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Lucy Saroyan, 57; Actress, Daughter of Pulitzer-Winning Author

Times Staff Writer

Lucy Saroyan, a former actress who struggled for years over her estrangement from her famous father, author William Saroyan, has died. She was 57.

The cause was cirrhosis of the liver complicated by hepatitis C, said her brother, Aram, of Los Angeles. She is also survived by her mother, Carol Matthau, of New York.

Saroyan died April 11 at a Thousand Oaks lodge where she had been living. A formal announcement of her death was made only a few days before her ashes were interred Monday at Ararat Cemetery in Fresno, near those of her father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died in 1981 at age 72.

Lucy Saroyan was born in San Francisco on Jan. 17, 1946. She was the second child of her father and the former Carol Marcus, a New York debutante who enchanted the writer with her beauty, zest and glamorous friends.

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The marriage took place at the peak of Saroyan’s fame: The son of Armenian immigrants had thrilled the literary world in 1934 with publication of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” a collection of short stories. He expanded his reputation over the next decade with the novel “The Human Comedy,” which was turned into an Oscar-winning movie, and “The Time of Your Life,” which earned the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

He became known for stories that celebrated brotherhood and tightknit families. But his own family life was disastrous.

He married and divorced Marcus twice in eight years, the final break coming in 1952. Her later marriage to actor Walter Matthau lasted 41 years.

Saroyan never remarried. Once one of the richest and most celebrated authors in America, he cheated on child support and gambled away most of his wealth.

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By his own choosing, he had almost no contact with his children in his last years. In the end, he essentially disinherited them, leaving the bulk of his $1.3-million estate to the William Saroyan Foundation.

“Papa idealized big, big families,” Lucy Saroyan said in 1983. “He wanted 10 kids, and he only had two. I think he was estranged from Aram and me partly for that reason. His marriage failing caused him lifelong heartbreak.”

After the author’s final divorce, the children lived with their mother in Pacific Palisades and later New York. But they spent summers and many weekends with their father, whose success allowed a sophisticated lifestyle of European sojourns, embassy parties and encounters with a glittering array of Hollywood and literary luminaries.

He wrote books for each of his children. Aram’s was a collection of monologues titled “Papa, You’re Crazy,” published in 1957. For Lucy he wrote the 1956 novel “Mama, I Love You,” which found commercial success despite critical boos. A thinly veiled exercise in wish fulfillment, it revolved around a divorced couple who split custody of their son and daughter. It ends with the daughter becoming a famous actress and the parents remarrying.

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Lucy Saroyan attended the exclusive Dalton School in New York before enrolling at Northwestern University in Chicago. She wrote short stories that her father thought were quite good, according to biographer John Leggett in his 2002 book “A Daring Young Man.”

Unlike her brother, who launched his own writing life with one-word poems, she did not pursue a literary career. She dropped out of college and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, did voice-overs and worked as a dresser for her stepfather Matthau in the Broadway production of “The Odd Couple.” She eventually was able to make a living as an actress with small parts on Broadway and off-Broadway and in summer stock.

She later moved to California and worked in television and film. Her brother said one of her favorite roles was a small part in the 1980 spy caper “Hopscotch,” which starred Matthau. She made minor appearances in 22 movies, including “Greased Lightning” (1977), in which she played Beau Bridges’ wife, and “Blue Collar” (1978), in which she played Harvey Keitel’s wife.

She also worked as a film library archivist and in bookstores. She conducted interviews with personalities such as New York cafe owner Elaine Kaufman and director James Toback, which Andy Warhol published in his Interview magazine.

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As she matured, however, she found it increasingly hard to win her father’s favor. He disapproved of his never-married daughter’s lifestyle -- particularly an affair she said she had with Marlon Brando -- and her lack of career success. He broadcast his often-lacerating views.

“What happens to kids?” he was quoted as saying in “Saroyan,” a 1984 biography by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford. “Yes, my little daughter was a delight to know, just as my little son was a fascination. Until each became a full member of the human race, by choice, by practice, by experience, by pose, by purpose, by fate, by law.”

In “Obituaries,” a series of reflections published in 1979, the senior Saroyan described himself as “an idiot father of a young and stupid son and a younger and more stupid daughter.”

His son countered with his own blistering memoir, “Last Rites,” published in 1982, in which he described a man whose emotional abuse made his children “numb with disbelief and sorrow and deep, deep, murderous anger.”

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The elder Saroyan cut off relations with his children during the last decade of his life. But Lucy tried to stay in touch, writing him warm, conciliatory letters every New Year’s Eve for several years, even though he never answered.

When Aram’s unsparingly critical book about their father came out, she panned it as “unfair to Pop.”

“She always adored her father,” Aram Saroyan said in an interview last week.

“She adored him even though he could be very exasperating, even though he had written some very hurtful things about both of us.”

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In his last days, the author relayed his desire to spend an hour or two with Lucy. But he began to berate her even before she crossed the threshold of his Fresno house. “He slandered her viciously” for not being rich, famous or married, Aram wrote in his book. She rushed from the house in tears.

“He was angry I hadn’t done those conventional things” -- marry and have children -- she told The Times in an unpublished interview last year. “He resented the freedom I took. And yet he gave me a great sense of freedom.”

A few weeks later, he grudgingly granted her a final meeting. “He told me he loved me,” she said. “And he kissed me.”


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