The Saroyan Family Tree

Meet Some Notable Family Members...

Khatchik (Archie) Minasian

Khatchik (Archie) Minasian was born in Fresno, California on August 2, 1913 to Armenian immigrant parents. He was named Khatchik after his grandfather who perished in Armenia in 1897. His father Vahan died when Archie was 6 years old leaving his family of 6 children poor and fatherless. Archie contributed by working in the Armenian bakery and picking grapes in the summer for his uncle. He grew up next door to his cousin, William Saroyan, who was 5 years his senior. Archie always revered William and as he grew he sought Saroyan's literary approval of his poetry, which he began to write at age 15. He graduated from Fresno High School and spent 2 years at Fresno State College studying science before moving to San Francisco in 1935. In San Francisco, where most of his family now resided, he spent time walking the City with William, who had become a literary phenomenon. Archie earned a living by doing various jobs and after a brief stint in the Army settled on a profession of house painter. But his passion was writing which he continued to do until the day he died. Archie wrote over a thousand poems and in 1945 won the Edwin Markham Gold Medal for poetry. He continued his writing of poems, novels and plays, contributing poetry to numerous magazines including Hairenik Weekly, Ararat, and Armenian Review. His collection of poems, A World of Questions and Things, was published by Decker Press in 1950 and another collection, The Simple Songs of Khatchik Minasian, was published by the Grabhorn Press in 1950 with a William Saroyan introduction. Simple Songs was reissued by Giligia Press in 1969. He was widely regarded as the preeminent Armenian-American poet of his generation. He was a natural poet and always said his poems just came to him, appearing in his head. He wrote of the beauty of nature and the human condition in a simple, pure and innocent style.

Archie married Helen Fiegert in 1947 and moved to Palo Alto in 1951 where he raised 6 children: Frances, Stella (Lolli), Roxanne, Diane, Ellen and Vahan. His house in Palo Alto gave him the space to grow fruit trees and vegetables and enjoy his simple pursuits. One day he purchased an easel, paints, and paper and started to paint on canvas. He was able to express his random thoughts in watercolor abstractions almost like he did with his poetry. He painted hundreds of watercolors - always with a painting on the easel in some stage of completion. Archie was a renaissance man who excelled in his simple pursuits. He was loud, gregarious, and the center of attention wherever he went. He died in 1985, six years too early to see his beloved Armenia become an independent country again. (This biography was written by Archie's daughter, Diane.)

Rostom Sipan (Ross) Bagdasarian

Born in Fresno, CA, in 1919 to Verkine “Virginia” Saroyan and Dikran “Harry” Bagdasarian, Ross was a favorite cousin of William's. In 1939, he played the newsboy in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life on stage and went on to act in small parts in other plays and movies. He also co-wrote the song “Come On-A My House” with William, which was his first big hit (and which he recorded solo in 1965).

Bagdasarian found his own independent fame with his recording of “Witch Doctor” in 1958, which was created after experimenting with speed control on a tape recorder. This led to the creation of The Chipmunks, which secured his spot (under a pseudonym, David Seville) in entertainment history and garnered him multiple Grammy awards. Eventually, he shifted these recordings into The Alvin Show, which ran on CBS from 1961-1962. After Bagdasarian’s death in Beverly Hills in 1972, his son, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., continued to work on the Chipmunks franchise, creating the cartoon Alvin and the Chipmunks in the 1980s, leaving a lasting pop culture legacy that is still being referenced and rebooted.

Aram Saroyan

Aram Saroyan is a poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist, painter, and playwright. Born in New York City on September 25, 1943 to William Saroyan and Carol Marcus Saroyan, he is another multi-talented member of the family. Aram first gained fame in 1965 for his one-word poem, "lighght,” which typified the genre of Concrete Poetry. In 1968 the poem became a lightning rod in the U.S. Congress, where some politicians used it to try to defund the National Endowment of the Arts. In the 1970s and ‘80s he lived in Bolinas, CA, a notable artist’s enclave, where he and his wife, Gailyn, raised their three children, Strawberry, Cream, and Armenak. He is featured throughout William’s writings, both in fiction and memoirs. In 1982 Aram courted controversy with his book, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, a biting expose of his troubled relationship with his father. Today Aram lives in Los Angeles and exhibits his paintings in local galleries. His bibliography can be found here. A recording of him reading his poetry at the Library of Congress in 1970 can be found on our Interviews page.

Armenak Saroyan

Born in 1874 in ancestral Armenia, William Saroyan’s father, Armenak, was a preacher and a poet, that is until he reached California by way of Bitlis, Turkey, France, New York, and New Jersey. Without a pulpit, he worked as a laborer in Fresno in order to support his family of six. In 1911, when William was three, Armenak died of a burst appendix, forever altering the trajectory of the family. The untimely death of a father he never really knew impacted William in ways clearly visible throughout his writing. Buried in a pauper’s unmarked grave in San Jose, California, Armenak’s story was mostly forgotten as the world and his family moved on without him, save for his presence in his son’s stories. Saroyan found several father figures throughout his lifetime, including his raucous Uncle Aram, but the pain of losing a biological father is evident in these stories.

Armenak Saroyan, in William’s words 

(Excerpt from Here Comes There Goes, You Know Who, 1961)

The Reader 

My mother brought out a bundle of my father’s writings when I asked if I might look at them. I was nine or ten and we were back in Fresno, in our own rented house on San Benito Avenue. This was an important event in my life, I may say. First, I was a little surprised that my mother had carefully kept something of my father’s, for it has seemed a long time since he had come and gone, and what was the good of keeping worthless stuff like an unknown writer’s writings, the writer himself long absent from a world that had moved along swiftly? Second, I was pleased that she believed I deserved to have a look at the stuff.

“There was more,” she said. “He lost some, we lost some, this is all that remains.” In Armenian, you understand: English was spoken only in the presence of those who were unable to speak Armenian.

She untied the knots in the cloth and spread out the ends so that all that was there might be seen as a whole: a stack of home-made notebooks and manuscripts.

"You will notice that he made notebooks out of wrapping paper." She went back to her work in the kitchen.

I was an hour trying to understand the stuff. It was an hour like forever, if that means anything. This was not like the books in his small library, this was himself.

Living, he had made these notebooks and manuscripts out of butcher paper, store paper, any kind of paper that had happened to come his way, and then he himself had written upon the paper. The stuff was dated, and most of it was written before I was born. His library was made up of books he had bought in connection with being a preacher. His name was written in each book, where he was, and what year it was. He left no book related to his being a writer of poetry. That was his own, something he may even have felt a little guilty about, as if the writing of a poem might be said to be frivolous.

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In 1919 when I was ten going on eleven I believed the world couldn't fool me. I had found out about it moving through the streets with papers to sell, sitting in the movie and vaudeville theatres, sometimes to see a whole show, sometimes to see half, but now and then to catch only a favorite act of vaudeville, or a part in a movie that made me feel good. I had ways of getting into the theatres without paying: if I didn't know the ticket-taker, I knew how to sneak it.

The time between the tin dancer at the orphanage and the end of the war on November 11, 1918, was the fullest time in my life. The few early dead in my family had been followed by an assortment of more recent dead. My father was only the first in a short line of family dead and a long line of others dead. He was not alone on that side of the picture. By 1919 I had come to feel old and wise, as perhaps I had a right to feel, as perhaps I was, in fact. I felt older than my father had ever been, as a matter of fact. The world had bullied him I felt, and it hadn't bullied me, and never would.

I was a runner and he had been above running. I ran to everything, especially to the extra editions of The Evening Herald which near the end of the war came out during the school lunch hour, so that a swift runner could get his papers, sell them, earn a dollar and be back before the school bell rang for the start of the afternoon classes. Eating was a matter of no importance at a time like that. I had made a good name as a hustler, I had one of the best corners in town, I had always been able to sell more papers than the other newsboys, excepting three or four. Mr. York, the street sales manager, liked me and I liked him, most of all for letting me start selling papers in the first place when he knew I was probably not even eight, let alone ten, which was supposed to be the minimum age permissible.

He once spoke to me as if I were his own age, with his own understanding. He had come to my corner to see if I needed any more papers when two half-drunk Indians began to see about killing one another and were stopped by two cops and taken away in a patrol wagon.

“Who knows why brothers fight, Willie? You and Henry fight, don't you? I always fought my brothers."

At first I hadn't believed they were brothers. They hadn't looked enough alike to be brothers, and then suddenly, just before I was about to say so, I understood what he meant. Of course they weren't brothers but they might as well have been for the bitterness of the fighting, two bewildered, confused, stunned, lost men of another time and place wandering around in a city full of strangers. They couldn't fight the people in the town, so they fought one another. The fight was a protest against the new people, who had no connections with the Indians. The stores were full of stuff they could never use, that had nothing to do with the way they had always lived. They had had a bottle of whisky and they had drunk from it by turns, openly, in full sight of the people and the police, but they had been left to themselves, and so they had finally fallen upon one another on my corner, the almost-empty bottle on the curb near Huff's Popcorn Wagon, carefully set there by the last drinker just before the start of the fight. Huff picked up the bottle during the fight and put it back after the fight. It stayed there as if it were to remain the property of the Indians forever, but just before closing for the night old man Huff picked it up, and drank it empty, and then put the bottle away in the wagon, and went off.

I knew the world, and it stank, and I loved it. I ran to it every day, and to the people in it, who also stank. I believed my father hadn't known the world, he had known something else.

I picked up the first notebook and just held it a_ moment. And then I read the stuff my father had written on the cover. It doesn't matter what the stuff actually was, I can't be sure of it, but I can be sure that after the name of it came his name, very clearly, in English, with that touch of foreignness which is in the handwriting of all men who are not English or American by birth.

The Word, we'll say. A Poem, by Armenak Saroyan.

The Bowery, New York, June, 1905, we'll say. I know he lived in the Bowery for some time. I know he reached New York in 1905, alone.

I read the poem, or at any rate as much of it as I could take at that age and then I put the thing aside and had a look at the next notebook. I sat and studied the stuff an hour that seemed years, certainly all of the years from 1908 to 1919, all of the years of my life, and the last six of his. This this this is what’s left: failure, loss, finality. On wrapping paper or butcher’s paper or any old kind of paper a man might write upon which did not need to be paid for.

He hadn’t made it. but as if a special favor to me he had kept a record of it, of the failure, the loss, and the finality, and there I was at the round table in the dining room, his only reader.

The stuff in Armenian I couldn't read, so I looked at it and tried to believe it was his best stuff, much better than the stuff in English, which was probably not quite as useless as I believed it was at the time, not quite as foolish, not quite as unnecessary.

In a sense the writing was my own, and I didn’t like it. It just wasn't tough enough for the truth of us, of this world, and I wished it had been. There wasn’t enough of it, either, and everything stopped before it was finished. Nothing was finished, not even a short poem. He’d needed time, and a place, and he’d had neither. But instead of being mad at others, or at the world, the stuff made me mad at him. “You should have been able to do better than that,” but I didn’t mean the writing alone, I meant the living, and the early disappearance. I certainly didn’t mean then notebooks he’d made. I admired them. I loved the plain paper which had held up so well, which had never been meant to be written upon, and I loved the ink with which he had made his words, and the words themselves, the calligraphy, the sensible spacing, the clarity, everything except the meaning of the words: failure, loss, and finality.

''He didn't make it, I'll make it. When he and I wrote that time we didn't make it because he was alone, but now he's not and we'll make it. I'll buy my paper, I won't fold a big piece of butcher's paper into a notebook, I'll pay a dime for a ready-made one, and I'll write in it.”

I became bored with the debris, and went to the kitchen for a long drink from the faucet.

"Well?" my mother said as if she might have been waiting for years to hear a verdict.

"It's amazing," I said. Zarmanali is the Armenian word. I didn't want to go any further. I didn't want to explain how it was amazing.

"He didn't have time enough," she said.

She tied up the bundle again and put it back with the other stuff she kept of that kind.

I walked to town, to the Public Library on a Sunday afternoon in the winter, and wandered around in there thinking about all of the books of all of the others who had written stuff. Was their stuff any better than his stuff, actually? Well, of course some of it was, but most of it wasn't, most of it was simply finished, each writer had had time enough and he had seen the thing through, as useless as that was, and although the stuff was in books and on the shelves of the Public Library, nobody was reading it.

Well, somebody was reading my father's stuff. I was.

I mentioned the stuff to my brother, but he wasn't interested. We may not have had a fight about it, but we had a fight about something, and as always my mother came to the back door and said very clearly. “Have you gone savage again?" Whereupon we stopped, as we always did. In Armenian it's a matter of only two words, and the two words say it better than the five of English by which I have tried to translate them. Gotkhak noren? And as always we didn't speak to one another for a little while, both of us ashamed, each of us angry at himself. But soon we spoke again, as if we hadn't had another stupid fight.

"What else did he leave?" I asked my mother. She said he had bought the six cane chairs with the rattan seats the year before his death, and there they were in the house as good as ever, or almost as good. A man from Chinatown had put in new rattan seats twice, but when he failed to show up again we bought cardboard seats from Woolworth's and tacked them over the broken rattan. Somewhere along the line somebody painted them, and then in 1939, after the opening of The Time of Your Life in New York, I began to scrape off the paint, to get them back the way they had been when he had bought them, but I never finished the job. You never do. No matter what the job is, something comes along and stops you…

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