William Saroyan, the boisterous, brilliant and reclusive Armenian bard of Central California whose prize-winning books and plays underscored the dearness of life and who readily admitted that he was as great a writer as his admirers said he was, died Monday. He was 72.
He was admitted to Veterans Administration Hospital in Fresno April 21 after family members found him unconscious at his home. At first it was thought that Saroyan had suffered a stroke, but doctors later said he was suffering from cancer.
He will be cremated.
Five days before his collapse, Saroyan had called the Associated Press to make this final statement for publication after his death:
“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
Saroyan was a portly man with a walrus mustache that once led a critic to describe him as resembling a “Balkan bandit.” He was a prolific, sometimes rambling, writer who churned out a Pulitzer-prize winning play in six days and then stunned the literary community by rejecting the awards.
Many of Saroyan’s hundreds of works, such as his 1940 short story collection “My Name is Aram,” were based on his experience growing up in the rural San Joaquin Valley. He used a Fresno-like setting for one of his most highly touted novels, “The Human Comedy,” a series of vignettes about the family of a soldier who died at war. In 1943, it was made into a movie starring Mickey Rooney.
Another Saroyan work, the 1939 play, “The Time of Your Life,” also subsequently became a film, this one starring Jimmy Cagney. The five-act drama about the oddball patrons of a San Francisco waterfront saloon was the first play ever awarded both the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
But, declaring his opposition to subsidies for the arts, he turned down the Pulitzer and refused to accept the $1,000 award that went with it.
Saroyan’s early works were upbeat, sentimental stories, written at a time when most literary heavyweights, such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, were producing serious works of tragedy, pain and struggle.
His writing was considered uneven, verbose and often maudlin by some critics, even many who professed to be Saroyan fans. But when he clicked, which was more often than not, the stories were gems — snatches of life frozen on paper.
His most memorable stories dealt with childhood. He wove his fantasies around a real situation. In an article in Westways magazine, he wrote of a fly which landed on a teacher’s nose during a classroom lecture. The central character became fascinated with the fly and forgot about the lecture. Where had the fly come from? Where was it going to go?
If there was a message in Saroyan, it was this: Experience life to its fullest. “Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep,” he advised in the preface to his first book, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
Despite that credo, 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. In one rare interview, he called it “a majestic loneliness.”
“The making of anything really worth making calls for an isolation,” he said. “Isolation and necessity for intense concentration over a prolonged period of time make the artist almost anti-social.”
Little Use for Modesty
It was not necessary for Saroyan to hear the plaudits of others. He was his own biggest fan. When “The Time of Your Life” first was produced on Broadway, he unabashedly described it as “great . . . perhaps one of the greatest,” plays ever written. In describing the theater, he once wrote that “every minute of the 24 hours of every day is Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, O’Neill, O’Casey and Saroyan.”
Defining Saroyan is as difficult as trying to categorize his frenetic writing style. Some who knew him called him “brusque,” others “arrogant.” Some said he was “shy.” To others he was “droll,” or “whimsical.” Without question, he was loud. “Bill Saroyan didn’t talk, he bellowed, recalled a friend.
Saroyan was a free spirit. Observed friend and fellow author William Childress recently: “He’s a wonderful, happy, crazy, lusty, life-loving goddam beautiful son-of-a-bitch of a man.”
Placed in Orphanage
He was born in Fresno in 1908, the youngest of four children of an Armenian immigrant couple. His father died when Saroyan was three; his penniless mother placed her children in an Oakland orphanage for four years until she earned enough money as a maid to care for the family.
As a boy, he sold newspapers and delivered telegrams, the latter occupation the same as that of a central character in the “The Human Comedy.” At 18, he became manager of a telegraph office in San Francisco.
Even then, he was a zealot about writing. He began as a teen-ager, spending hours at the typewriter. Friends say he was proud of the 10 years he spent writing feverishly, even though he was unpublished and unrecognized. In 1934, Story magazine bought “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Saroyan took his $30 check and used half to buy an overcoat. Later that year, the same story became the centerpiece and title of his first book, a collection of short stories.
In the next few years, he produced scores of short stories, his first plays and even penned the lyrics for a song, “Come On-a My House,” which in 1951 became a hit for singer Rosemary Clooney.
Many found his style and stories refreshing. Others, especially the Eastern dominated literary establishment, dismissed him as a Western wild man. Saroyan did not share the same background or values as the Eastern critics, explained Gerald Haslam, a Sonoma State University English professor who specializes in the study of San Joaquin Valley writers.
“In the 1930s Depression America there was a loss of faith and a question of American values,” Haslam explained. “Many critics were looking for a political statement in everything they reviewed. They couldn’t deal with Saroyan because he wasn’t pro- or anti-communism or capitalism. He was simply indifferent to them. He was pro-human. He talked again and again about the ability of the human spirit to survive. It was difficult for critics and scholars to talk sensibly about what he was doing because the pattern they had evolved for the discussion of American literature at that time didn’t have any room for him.”
Disregard for Critics
Saroyan, always the individualist, simply did not care what the critics thought, a fact that irked them more. Once, when a British critic complained that Saroyan’s work lacked discipline, he responded simply, “You can’t expect an Armenian to be an Englishman.”
Despite the critics, his books sold, and Saroyan, wealthier but still ambitious, moved to Los Angeles where he became a fixture around the bookshops that then crowded 6th Street downtown.
“He was just full of life, full of beans,” recalled Lawrence Clark Powell, then a clerk in a book store owned by Jake Zeitlin, who later became head librarian at UCLA. “He never sat down. He’d walk in the front door talking all the time. He’d walk back and make a speech to Jake and the he’d end up in the front talking to me and then he’s turn on his heels and walk back to the back. Jake would say, ‘Sit down. Have cup of coffee or something.’ ‘Nah,’ he’d say, ‘I’m too excited.’ ”
He was hyperactive, but he was also very self-assured, Zeitlin said. “He regarded his success as just being natural and something he was entitled to,” Zeitlin recalled. “He came to me once and suggested that I publish something for him. I said, ‘Fine. I’d be very much interested, but give me a manuscript.’ He said Oh, no. You have to agree to publish it and then I’ll give you whatever I decide.’ ”
Zeitlin did not publish any Saroyan, but others did. By 1939, when “The Time of Your Life” was first staged, six books of short stories were in print. Unlike in recent years, when he guarded his privacy, Saroyan was in and out of the news.
His unsuccessful attempt to get a World War II draft deferment was followed by the newspapers. He finally spent time as an Army private, most of it in Europe. “That was jail time to me,” he once said of his military stint.
During the war he married Carol Marcus, daughter of a wealthy American industrialist. They were divorced in 1949, remarried in 1951 and divorced again a year later. They had two children.
Despite his success, Saroyan was plagued by high taxes and heavy gambling debts. In the late 1950s he moved temporarily to France, claiming he needed to escape U.S. taxes long enough to earn money pay off back taxes he owed the federal government.
Saroyan admitted that some of his lesser works were produced not for their literary, but their monetary, appeal.
Still, whether he was writing for love or money, he did it as a feverish pace, writing usually in a stream-of-consciousness style. Sometimes, it seemed, the words just poured from his mind. Many times his books were little more than thinking out loud. Saroyan’s view of his work, noted the late Times Book Critic Robert R. Kirsch, was that if he wrote enough, something interesting or intelligible would eventually come out of it.
As Saroyan explained in his 1963 book, “Not Dying": “I not only didn’t want to write, I hadn’t a thing to say: but this didn’t bother me, either, because once a writer has got set to work, it has got to follow that something to say will present itself, for there is really only one general order of thing for any writer to say: us. This is who we are, like it or not, take it or leave it. This is how we live.”
Saroyan lived and worked just as he wrote — spontaneously, impetuously and sometimes sloppily.
Disheveled Life Style
Saroyan generally worked out of his home in Fresno—actually one of his two homes in that town. One was a corner house which was used to store possessions but actually served as his shield against the world. Saroyan actually lived in the house next door a typical tract-type home with a mad tangle of sunflowers, weeds and fruit trees in the yard. The city of Fresno had been after Saroyan for years to now down his Eden-like grounds, but he had refused.
The inside of his house was just as disheveled, a mish mash of books strewn everywhere. He would down coffee and tea like a fiend as he sat at typewriter in the living room. He sometimes worked on as many as 10 books at a time (though many were not published), and would often write nonstop for a day or even two before he collapsed in exhaustion on the army cot set next to the typewriter.
It almost seemed as if he was in a race to record every last thought, every last observation, before death overcame him. “He was keenly aware of his mortality and aware of the fleeting time that a writer has to say what a writer wants to say,” said Childress, Saroyan’s author friend. “He felt he had an obligation to comment on the human scene — the human comedy — as much as he possibly could before he died.”
His last book was titled “Obituaries.”