I’ll never read “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor” the same way again, having just found out from a new biography that J.D. Salinger told one of his lovers, Jean Miller, that he could not have written that famous short story had he not met her, which would seem like a sweet, endearing thing to say were it not for the fact that Salinger met Miller when she was 14 years old. Salinger was 30.
In the story, an American soldier in England befriends a precocious girl whom he first glances while she is practicing in a church choir. “Listening, I scanned all the children’s faces but watched one in particular, that of the child nearest me, on the end seat in the front row. She was about 13, with straight ash-blond hair of earlobe length, an exquisite forehead and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house.” Esmé and the narrator become nothing more than pen pals, but Miller was another story. After years of elaborate yet chaste seduction, Salinger slept with and then dumped her when it became clear, which it did within 24 hours, that she would interfere with his writing, which was the only thing that was important to him.
Modern literature has no shortage of writers who misuse their women for their own artistic gain: F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course, James Joyce (read the biography of his daughter Lucia, which is frightening), Philip Roth — all of whom still garner my respect and readership. (I’ve never cottoned to Norman Mailer.) But for me, taking advantage of underage girls tips the balance between artistic license and morality. What do I make of the revelations about Salinger now, having read and fallen in love with his work when I was not much older than 14 myself? Do I cast my Bantam paperback of Nine Stories with the brown squares on the cover from my shelf, if I can even find it, and throw in Raise High the Roof Beam for good measure?
It was easier with Woody Allen. When Mia Farrow discovered in 1992 that he had taken nude photos of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, with whom he began a sexual relationship and later married, I vowed to never see one of his movies again, although I broke that vow once by watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona on DVD. Yes, Soon-Yi was 19 (although no one knows for sure her age, since South Korean officials randomly picked her birthday for her passport), but she was also his daughter, although not legally speaking. Clearly, Allen and Farrow’s own biological son Ronan feels the same way, since last year he sarcastically tweeted, “Happy father’s day, or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law’s day.” It didn’t help Allen’s case that he cast 16-year-old Mariel Hemingway as his own lover in Manhattan, and Hemingway later revealed that the filmmaker was the first person she ever kissed and that she was “way too young” for that role.
And yet I have no such interdiction against Roman Polanski, who was yet again in the news this week after his rape victim, Samantha Geimer, went public with her own memoir, The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski. I went to see Bitter Moon in the theater in 1992, long after Polanski fled Los Angeles after the judge in his case rescinded a plea-bargain deal that would have limited his sentence to time already served. I enjoyed his Death and the Maiden and was reduced to a sodden mess by The Pianist. In part I blame my inconsistency on a sociology professor whose class I took in college and who gave an entire exam consisted of watching Chinatown four times and dissecting its brilliance.
As that professor taught me, in our secular society, we no longer have clear definitions of what is transgressive and what’s not. We make laws, but the age of consent still varies by jurisdiction (not that Geimer, then 13, ever consented; this much is clear from her book). It gets more complicated, however, when even Geimer herself argues that we should separate the work from its creator. When Polanski was nominated for an Academy Award for best director for The Pianist in 2003 and a controversy predictably erupted, Geimer wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times titled “Judge the movie, not the man.”
“I believe that Mr. Polanski and his film should be honored according to the quality of the work. What he does for a living and how good he is at it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me. I don’t think it would be fair to take past events into consideration. I think that the academy members should vote for the movies they feel deserve it.”
Perhaps, if I had a teenage daughter, I would feel more strongly about banning Polanski. Others certainly do. “My refusal to watch the films of Roman Polanski won’t stop him from making films, but as the father of daughters, I’m not going to help him,” writer Fuzz Hogan said in a piece yesterday. He has a good point, and yet one of the many things I learned from reading Geimer’s nuanced memoir is that it’s unfair to accuse her of being a Polanski apologist. “I am not apologizing for him, and I don’t think his art somehow makes up for what he did,” she wrote. As she had suggested in her op-ed, perhaps I am paying too much attention to the wrong thing altogether.
“The one thing that bothers me is that what happened to me in 1977 continues to happen to girls every day, yet people are interested in me because Mr. Polanski is a celebrity. That just never seems right to me. It makes me feel guilty that this attention is directed at me, when there are certainly others out there who could really use it.”