On August 31 William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, to Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan. Only three years later Saroyan’s father, Armenak, died at the early age of thirty-six. He was to remain in William’s mind as a very dim memory, but also as an enduring source of motivation and encouragement, for Armenak had also been a writer, an unpublished one. The son meant to succeed where the father, in impossible circumstances, had failed.
"Laughed, burned finger, squawked, laughed, fell off chair, squawked, laughed, chased a rabbit, didn’t catch it, squawked." Following their father’s death, William, his brother Henry and his sisters Zabel and Cozette spent several years at the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, while Armenak’s young widow Takoohi took up menial work in nearby San Francisco.
Takoohi and her children are reunited in Fresno. She worked in fruit packinghouses, and William’s maternal grandmother Lucy, who was to be a strong influence on him, took care of the household. Saroyan left school early — the school work was too slow and predictable and there was constant friction, caused by boredom and by frequent reminders that he was the son of an immigrant. When he was twelve years old, little Saroyan read, by chance, the Guy de Maupassant story ‘The Bell,’ and the secret ambition to be a writer started to form. He became, then, a frequent visitor to Fresno’s public library while selling newspapers or working as a telegram messenger. Began to change the world, using a bicycle, a baseball bat, and a pair of pliers. In 1925 Saroyan left Fresno Technical high school without a diploma, and worked in the vineyards and in his uncle, Aram Saroyan’s law office.
William left Fresno for Los Angeles, a brief stint in the California National Guard, then went to San Francisco, where he worked as a clerk-typist with the Southern Pacific Company. Finally, he worked as a messenger, then manager, for the Postal Telegraph. In 1928 Overland Monthly bought William’s first published sketch. In August, with money borrowed from his uncle Mihran, he left San Francesco to seek his fortune in New York. But next year, disheartened and homesick, William returned to San Francisco. World still unchanged. Lost a tooth. Gambled. Luck lousy. He began a series of low-paying, short-lived jobs.
The Armenian journal Hairenik in Boston accepted poems from Saroyan. In October, Saroyan translated his sketch for a novel, “Trapeze over the Universe,” into the short-story masterpiece ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ which was published in Story magazine in 1934. The young writer decided on an act of boldness to convert this piece of good fortune into a decisive breakthrough: he wrote to the editors of Story — without invitation — informing them that for the whole of the month of January 1934 he would send them one newly written story. Soon editors replied: yes, the stories were being received with great interest — keep them coming! “Only success that means anything to a writer happens when he becomes accepted as a writer at all. The rest is beside the point.” – Saroyan wrote. By October 1934 Random House published “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories.” The book was a best-seller.
William moved to New York and on to London, Paris, Scandinavia, Moscow, and Yerevan. Saroyan opposed nationalistic ideas in his writings while exhibiting a strong emotional attachment to Armenia, and this inconsistency — or dilemma — is nowhere more apparent than in his short story “Antranik of Armenia.” Back home, he visits Mexico City by train. Book published.Very angry! In 1936 William’s second collection, “Inhale and Exhale”, appears from Random House, but not in the form he wished, and he broke with his editor and publisher. His next collection, “Three Times Three”, appeared that year from the Conference Press, the brainchild of three Los Angeles college students. Saroyan worked as a salaried Hollywood writer, first for B. P. Schulberg and then at Columbia Pictures. In 1937 “Little Children,” his next story collection, appeared from Harcourt, Brace.
“Love, Here Is My Hat” appeared as an experimental quality paperback, the price was 25 cents, from Modern Age Books and, in the fall, “The Trouble with Tigers”, a hardbound collection, from Harcourt, Brace. Despite thinking of himself as a ‘world writer,’ he could not avoid being a writer of his time and place — America in the years of the Depression — and many of the stories are intimately bound up with the poverty and hardship of the time. He's a wonderful, happy, crazy, lusty, life-loving goddam beautiful son-of-a-bitch of a man (William Childress). In April “My Heart’s in the Highlands” opened as a Group Theatre workshop production and received enthusiastic reviews and an extended run. William wrote “The Time of Your Life” in a six-day stint, and saw it open to triumphant notices in October. A summer trip took him to Europe, including Ireland. He aborted a musical revue collaboration with Vincente Minnelli.
Love’s Old Sweet Song opened on Broadway in April to mixed notices, but in the same week Saroyan received both the New York Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Time of Your Life. He rejected the Pulitzer Prize by following declaration: I do not believe in prizes or award in the realm of art “ and have always been particularly opposed to material or official patronage of the arts by government, organization or individual, a naive and innocent style of behavior which nevertheless, I believe, vitiates and embarrasses art at its source.” In December, “My Name is Aram”, a suite of short stories lightly fictionalizing his boyhood, is published to enthusiastic reviews. In April 1941, Saroyan produced and directed “The Beautiful People”. That fall, after severe gambling losses, Saroyan agrees to prepare a screenplay for M-G-M studios.
William Saroyan met Carol Marcus, a young society girl and a friend of Oona O’Neill Chaplin. Carol was also Truman Capote’s lifelong friend and he used her and her white-blond hair as a basis for Holly Golightly in his book “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’ In March Saroyan shoot his short subject film for Louis B. Mayer, entitled The Good Job. In May, Saroyan had a public split with M-G-M. “Hello, Out There” was staged in September. In October Saroyan was sworn into the United States Army, drafted as a buck private. In February 1943, Saroyan and Carol married. Love doesn't have to be perfect. Even perfect, it is still the best thing there is, for the simple reason that it is the most common and constant truth. “The Human Comedy”, his M-G-M screenplay was novelized and published. Saroyan’s Army duty in New York leaded to a psychiatric observation. On September 25 Saroyan’s son Aram was born. In November, Get Away, Old Man, a play satirizing Hollywood, failed on Broadway.
Saroyan won the Academy Award for Best Story for the film adaptation of his novel The Human Comedy. In February, Saroyan shipped out for Army duty in Europe. In London, he circulated in literary society, and simultaneously wrote the propaganda novel, “The Adventures of Wesley Jackson”. His reward was supposed to be leave to visit his new family in New York, but the novel failed to please (publication was in fact delayed until after the way) and the deal was forgotten. Instead the possibility of a court-martial was talked about, for the book was strongly anti-way at a time when such sentiments were unthinkable. I see the war as death in one form or another for men dressed as soldiers. Same year he lovingly dedicated a collection of short stories, “Dear Baby”, to his wife. In 1945 Saroyan was hospitalized in Luxembourg, returned to the United States, and released from the Army in September.
Saroyan’s daughter Lucy is born on January 17th, in San Francisco. "I want my children to be people– each one separate– each one special– each one a pleasant and exciting variation of all the others.” After the birth of Lucy the marriage began to fail. And at the same time his literary career went into a steep decline, Saroyan was writing with great difficulty. “What the hell are they all looking for? A way out. A way to the right way out. A way to leave.” The allegorical play, “Sam Ego’s House”, received a Los Angeles showcase production. In 1948 the film “The Time of Your Life” opened to a financial failure. “The Saroyan Special”, an anthology with no new work, is published by Harcourt, Brace. Heavy gambling losses and Carol’s attempt to divorce him occurred after his impulsive decision, which is soon abandoned, to move the family to a farm near Fresno. In September, he moved with his family to New York City.
In April, Saroyan separated from Carol and went to Europe, returning in September and spending six weeks in Nevada to secure a divorce, suffering $50,000 in gambling losses. In 1950 “The Assyrians and Other Stories” was published by Harcourt, Brace, and hailed by critics as a return to form. Saroyan begun writing on assignment for slick magazines, negotiating with Hollywood. He wrote “Tracy’s Tiger” and “Rock Wagram” in a month-long burst of work at midsummer. In 1951 Saroyan campaigned for Carol to remarry him, which she did on April 2. Later Carol said: “I remarried him because I couldn't believe how terrible it was the first time” and Saroyan thought he made the same mistake twice. Saroyan co-authored lyrics of the song ‘Come On-a My House,’ with his cousin Ross Baghdassarian. The song sung by Rosemary Clooney topped the Hit Parade. In October, Carol brought divorce proceedings against him.
The divorce between Saroyan and Carol Marcus was granted. Carol and the children were installed in a house in Pacific Palisades and Saroyan buys himself a house on pilings at Malibu. “The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills,” in which he first reveals his orphanage years, was published by Scribner’s. Next year “The Laughing Matter”, a bitter melodramatization of his marriage is published by Doubleday. In 1954 “A Lost Child’s Fireflies” a play written in 1950, was given a summer production in Dallas with an all-black cast. In 1955 ‘A Few Adventures in the California Boyhood of William Saroyan’ is broadcast on the Omnibus series with child actor Sal Mineo as Saroyan. He finally settled into a modest but instantly loved house on the beach at Malibu.
“Mama, I Love You” - a warm-hearted novel of the theatre (written for his daughter and serialized in the Saturday Evening Post) was published, which was followed by a new collection of short stories, “The Whole Voyald.” In 1957 Saroyan wrote a book for his son too, which was called “Papa, You’re Crazy”. He had another play on Broadway, “The Cave Dwellers”, in 1957, and there were a number of television productions and adaptations of his works.
Saroyan left his Malibu home for a trip around the world, working on a memoir, unpublished in its original form, entitled “Fifty-Fifty”. In 1959 Saroyan left America for Europe, styling himself as a tax exile. “The London Comedy” was produced in London, and he collaborated with Henry Cecil on a second stage comedy, “Settled Out of Court”, which was also produced in London. In 1961 Saroyan taught at Purdue University in Indiana, where students produced his didactic comedy; set there, “High Time Along the Wabash”. Saroyan bought an apartment in Paris, France. In 1962 his autobiography, “Here Comes There Goes You Know Who”, was published, then “Boys and Girls Together”, “One Day in the Afternoon of the World” and “Short Drive, Sweet Chariot”. In 1966 he formed the William Saroyan Foundation. In 1968 Saroyan published a collection of casual pieces, “I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure”.
Saroyan published “Don’t Go, But If You Must, Say Hello to Everybody” (“Letters from 74 rue Taitbout “), Cassell, London, and New American Library, New York. In 1972 Saroyan published “Places Where I’ve Done Time”, Praeger. In 1973 Saroyan published “Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon”, Dial.
Saroyan spent his final years in a self-imposed isolation he deemed necessary to preserve the quality of his writing, which he worked at for hours each day. He published “Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever”, McGraw-Hill. He visited Armenia for the third time. In 1978 Saroyan published “Chance Meetings”, Norton. Then, again, he visited Armenia, where his 70th birthday was honorably celebrated. In 1979 Saroyan published “Obituaries”, Creative Arts. In 1980 William Saroyan was nominated for the American Book Award for Obituaries.
William Saroyan died of cancer in the Veteran’s Hospital in Fresno, on May 18. At his request, half of his ashes are interred in Fresno, the other half in Armenia. “Who would think of using the word “unalive” to characterize a dead person other than Saroyan?”