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William Saroyan

I'm not sure that William Saroyan, author, playwright, and genius, can be legitimately described as a San Franciscan, but we like to claim him, although he was born in Fresno and now spends most of his time in New York.

It was as a young San Franciscan, living in a room on Carl Street in the depression-racked 30s, that Saroyan first pushed himself into the public’s eye, and even, at times, its hair. This was the flamboyant, almost exbibitionistic Saroyan, who spoke and wrote so feelingly of his Armenian heritage that a wit once cracked that he suffered from “pernicious Armenia.” This was the Saroyan of the thick black hair, the burning eyes, and exaggerated interest in everything and everybody, from prostitutes, in whose waiting rooms he would sit on rainy days, to Proust, whose works he used to read in the Public Library while waiting to starve to death.

This was the Saroyan who used to clump around town in the only pair of shoes he owned—ski boots, because he admired their shape—and who would abruptly end a game of tennis, his favorite sport, by hitting the ball with all his might and watching it sail away over the fence, all the while laughing exultantly.

This was the Saroyan who could dash off a short story in sixty minutes and a full-length play in six days. He lived on cigarettes and black coffee and a firm belief in himself as a writer. When his first book was rejected, he—in his own words—“rejected the rejection slip.”

When the editor of Story magazine sent him a telegram  apologizing for a delay in paying him for one of his  early short stories, he wired right back, in all truth:  “You are not supposed to send me telegrams. I am paid to deliver them. William Saroyan.” 

His colossal self-esteem, as well as his undoubted flair for writing, helped him win nationwide prominence.  One of the most widely circulated Saroyan tales goes  back to about 1934, on a day when Bennett Cerf, the  book publisher, checked into the Palace Hotel. A few  minutes later the phone rang in his room, and the operator announced doubtfully: “A young man who says he’s the world’s greatest author is in the lobby.” Answered Cerf, without hesitation: “Tell Mr. Saroyan to come right up.” 

Incidentally, it might come as something of a shock to John Francis Neylan, the eminent old San Francisco barrister, to know that Saroyan once included his name in a list of great contemporary writers. When somebody wondered what Bill knew about Neylan’s writing, he confessed: “Well, when I worked for Postal Telegraph, I used to read the long, confidential wires he'd send to William Randolph Hearst—and I tell you they were very well written!”

Naturally Saroyan’s opinion of himself is not always universally shared. In a bookstore one day I picked a copy of his The Trouble with Tigers off a shelf, handed it to the clerk, and asked: “How much?” Riffing through the pages, he said, “$2.50, please,” but suddenly he stopped, stared at the inside cover, and hastily amended: “Oh, I’m sorry. This book is damaged. It'll be only $2.00.”

The “damage,” I discovered, was William Saroyan’s autograph.

Another story in which Saroyan does not make the wisecrack happened on a day when he walked into a downtown barbershop and fell under the shears of a  glowering barber who had nothing to say. Finally Bill, who abhors a silence as Nature abhors a vacuum, piped up brightly: “Well, guess you meet a lot of interesting characters here, hmm?” 

“Yeah,” answered the barber darkly. “You, for instance.”

It was at a recital given by a gifted San Francisco pianist named Estelle Weymouth that Saroyan also failed to get in the last word. After she’d finished playing a Bach Chorale to loud applause, William arose with a grandiloquent pronouncement. “That was meaningless,” he said. “Nothing but escape, pure escape. Not a note of reality in the whole piece.” Another author, Haakon Chevalier, plucked at his coattails and interrupted mildly: “But don’t forget, Bill, that escape is part of the reality of today.”

Along with being an amateur starving Armenian, music critic, and telegraph messenger, Saroyan once worked briefly as a clerk in the grocery store of Al Conragen at Grove and Divisadero. One day, after he had achieved some recognition, he visited the store to say hello to his former employer. The news soon flashed around the neighborhood, and when Saroyan left, excited neighbors rushed into the store to ask Conragen what they had talked about.

Still singularly unimpressed by the sudden prominence of his ex-clerk, Conragen shrugged. “I was too busy to talk to him.” Then he added, in a sudden burst of temper, “That Saroyan—all he does is eat up the fruit!”

Saroyan has a great gift for the quotable quote and the reportable action. (Columnists will always love him, no matter what the literary critics think.) On a visit to his native Fresno he stopped at the street corner where he once sold newspapers in a brief moment of unoriginality. There was nobody in sight—no newsboy, no papers, no customers, nobody. As he turned to go, Saroyan sighed philosophically: “Well, that’s what happens when you let somebody else run your business!” 

One of Saroyan’s earliest admirers was a fledgling  writer named Barnaby Conrad, Jr., whose wealthy parents lived on a lush Peninsula estate, complete with swimming pool. When Bill agreed to pay him a visit there one Sunday, young Barnaby’s exultation got fearfully out of hand. The longer Saroyan relaxed by the swimming pool, talking of many things, the more excited Barnaby grew—until at last he simply threw himself into the swimming pool, clothes, complexes, and all.

“What a ridiculous thing to do,” growled the Senior Conrad as his sopping son splashed happily in the water. “What will Mr. Saroyan think?” “Mr. Saroyan thinks people should do exactly what they feel like doing,” announced Mr. Saroyan, arising and jumping into the pool.

I was driving through Berkeley one day with Bill when a young man, obviously lost in thought, walked in front of my car. As he shuffled on, head down, hands in pockets, looking neither to the right nor left, Saroyan leaned out of the car and shouted: “Hello—hello there! How’ve you been?”

The dreamy young man didn’t bother to look up. still in his trance, he continued on his way, unaware of bis near-brush with my bumpers.

“You know that guy?” I asked Saroyan.

“Thought I did,” said Bill, settling back, “but now I know what it was. He reminds me of me!”

In Paris during the war I had the not inconsiderable distinction of introducing Saroyan to Ernest Hemingway at the bar of the Scribe Hotel. After they'd chatted briglitly for a few minutes and Hemingway had left, I asked Bill: “You mean to say that you two had never met before?” 

“We did meet once before, at a party in New York, Bill confessed, “but I don’t blame him for not remembering me. After all—he was wearing a beard at the time.”

Saroyan’s first experience with Hollywood, long before The Human Comedy and The Time of Your Life, was short but relatively unpleasant. He was hired by a misguided major studio, where he sat around for weeks doing absolutely no writing except on the backs of weekly pay checks. But eventually somebody remembered that there was a Saroyan in the house. (Hollywood joke of that era: “What is a Saroyan—something that Dorothy Lamour wears?” ) Saroyan was summoned by a producer.

“Well, Mr. Saroyan,” said the producer briskly, “weve got a job for you. A situation that means a lot in a picture, only we can’t quite capture it. It’s like this. A housewife offers a starving bum a piece of apple pie. You can see he wants it, but he shakes his head and answers ‘No.’ Now what would you do with a situation like that?”

“I’d have the bum say ‘Yes’,” snapped Saroyan, with which he walked out of the studio and returned to San Francisco.

In his earliest, brightest years as a writer Saroyan contented himself with short stories—brilliant, strange, uniquely his. Then one night Bennett Cerf took him to see his first play, a passing fancy called, as Cerf remembers it, Ceiling Zero. As they walked out, Saroyan spat disgustedly. “I could write a better play than that in sixty minutes.” He almost succeeded in meeting that deadline. Working six days and nights (on the seventh he rested), he produced ‘The Time of Your Life,’ which won a Pulitzer prize and the New York Critics Circle award and was eventually immortalized in celluloid.

The San Francisco premiére of the play was a sensation, Out of the tremendous ovation that followed the final  curtain rose, the legendary loud cries of “Author! Author!” So Star Eddie Dowling ordered the house lights up and called for Saroyan to take the stage. Long seconds passed, necks craned. But no Saroyan appeared. At last. breaking the painful silence, Dowling stepped across the footlights and blurted exasperatedly: “Now surely he can't be out picking grapes at this hour. 

He wasn't. But he had gone home long before, explaining briefly to a surprised usher: “It's all right. I know how it ends.”

I hope I haven’t made Saroyan sound like a wise cracking, cocky smart aleck, because underneath his  bravado (his volume is considerably less these days) he is warm and friendly, sincerely interested in people — and what they do, and almost completely unfascinated by sham, glitter. and money. For example. when the success of ‘The Time of Your Life’ made him eligible for social lionization, he was invited to be guest of honor at a Nob Hill cocktail party given by Anita Howard Vanderbilt, who is intimately associated with two great fortunes. She invited a slew of her fanciest friends to meet the playwright, and everybody arrived on time except the cowardly lion. 

Just as Anita was ready to give him up for lost, he shambled into her magnificent apartment, more than an hour late. “Sorry if I kept you waiting,” apologized American drama’s man of the year. “But honest, I thought that streetcar would never get here!”

As a manner of showing his disregard for money, I suppose. Bill occasionally gambles for high stakes, betting wildly, showing his cards to his opponents, and eventually losing a satisfyingly huge amount.

He was playing stud poker with a Greek gambler in North Beach, and after the last card was dealt, the Greek, who had a king showing, made a big bet. Saroyan, who had an ace showing, shook his head. “No use betting like that,” he advised. “You can’t win. I’ve got an ace in the hole.” 

The Greek, an old hand with the pasteboards, refused to be taken in by such an obvious gambit. The betting got higher and hotter, until the Greek called. Whereupon Saroyan, with a shrug, turned up his second ace.

The gambler blew his top. “You lie, you lie!” he screamed. “You say you got aces back to back, and you got ’em!”

It was precisely this attitude toward money that forced Saroyan into an army uniform in World War II. When selective service began, he was exempt because he was the sole support of six relatives. Then he sold ‘The Human Comedy’ to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $60,000, and gave $10,000 to each of the six. This, of course, made the relatives self-supporting as far as the Army was concerned, and William was promptly drafted.

Out of the war emerged a new Saroyan—much older, seemingly less happy. no longer quite so sure that the World is full of beautiful people with light coming out of them. But he is still capable of the bon mot. One recent afternoon, in the Mark Hopkins lounge, he announced that he was planning to sell his Sunset District home and return to New York for good.

“What's the matter, Bill?,” I asked him. “Don’t you like San Francisco any more?”

“Certainly.” he answered. “But tell me—do you really think it’s worth a full column every day?”

I wish he hadn't said that. It’s hard enough to write a daily column without that dark, Sarovan-planted thought burning in my mind. 

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