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

Berkeley's attorney responded, disputing points made by the foundation attorney, but it was purely for the record. The collection now belonged to Stanford.

Leaving aside the questions of where the Saroyan papers should reside, and whether Stanford paid adequate compensation for them, one thing is very clear: The Saroyan Foundation did a terrible job of gathering and managing the collection.

In 1990, Bancroft Library Director James Hart passed away, and with him also disappeared any library influence on the Saroyan Foundation board. Bohemian Club librarian Andrew Jameson joined the board, presumably on recommendation from Robert Setrakian, who happened to be president of the Bohemian Club.

Also during 1990, William Saroyan's sister Cosette died. His daughter Lucy moved into the family home on 15th Avenue in San Francisco, and for the next few years Saroyan items started popping up in stores and pawnshops. A national news story reported that William Saroyan's 1943 Oscar statue was displayed in the cluttered window of a Mission District pawnshop, surrounded by used jewelry and cameras. Advertisements appeared in magazines, listing for sale various books and correspondence, including letters to Lucy.

Neighbors of the 15th Avenue house spoke of wild parties, and police were called more than once. After a Superior Court judge ruled the home, co-owned by the foundation and Cosette's estate, could be sold to the beneficiaries of that estate, it was purchased by Saroyan's niece, Jacqueline Kazarian, and her husband.

The new owners inspected the home and were disgusted: a leaking roof, ruined floors, weeds that had grown to 10 feet tall, evidence of drug use, and a door damaged when a boyfriend of Lucy's had apparently tried to break into the residence. They obtained a court order and threw Lucy Saroyan out of her own father's home.

In a sworn court declaration filed in 1996, Robert Setrakian admitted the Saroyan Foundation had insufficient resources to carry out the author's dying wishes, saying the organization "has no experience nor ability to raise the necessary capital to operate as a separate entity and still be consistent with the Will and intent of William Saroyan." The foundation's last tax documents available to the public -- for 1995 -- list royalties from sales of Saroyan's books in over 40 countries to be just $34,938. Investments brought in another $37,000, but the foundation's legal fees that year were $38,000, and Setrakian's annual salary as board president was $20,000. The estate was not getting rich.

Despite the expressed wishes of his will, the foundation had never established an office at Saroyan's home on 15th Avenue, nor at his homes in Fresno. Instead, the foundation sold the residences. Despite his will, the foundation never hired a curator to monitor his literary affairs. Even though his will left nothing to his children, they successfully sued the foundation and now own renewal rights to over 300 copyrights of his work. Despite the precepts expressed in the original articles of incorporation for the foundation, it had not kept family members on the board of trustees. Despite Saroyan's dream that his work would be studied and enjoyed, the archive had remained completely inaccessible to the public.

According to Saroyan's own words, the executor of his estate was not to "sell or assign any copyrights, published or unpublished manuscripts, copies of my works or any part of the property constituting The Saroyan Collection." In fact, according to court documents, Setrakian and the foundation have now relinquished all ownership in all Saroyan works to Stanford University.

Since 1963, Berkeley book dealer Peter Howard has been one of the world's premier dealers of modern first-edition and antiquarian books. He is a past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers of America. He doesn't need to publish catalogs to promote his work. Like most in his field, customers know who he is.

Howard is quite familiar with the Saroyan Archive, and its value. He has been asked to appraise significant pieces of the collection twice -- first the Bancroft collection, which took him more than five months, and then another 100 boxes of Saroyan paraphernalia discovered later at the 15th Avenue home.

Among the 400,000 volumes that inhabit Howard's two-story store, Serendipity Books, on Berkeley's University Avenue are some of the last items of Saroyan materials not yet in Stanford's possession. The haphazard decor suggests either the store has just opened up, or is in the process of closing forever. There are no signs anywhere to aid navigation.

One large box marked "Selznick 4" teeters on a stack of others. Random titles radiate from shelves and stacks, representing the ultimate in obscure reading: Popular Religion in the Punjab Today, Collecting and Restoring Scientific Instruments, Love's Cross Currents by Algernon Charles Swinburne, a shrink-wrapped bibliography of fiction written by L. Ron Hubbard, a bound screenplay by Paul Theroux.

And in the middle of it all, surrounded by stuffed kitty cat plush toys, who silently guard the domain, sits the gray-bearded proprietor at a large computer. Either you know what you're looking for, or you don't belong. All requests are funneled through one person -- Peter Howard.

Serendipity has two bookshelves of Saroyan. A first edition of his very first book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, is priced at $375. The real goodies, though, are kept in a locked filing cabinet, from which Howard produces 43 Saroyan journals, dating back to 1934. The ruled notebooks chronicle the years before his Pulitzer, before his marriage and children, when he was a young man living in San Francisco, enjoying his first taste of success.

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