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

His personal library remains intact, if dated: The Young Stalin, The Music Lover's Handbook, Folk Tales of All Nations, Strange Animals I Have Known by Raymond Ditmars. Another wall is shelves of his books, several copies of each, with many first editions. Clippings and magazine articles are carefully presented on tables, many with little white signs indicating the year and other information.

The room smells musty. His walking sticks lean against the fireplace. A portrait of his father hangs above the mantel. On top of his player piano is a model for the stage set of the 1941 play The Beautiful People. A desk he made in high school nudges a wall.

His bedroom retains his original dresser, two small twin beds, and a framed original poster for the play The Time of Your Life. His black dress shoes are tucked under a stool. Kazarian confides that she recently attended a costume-required toastmaster's event, dressed in his Army uniform. "And the shoes fit!"

The bathroom is arranged with his original bottles of cologne and after-shave, carefully laid out next to the sink. Another room contains his typewriter and Victrola. She says that when she and her husband moved back into the home, they discovered 10 boxes of rocks in the garage. In keeping with the spirit of her uncle, she decided to spread the rocks along the steps that border the side of the building.

"Would you like to hear his voice?" she asks. "You sit in the rocking chair."

She puts on a tape recording of Saroyan as he listens to the radio, spinning the dial between stations, critiquing the programs, occasionally chuckling at the comedy. Essentially it's a random scan of the dial in five- to 10-second chunks of audio, an aural diary of his peculiar listening habits.

"He did this every day," she says. "These are unedited." Some news snippets follow. Nothing remarkable happens.

She digs up another tape of him reading a short story from 1970.
"The speaker is William Saroyan," he begins in his booming voice. "The writer of a short story called 'The 50-Yard Dash.' Which I now propose to read, holding before me a paperback book entitled My Name Is Aram. I am making this recording for Mrs. Milton Rubin."

His introduction goes on in a loud, declarative, simple voice, as if small children are gathered at his feet. The story finally begins, a tale first published in 1940, about a 12-year-old paperboy named Aram who answers a magazine ad for a mail-order bodybuilding course. The narrator prepares for a track meet -- envisioning himself answering the ad and soon transforming into "a giant of tremendous strength" -- and describes the Charles Atlas-like pitchman, Lionel Strongforth:

"He was layered all over with muscle, and appeared to be somebody who could lift a 1924 roadster and tip it over. It was an honor to have him for a friend. The only trouble was, I didn't have the money. I forget how much the exact figure was at the beginning of our acquaintanceship, but I haven't forgotten that it was an amount completely out of the question."

Jacqueline Kazarian chuckles at the tape, and looks out the window, over the treetops of Golden Gate Park to the Pacific, the identical view shared by her uncle as he wrote this story 60 years ago. She is no longer here. She's in a safer place, a place where Saroyan belongs. Not packed away in acid-free boxes as victory trophies for competing universities, but alive in the hearts and minds of Americans, who appreciate the simple Saroyan-esque pleasures in life. The squeal of a happy child. The crisp bite of an apple. The warmth of red wine. The roar of laughter over a good story, told among friends.

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