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

When the will was read, Aram and Lucy discovered they had been disinherited by their father.

After his death, the literary affairs and effects of William Saroyan were left in the hands of a private group, the William Saroyan Foundation, first created in 1966 and initially run by three trustees -- William Saroyan, his sister Cosette, and his brother Henry. Begun for tax purposes, the foundation underwent restructuring over the years, according to former foundation attorney Robert Damir. Saroyan expanded the group to include more business-minded people on the board of trustees, and when it came time to draft a final will, the foundation provided a logical vehicle for planning an estate.

Although a 1966 document stated specifically, "It is the earnest, but non-mandatory, wish of the founders of this corporation that a majority of the trustees should at all times be members of the family of William Saroyan or his blood relatives or his descendants," by the 1990s, no relatives remained on the board of the Saroyan Foundation.

The president of the organization is Robert Setrakian, a fellow Armenian whom Saroyan met at a funeral. Setrakian's background was as an attorney, vintner, and businessman; he sat on many boards of directors, and held memberships in many exclusive private clubs. He was named executor of the estate, but had no previous experience in literary estates.

The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley seemed a logical fit as a repository for Saroyan's papers. Other prominent western American writers' collections were on the Bancroft's shelves, including Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Gertrude Stein, as were the papers of City Lights Books. The Berkeley campus also offered a department of Armenian studies, and Saroyan had mentioned the furtherance of Armenian culture in his will. James Hart, the charismatic and influential director of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, was a friend to William Saroyan, and would serve on the foundation board.

After Saroyan's death, staffers of the Bancroft were dispatched on a mission to retrieve materials from the writer's two tract homes in Fresno, which were completely filled with manuscripts, papers, books, and oddities such as the rubber bands and kleenex. According to a Bancroft internal memo, the project demanded six three-day trips. The staff poked and sorted through hundreds and hundreds of musty boxes, under court order to take only papers and writing-related items, and to ignore personal effects such as clothing. One garage took five days to examine, and the San Joaquin Valley heat was so stifling, at one point someone actually fainted into a pile of manuscripts.

The materials were delivered to the Bancroft in October 1982, and its staff spent the next two years in the basement manuscript and archival processing room arranging the collection. The results yielded 121 boxes of correspondence, 57 cartons of manuscripts, and daily journals chronicling the last 47 years of Saroyan's life, all measuring over 180 linear feet of material. The completed Finding Aid -- that is, the index listing the contents of the entire archive -- ran nearly 300 pages. Saroyan's was the largest collection in the library by far.

Other personal memorabilia collected from Saroyan's homes in Paris and Malibu was stored on the fourth floor of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. Among this group of materials was a panoply of other strange things the pack-rat Saroyan had refused to throw away: used typewriter ribbons, string, rubber bands, jars of rocks and shells, trunks of broken clocks, books and phone books filled with doodlings, boxes of junk mail and brochures, hairbrushes, and bags of his own fingernail clippings.

The bulk of the archive was noted in foundation tax returns as being worth approximately $1.6 million.

After a lengthy process, the estate of Saroyan was finally probated in December 1984, almost four years after his death. Things seemed to be moving slowly, but on track. Articles appeared in the press about the Saroyan papers, which developed a reputation as a very large and unusual collection. The Los Angeles Times Magazine ran several pages of photos from the Bancroft archives.

According to an internal foundation memo from the late 1980s, official approval had been received for issuance of a William Saroyan postage stamp, to be released in 1991, on the 10th anniversary of his death. The North Beach street Adler Alley, in front of the Specs' bar on Columbus Street, was rechristened Saroyan Way. Several hundred permission grants were approved, and 53 hardcover publications were mentioned.

The Saroyan legacy was, however, hardly flooding bookstores. According to the memo, a mere five books had been published or republished since 1982, none by major houses. Longtime friends and relatives grew increasingly frustrated with the foundation, among them the foundation's own attorney, Robert Damir, who, by 1988, had had enough.

Owing to lawyer/client privilege, Damir chooses his words carefully: "I just felt the foundation was not doing what I knew Bill Saroyan wanted to have done."

Anthony Bliss, the rare book and manuscript curator at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, wrote the Saroyan Foundation in 1995, saying, "We feel that William Saroyan is a major American writer whose papers deserve professional preservation, cataloguing and handling. The Bancroft Library would make an ideal permanent home for his papers, and we hope that at some point the foundation will wish to place them here."

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