They were meant to be together. After years of dating, breaking up, and making up, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart were finally committed to each other and had settled down in an idyllic life together. But the Hollywood elite had other plans. When Stewart was 28 and Pattinson was 33, Warner Bros. bought the rights to adapt The Catcher in the Rye into a movie, and everything changed. Suddenly, Stewart and Pattinson weren’t just a couple anymore, they were brand ambassadors for a film that would become one of the most controversial movies of all time.

More than 65 years later, the film is still shrouded in mystery, controversy, and a very public breakup that changed Hollywood and pop culture forever. If you’ve never heard of The Catcher in the Rye, it’s probably time you should have. Since its release on April 18, 1951, the novel has sold over 150 million copies worldwide and was recently ranked the 17th greatest novel of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

The Catcher in the Rye

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published in January 1948, it was met with critical acclaim and became an instant best seller. The following month, publisher Doubleday released it in paperback, a groundbreaking move since most books at the time were only available in hardback.

In The Catcher in the Rye, acclaimed author John D. S. Watson’s alter ego, J. D. S. Watson, is a teenage delinquent who spends most of his time smoking, drinking, and hanging out with his weirdos friends. The novel’s setting is the streets of New York City during the Great Depression. After Watson’s father dies, his domineering mother hires an “affecting” English teacher named Mr. Slade to look after him. Watson often feels like an outcast, and longs to escape his humdrum life and go to Europe with his friends. For the most part, The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age story, but there are multiple layers of meaning packed into each twist and turn of the plot. 

Transported Back in Time

Throughout most of the 1800s, New York City was linked by rail to Boston and other major cities, allowing residents to travel to and from work easily. This form of transportation made possible many exciting opportunities for future generations of city dwellers. One such opportunity was a semiprofiling scheme for aspiring actors, directors, and writers organized by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Dubbed the Transport Workers Union (New York Central Waterfront), members of this group would labor for ten hours a day, six days a week, in exchange for free transportation to and from work on Fridays.

Writer’s strike and transit work stoppage in 1944 postponed the opening of the Second World War by a year, which in turn led to an increase in movie production values. As a result, actors from The Catcher in the Rye were transported back in time to the bustling streets of New York City in 1944, where they encountered many historical characters and settings. These characters and scenes appear in front of your eyes in the marvelous film adaptation, which was released in 2019. Directed by J. J. Abrams and adapted for the screen by Eric Klein, the film faithfully recreates the noirish atmosphere of the original novel and immerses the audience in a fantastic dream sequence.

An Uneasy Alliance

Although John D. S. Watson doesn’t appear in the film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, he is still present in the cultural memory of the Western world. This is largely thanks to the work of photographer B. W. Kunkel, whose dark polaroid photographs of the author were used as the covers of the first two U.S. paperbacks of the novel. The covers for these first editions are now considered collectors’ items.

Watson’s iconic status was further enhanced when three of his most famous students at Pencey Preparatory School submitted an application to their English teacher in 1949, seeking to study under him. These students were soon joined by a larger group of petitioners, and the teacher’s name was eventually changed to Mr. Griffin to avoid any confusion with the previously mentioned English teacher Slade. Griffin would go on to become the model for Mr. Slade in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864, and for years thereafter, he was the only teacher that students could aspire to become. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the name Griffin would be removed from classrooms nationwide.

A Life in Movies

During the first decade of the 20th century, newspapers covered daily life in New York City (and the rest of America) with an eye toward improving literacy. One such newspaper, the New York Evening Graphic, sponsored a movie night on Wednesday evenings at the Babelot Theater on West 57th Street. Many silent films were shown at this landmark, with the programme including favorites such as The Cooley Boys’ My Great Gatsby and The General Motors Girl. The New York Graphic also sponsored a Young Women’s Literary Club, whose members would meet at the Babelot and then go out for ice cream together.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the October 1939 Black Friday were a challenge to the Nabobs (Navy Boys of Boston), an organization of Boston high school graduates who served in the Coast Guard during World War II.

A Coast Guard buddy of mine named Bill Rice got me into The Catcher in the Rye, and after I read it, I knew I wanted to be a part of this group. I also happened to know that a young man named Timothy Gowdy was looking for a ship’s coach. Gowdy had recently graduated from college and was applying for a job with the U.S. Navy. Gowdy and Rice became instant friends, and together, they started a ship’s coach business in Chicago.

When the Navy agreed to sponsor the ship’s coach, they wanted a group of boys to represent them on their buddies’ rookie coach, so they chose us. We flew out to Chicago for training after our first two years of college, and eventually, we were sent to New York City to join the Coast Guard booster crew. We were in New York City during Black Friday, the prequel to The Great Depression. This was during the height of the depression, and we would look for food and clothes for the homeless every day. One of my shipmates was James Rice, the brother of Bill Rice, and we would reminisce about our time in New York City during the Depression and World War II via letter writing society. For me, James Rice was another mentor, along with Mr. Griffin.

All Roads Lead to Rye

As the son of a New York City police detective, I found myself on familiar ground when I first began my ship’s coach journey. After my two years of undergraduate study, I was accepted to the New York University Law School, where I earned my Juris Doctor in June 1954.

My first job out of law school was with an organization that provided free legal help to the poor. This was during the height of the legal reduction movement, which was inspired by the Nuremberg trials and ostensibly aimed at saving money and minimizing legal errors in the court system. The work was challenging, but rewarding, and I loved every minute of it. While I was there, I also helped to found the New York City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).