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

Some journal pages list hundreds of ideas for stories and novels, all neatly written in Saroyan's hand, listing possible titles: "World of Trouble," "Well Well Well," "All Manner of Evil." Others contain but one random personal note. "Something about watermelons in a story of summer: clarity of life" is scrawled across one page. Another reads, "Before the year ends I must write 6 or 7 novelettes: 15 to 20 thousand words each: each an experiment in both subject and treatment."

"I bought a lot of stuff from Lucy," Howard says, "and none of it had I ever seen before. None of it was in my appraisal. It was not in Saroyan's estate when he died, to the best of my knowledge."

He hands over a box that contains sequential drafts of the screenplay The Human Comedy, including notes and letters from fans of the movie. Some pages are half-filled with typing, others have but one sentence, false starts that were nevertheless saved. It is immediately apparent that Saroyan was a perfectionist who seemed on a mission to record every waking thought. For all his egomania, Saroyan remains one of the few authors whose obsessive self-chronicling allows readers and scholars to peek through a window into the creative process and observe the revisions and decisions from 60 years ago recorded forever. A word crossed out, a phrase added in pencil -- one almost jumps into the mind of Saroyan, following along with his musings and word choices.

On top of the screenplay, a piece of note paper appraises the box contents at $16,237.50.

"The archive could be worth so much," Howard remarks, watching me skim through the pages. "People could dip into it and option one play or movie, and bring in a million bucks for the collection."

From now on, any such dipping will be done only by people who represent Stan-ford University.

On Aug. 7, 1996, vans from Stanford University pulled up to the Ban-croft Library, loaded up every last box of Saroyan material, including the catalog that Bancroft staff had completed, and hauled them all away.

"It was the sourest day of my career as a librarian," remembers Bancroft Curator Anthony Bliss.

Concurrently, all Saroyan memorabilia from Fresno, Malibu, and Paris was relocated to Stanford. Friends say Saroyan would have never approved the move.

"This man was not a blue blood," says Robert Damir flatly. "He did not have any truck with snobbery or blue-blood life, the country club atmosphere. None of that appealed to him."

Even New York book dealer Jennifer Larson, a one-time board member of the Saroyan Foundation during the early 1990s, couldn't believe it. "I was stunned about the transfer," she admits. "I don't know what's behind it. I thought it was very sudden."

Despite the abrupt maneuver, which some would refer to as "literary poaching," UC Berkeley went ahead with its international Saroyan conference on Nov. 15 of that year. Titled "Saroyan Plus Fifteen," the conference featured prominent Saroyan scholars and writers, and the inauguration of the Bancroft Library's Krouzian Study Center for Armenian students. The event was sponsored by Berkeley's English department, its Armenian students and alumni, and the Saroyan Foundation.

Last May, Stanford retaliated, proudly hosting a weeklong "The Spirit of Saroyan" program on campus, a series of film screenings, readings, and talks culminating in a formal passing of the collection to the Stanford Library. In the commemorative keepsake booklet produced for the occasion, an introduction by Head Librarian Keller could scarcely contain the university's excitement: "What a treasure trove this is!"

Keller went on to make two interesting announcements. The first William Saroyan Curatorship for American and British Literature, he revealed, would go to his colleague, the "incomparable William McPheron." And the Honorary Curator-ship of the William Saroyan Archive would be held by "the creative and thoughtful president of the Saroyan Foundation," Robert Setrakian.

The Saroyan situation may never fully be resolved, or entirely controlled by Stanford. Nobody really knows how many letters, manuscripts, or xeroxes are still floating around. Saroyan events are still held at Berkeley. Fresno still hosts the annual William Saroyan Festival. And back in the Saroyan family home on 15th Avenue -- the house William Saroyan built from an empty lot 60 years ago for his mother and sister -- Saroyan niece Jacqueline Kazarian offers guided tours by appointment.

She has lived in the house with her husband since 1993, and spends much of her time and energy adding to this William Saroyan Cultural Resource Center. The building has received status as a city historical landmark, and even retains Saroyan's original phone number. She feels uniquely qualified to represent her uncle. He was her first baby sitter. She cooked him dinners later in his life. And at his bedside in the Fresno hospital, she was the last to see him alive.

We meet in her living room full of delicate furniture. She sits me down, finishes reading a touching essay she has written about her uncle, then whips out a collapsible pointer. It's time for the tour of the home. The upstairs is family heirlooms and furniture, but the basement is a Saroyan shrine, a work in progress that may never be completed.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest

Around The Web

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.