Salinger, Casablanca
and Baseball
A CultureMap®
by Amy K. Hughes
Published on 7/16/13

The brothers Epstein, who wrote the screenplay for the noir classic Casablanca, also penned the only J.D. Salinger story-to-movie adaptation, My Foolish Heart, which forever soured Salinger on Hollywood. Years later the movie Field of Dreams, in which the famous recluse should have been a primary character, was made with a fictional writer in Salinger’s stead. The threads among the Epsteins, Salinger and Field of Dreams cross again with the Boston Red Sox.

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Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz (dir.) | film | 1942)
to  My Foolish Heart  (Mark Robson (dir.) | film | 1949)

Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn secured the movie rights to J.D. Salinger’s bleak short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” (1948) and proceeded to commission a movie, My Foolish Heart, only summarily based on the story of two former college roommates, Eloise and Mary Jane, getting drunk on a weekday afternoon at Eloise’s Connecticut home. Critics lashed the movie as a sentimental tearjerker that ties up the story’s intentional loose ends. John McCarten of The New Yorker declared, “The scriptwriters, Julius and Philip Epstein, have certainly done Mr. Salinger wrong.” Salinger agreed and never sold another word to Hollywood.

The Epstein brothers’ script for Casablanca, based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” was, however, critically acclaimed. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until decades after its release that Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in performances that became iconic, entered the cult of adoration. Even so, Julius Epstein later dismissed Casablanca as “slick shit.” His explanation of that comment might as easily apply to My Foolish Heart, given the later film’s withering reception: “Every script is concocted. But Casablanca was really concocted. We sat down and tried to manipulate an audience.”

J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American writer)
to  My Foolish Heart  (Mark Robson (dir.) | film | 1949)

J.D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” takes place on a single, drunken winter afternoon in a suburban house with four characters: “Hard as nails” Eloise; her old friend Mary Jane; Eloise’s daughter, Ramona; and an ill-treated maid. The story sketches out the tragedy in Eloise’s past that has turned her so bitter—the death of Walt, a young soldier she loved. Salinger fans know Walt as the hyper-intellectual Glass family’s “only truly lighthearted son” (“Zooey,” 1957), killed in “an unspeakably absurd G.I. accident” (“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” 1955), when a Japanese stove he is packing up for a colonel to send home suddenly explodes.

In My Foolish Heart Susan Hayward portrays Eloise’s downfall from a dewy-fresh “nice girl” to an alcoholic shrew over eight soppy years. The soldier, renamed Walt Dreiser (Dana Andrews), has a more prominent role (and a more noble death) than his counterpart does in Salinger’s stories, but unlike Eloise, he has no friends or family. Walt and his twin, Waker, are but peripherally drawn in Salinger’s stories. This may explain why even close readers find disappointingly little resonance with the only member of the near-mythical Glass family to make it to the screen.

Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz (dir.) | film | 1942)
to  J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American writer)

In April 1972 Yale freshman Joyce Maynard wrote an 8,000-word article for The New York Times Magazine, titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” Leslie Epstein, her creative writing teacher at the time, recalled, “After the Times article appeared, I could see the envy rising off the other students like steam off a radiator.”

Leslie was the son of Philip Epstein, cowriter, with his brother Julius, of the screenplays for Casablanca and My Foolish Heart, the single Salinger movie adaptation. A fan of Salinger’s writing, Leslie told radio host Stephen Bogart, whose father, Humphrey, had starred in Casablanca, “I’m afraid you have the Epstein brothers to thank for the reason that [Salinger’s only novel] Catcher in the Rye was never made into a movie…. [Salinger was] horrified by what my father and uncle did.”

Salinger ensured no other work of his was turned into a film, but his closely guarded privacy was harder to maintain. The 53-year-old writer-recluse wrote an admiring letter to that 18-year-old Times writer, and soon Joyce Maynard moved in with him. She held her tongue about their nine-month affair for a quarter century, finally spilling the beans in her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World.

Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz (dir.) | film | 1942)
to  The Boston Red Sox  (Major League Baseball team | est. 1901)

The twin brother writing team of Julius and Philip Epstein shared an Academy Award in 1943 for their script for Casablanca. Nine years later, at 42, Philip died suddenly of a rare cancer possibly brought on by treatment for a severe reaction to poison oak. The older of Philip’s two sons, Leslie, who was 13 at the time of his father’s death, eventually came East and settled in the Boston area.

Boston fans are famous for their loyalty to the Red Sox during the 86 years the baseball club went without a championship, a drought brought on, legend says, by the 1919 sale of Red Sox star Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Leslie Epstein’s son Theo became the general manager of the Red Sox in 2002 at age 28. In 2004, with several key players acquired by Epstein, the Sox won their first World Series title since 1918. (They won again in 2007.) Leslie Epstein has noted that his position between his famous father and uncle and his famous son constitutes “the only sandwich in the world where the meat is on the outsides.” Theo now works for the Chicago Cubs—who haven’t won the Series since 1908.

J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American writer)
to  Field of Dreams  (Phil Alden Robinson (dir.) | film | 1989)

One of the most beloved icons in J.D. Salinger’s fiction is the baseball mitt covered with poems written in green ink that belonged to Holden Caulfield’s flame-haired brother Allie in Catcher in the Rye (1951). A fan of Catcher, Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella both included Salinger and reused the name of an obscure Salinger character, Ray Kinsella, in his novel Shoeless Joe (1982), the basis for the movie Field of Dreams (1989). Over the course of the book, Salinger’s character evolves from uncooperative and wary to a cheerleader for the dream baseball team Ray assembles with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and other members of the disgraced 1919 White Sox team.

Upon the book’s publication, Salinger, who Kinsella notes “of course made himself conspicuous by hiding,” had his lawyers write to the publisher protesting the use of his name. The movie’s producers feared a lawsuit if they kept Salinger as a character, so a fictional reclusive writer was invented, to be portrayed by James Earl Jones. Kinsella notes, “[The producers’] feeling was that probably only 15 percent of the moviegoers would have any idea who Salinger was anyway.”

Field of Dreams  (Phil Alden Robinson (dir.) | film | 1989)
to  The Boston Red Sox  (Major League Baseball team | est. 1901)

In a pivotal scene in Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) takes the reclusive writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) to a Red Sox game. Kinsella has been receiving messages from the beyond that have led him to his encounter with Mann and the game. While they are sitting in the stands, a voice whispers to Ray, “Go the distance,” and the Red Sox scoreboard flashes statistics that apparently no one else can see about Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a member of the New York Giants in 1905. Mann later reveals that he saw the message too.

Also in the stands at the Field of Dreams Red Sox game is a pair of then unknown native Boston actors. In 1998 they would become well known indeed, when their film Good Will Hunting was nominated for nine Academy Awards; the pair—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, of course—shared the statue for best original screenplay. A well-loved scene in their film recounts the significance of a 1975 Red Sox game—one that ended with a famous home run by catcher Carlton Fisk—to the character played by Robin Williams, who won the best supporting actor award for this performance.

The Boston Red Sox  (Major League Baseball team | est. 1901)
to  J.D. Salinger  (1919–2010 | American writer)

In W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, the protagonist kidnaps J.D. Salinger from his New Hampshire home and takes him to a Boston Red Sox game. The novel paints Salinger as a New York Giants fan, but the longtime New England resident may actually have been a member of the Red Sox Nation, as fans of the team are collectively known.

In a 1989 letter written to his former army commander and affectionately signed “Jerry,” Salinger is coy: “Hearing from [you]…may more than just possibly be my second and last claim to bona fide and hitchless fame, the other probable claim dating back some 20 years, when one of the three or four young guys who poured the new foundation for my new house went on to catch beautifully and almost without end for the Red Sox: one Carlton Fisk.”

Carlton “Pudge” Fisk is renowned for one of the most famous moments in Boston Red Sox history, when he hit a 12th-inning walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. As all baseball fans know, the Curse of the Bambino was still in effect, and the Sox went down in Game 7.