile. Rumors circulated, many of them true: that he had put a sandbox in his living room, that he had gone into a psychiatric hospital, that his drug use was out of control, that he was overweight and never got out of his pajamas. However, Wilson made a triumphant comeback in the late ‘90s, returning to the studio and even to live performance, completing and touring his beloved but aborted Smile in 2004.
Millionaire, aviator, engineer, investor, and filmmaker: there was little, it seemed, that Howard Hughes couldn’t do. But as early as the 1930s, he exhibited symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and after a near-fatal airplane crash in 1946, those symptoms coupled with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and allodynia (pain when touched), and Hughes went down the rabbit hole. He spent four months in his studio’s screening room, running movies on a continuous loop, surviving on a diet of chocolate bars, chicken, and milk, and urinating in the bottles. He would spend the rest of his life living in a series of hotels, spending much of his day nude, running films constantly (he reportedly watched the 1968 film Ice Station Zebra 150 times), living in fear of germs, and cutting his hair and nails as infrequently as once a year. Hughes never produced a film after the 1956-57 John Wayne turkeys The Conqueror and Jet Pilot, but his story (particularly the later years) inspired several great movies, including The Aviator, The Hoax, F for Fake, and Melvin and Howard.