Snatching Saroyan

How Stanford University aced out UC Berkeley and acquired the million-dollar archives of San Francisco's most prolific author, William Saroyan -- without paying a dime

With only a final penny to his name, the narrator lies down on his bed and dies with a smile. Both sad and ultimately uplifting, the story was an immediate success, and many more followed, published first in periodicals and then collected into books. At 26, he was already famous, an eloquently simple voice of prewar America, telling stories of hardships and survivors, of immigrants hustling to make ends meet, and scrambling to support their families.

Saroyan would best be known for two monumental successes. A six-day marathon typing session in a hotel room produced a play called The Time of Your Life, based on real-life characters from a saloon named Izzy's on San Francisco's Pacific Street. The play went to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, which he publicly refused, saying, "Art must be democratic, but at the same time it must be both proud and aloof. It must not be taken in by either praise or criticism."

His other major career triumph came with The Human Comedy, a screen story eventually reworked into a screenplay and film, for which he won an Oscar for best original story in 1943, and which starred Mickey Rooney and Robert Mitchum. Its sentimental depiction of a small California town during World War II resonated strongly with a patriotic nation already experiencing the tragedy of mass casualties, and his own adaptation into a novel became a best seller. Unfortunately, after a dispute with the movie studio over being allowed to direct the film, he angrily sold his interest for a flat fee, and never again worked with Hollywood.

Continued literary success, however, guaranteed him a regular table at the Stork Club in Manhattan, and for a time he wrote and produced plays at his own theater house there called the Belasco. He wrote a hit song for Rosemary Clooney called "Come On-A My House," and caroused the party circuit with Artie Shaw. Visits to San Francisco were usually marked by the obligatory item in Herb Caen's column. The word "Saroyan-esque," meaning sweet and eccentric, entered the nation's vocabulary. He referred to himself, only partly in jest, as "the most famous writer in the world."

A marriage to Carol Marcus, a blond debutante (he was 35, she was 17), would produce two children, no doubt a dream come true for a writer whose work captured the spirit and innocence of childhood. Unfortunately, the union ended in a nasty divorce. The Saroyans reconciled and married again, but it didn't work. Marcus would wed actor Walter Matthau. William Saroyan, obviously heartbroken, would never seriously consider marriage again the rest of his life.

After the split, Saroyan's writing grew even more self-obsessed. Pages of his manuscripts were marked with the exact time he began and finished typing. He saved every moment of his life, obsessively writing stories and plays that were never meant to be read, recording himself listening to the radio, and collecting rocks, transit receipts, fingernail clippings, and sacks of rubber bands.

"Other friends collected money," explains his niece, Jacqueline Kazarian. "He collected rubber bands, to show them it was a game. The rubber bands were as worthless as the money."

Stories continued to flow from his typewriter -- books for children, memoirs of Fresno, warm reminiscences of family life that ran in earnest magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. But some believe the heartfelt tone was an artful disguise.

"He had developed a kind of genial voice that made him seem as though he was all-knowledgeable and had a whimsical attitude towards the crazy world," says John Leggett, who has spent 10 years writing a still-unpublished Saroyan biography. "In fact, he was really an angry, bitter man. In real life, he disliked most people. He had very few friends, if any. His friends were all his relations."

A long-standing fondness for both drinking and gambling guaranteed Saroyan a roller-coaster income most of his life, and persistent income-tax problems led him to alternate residence between Fresno and Paris. He typed, listened to music, and rode his bicycle through the streets, the picture of both bohemian eccentricity and eternal loneliness.

Compounding his problems, by some accounts, were his son, Aram, and daughter, Lucy, who were raised primarily by their mother. Aram, a writer who once received a $500 NEA grant for the one-word poem "lighght," enjoyed for years a strained relationship with his father, who called him "my pot-smoking son." The elder Saroyan was particularly enraged with Aram for selling the author's personal items -- while he was still alive.

Daughter Lucy was another story. She tried her luck in Hollywood, appearing in films with Richard Pryor and her stepfather, Walter Matthau, then wound up as the companion of Marlon Brando. Her name is remembered in rare book circles because, like her brother, she has sold off personal items relating to her father. (Attempts to contact both children for this story were unsuccessful.)

As Saroyan lay bedridden with cancer in a Fresno hospital, the two children paid him final visits. He hadn't seen either in years. In the spring of 1981, Aram chronicled the last few weeks of his father's life as they occurred, and after Saroyan's death that account was published as the book Last Rites, a memoir so nasty that one magazine ran an excerpt under the headline "Daddy Dearest."

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