The Magazine

Saroyan Turns 100

The writer who asked, What does it mean to be alive?

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By ANN STAPLETON
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"I  do not know what makes a writer, but it is probably not happiness," wrote the Fresno-born Armenian-American author and playwright William Saroyan, who died in 1981.

His father, a failed poet, died of appendicitis when Saroyan was barely three years old. His mother put her four children into Oakland's Fred Finch Orphanage and took on work as a domestic, hoping to reunite the family one day. She would eventually succeed, but the process would take five years. Meanwhile, Saroyan was consigned to the small boys' ward, where he fell asleep every night to the sounds of bereft boys rocking themselves and weeping.

As Saroyan's son Aram noted in Last Rites, about his difficult relationship with his father, whereas most of us come to a first perception of the world with a mother and father acting as a buffer between ourselves and death, Saroyan's "own link hooked up at the very moment of the dawning of his rational consciousness not with father, or mother--but with Death itself." He was "hooked into the abyss at both ends."

Afflicted with the lifelong emotional effects of his childhood experiences, and an acute anti-authority complex, Saroyan often found the intricacies of human relationships painful and mystifying. According to John Leggett, the biographical author of A Daring Young Man, it was the "Saroyan social paradox, that he could fill a room with bonhomie, but people were no more real to him than characters in a dream."

He quarreled with or disappointed almost everyone who ever tried to befriend him, including Random House's Bennett Cerf, MGM's Louis B. Mayer, and Darryl F. Zanuck, founder of Twentieth Century Fox. He told Lillian Hellman that her plays could use some songs to liven them up, and then proceeded to sing her some possibilities. James Mason once slapped him for talking nonstop at a premiere. And in a retaliatory piece for Esquire, Ernest Hemingway, annoyed over a short story that seemed to mock his work, told Saroyan he wasn't "that bright" and that he should "watch" himself.

"Do I make myself clear," he added, "or would you like me to push your puss in?"

Even Saroyan's lifelong best friend, his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, became suspect. While on a boisterous cross-country road trip in a new Buick paid for with money from Saroyan's first Broadway success, the two of them put lyrics to old Armenian folk tunes and came up with the song "Come On-A My House (I'm Gonna Give You Candy)," which would become a hit for Rosemary Clooney. But Saroyan, saddled in later years with heavy gambling debts, found it impossible to forgive Bagdasarian's only crime: becoming set for life by creating the novelty recording act, The Chipmunks.

Saroyan was unhappily married, once for six years and a second time for a disastrous six months, to the sweet-spirited blonde socialite Carol Marcus, the inspiration for Holly Golightly in her childhood friend Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, lifelong friend to Gloria Vanderbilt and Oona O'Neill, and whose letters from beau "Jerry" (J.D. Salinger, as it turned out) Carol once plagiarized in an attempt to write entertainingly to Saroyan. Courted by Orson Welles, Mel Ferrer, Clifford Odets, Al Capp, and Marlon Brando, among others, she eventually settled into a marriage of over 40 years' duration with Walter Matthau, but Saroyan continued to rave about her and love her from a distance until death intervened.

A self-described "estranged man" ("I am little comfort to myself, though I am the only comfort I have"), Saroyan lost touch with his children Aram and Lucy--though when they learned of his final illness, they effected a tender reconciliation. But if temperament and early loss conspired to deprive Saroyan of a fulfilling personal life, in his writing he was determined, like his character who planted pomegranate trees in the desert, "to make a garden of this awful desolation."

Saroyan was a writing machine and fearless genre-hopper, achieving major successes in the short story (The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), the novel (The Human Comedy and My Name Is Aram, the Armenian-American Huck Finn), and the autobiography (The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, Not Dying, and others). And alongside Eugene O'Neill and Thornton Wilder he helped to found a truly American theater, with My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life--for which he declined the Pulitzer Prize, on the grounds that institutions and the arts don't mix.