Little Caruso and the Case for Libel
“Little Caruso” may be one of the costliest short stories you’ve never heard of. In 1934, just as William Saroyan was gaining fame, he submitted the story “Little Caruso” to Vanity Fair. As per usual, he signed an agreement attesting that all characters in the story were fictional, a legal requirement Vanity Fair baked into its contracts with contributors. And this is where Saroyan’s iconic style of mixing autobiography with fictional scenarios went a bit awry. In fact, it got so litigious that the story was never printed again in Saroyan’s lifetime.
The nine-page story describes the narrator’s cousin, Mano, who believes himself to be the best tenor the world has ever seen, “the reincarnation of Caruso.” Some modern-day context may be needed here - Enrico Caruso was an Italian operatic tenor who lived from 1873 to 1921. He was internationally renowned and released recordings of his singing for nearly 20 years, making him an international pop star. In the early 1900s, he sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and toured North America and Europe. Everyone knew Caruso. To be a “Little Caruso” was to be an up-and-coming prodigy singer. Newspaper articles from across the country in the 1920s show that calling someone a “Little Caruso” was common in that era.
But Mano is underappreciated and can’t get his big break. Instead he finds himself working as a fruit packer in Fresno and as a wiper on a boat to Rio de Janeiro, all the time knowing that his potential is being squandered. The narrator, who spends most of his time gambling at Breen’s on Third Street in San Francisco (a common location for Saroyan’s stories at that time, and a real place that he frequented), takes a playfully mocking tone with Mano: “He sang the song and made something in me laugh from the beginning of time to the end of it, because he did not sing, he shouted, thrusting himself beyond the limitations of his body, outward, into the night, into the vastness of the universe, the endlessness of time, making a marvelous noise in the city.” Mano pompously exclaims, “My diction is better than Gigli's… If Otto Kahn could hear me, I'd be sent to Italy in three
minutes.” Then the narrator lends him $1.30 to get a hotel room. It’s this absurdism, the juxtaposition of the mighty and the tragic, that Saroyan perfected in his stories, and which brings laughter to readers. It was always his belief that the best sorts of people were those struggling to get by, the eccentrics never given the opportunity to show their potential due to the “System” keeping them down. Many of his stories have characters like this. Though Saroyan managed to pull himself out of poverty, he appreciated that there were many others great minds who never managed it, or if they did, it was done without fanfare or public celebration.
In the story, the narrator helps pay Mano’s way in San Francisco as Mano tries to convince local business owners to hire him to sing. Saroyan certainly paints Mano as somewhat ridiculous, the only true believer in his own talent. When Mano and the narrator return to Fresno at the end of the story, a fellow worker in a fruit packing plant accidentally hits Mano in the back of the head with a grape. Mano’s response amuses the narrator with its theatricality and overreaction: “’Who threw that grape?’ he said, only it was more than speech, just as his singing was less, and more, than singing. The old insane fury.” In the end, it’s a story about confidence and folly, a tale about a friend that could be told around the dinner table after a long day at work to amuse the family. It’s simple and casual and, one would think, pretty benign.
So, what made this story so costly? What made it so poisonous that it wasn’t published again until it found its way into British literary magazine, Raconteur, in 1995?
William’s cousin, Zaven (Richard) Minasian sued William and Conde Nast, the publishers of Vanity Fair, for libel. William and the family called him Zav, and he was the brother of Saroyan’s best pal, Archie Minasian. The Saroyans and the Minasians were close; Zav’s mother, Parentzem, was the sister of Saroyan’s mother, Takoohi. Both boys had lost their fathers at a young age, so the families leaned on each other.
Letters archived in the Stanford University Special Collections William Saroyan Papers show that Zav claimed that “Little Caruso” was about him, and that it painted him as “a bum.” He stated that William told him the story was about him before it was published, and that the portrayal was negative. Initially he asked Conde Nast for $45,000 ($887,980 in today’s value) in damages. Later he settled for $1500 ($29,599 in today’s value). Annoyed with Saroyan (who, remember, signed a contract asserting that the character was fictional), Conde Nast agreed to settle out of court with Minasian. This enraged William, who told lawyer C. Coudert Nast that any settlement out of court “would have to be interpreted in one of two ways: (1) acknowledgment of guilt of libel, as charged; or (2) willful participation in the encouragement of the use of our courts as a convenient and practical medium of intimidation and blackmail.” Saroyan believed that this suit was an affront to the American legal system itself, unable to believe that the law could be used against him in such a way. He was twenty-six at the time. Minasian had a strong case and in 1937 William’s lawyers simply quit when he persisted in his innocence and refused to settle despite evidence that the story was based on Zav.
In his suit, Minasian claimed that the story “made (him) an object of scorn, ridicule and derision.” He named those who scorned him, including George Mardikian, Richard Bagdasarian, Abkar Setrakian, John Saroyan, Yep Moradian, Ernest Michaelian, and Mihran Saroyan, most of whom wrote to Conde Nast’s lawyer, Bartley Crum, asserting that Minasian’s accusations were untrue (although Yep wrote, “the attempts of Richard Minasian to capitalize on his vocal abilities has been the butt of many jokes among his friends”). The notorious Aram Saroyan, William’s uncle, sent a December 1935 statement to Crum in which he contended that Fresno vintner E.K. Arakelian and New York mafia gangster Dr. Paul Sarubbi were helping finance Minasian’s lawsuit in order to get a percentage of the settlement, suggesting the whole thing was a racket. He wrote, “No one knows Richard Minasian any better than I do. He has lived a life of a tramp for the last ten years, wandering from city to city, and at the same time, taking a few lessons for the purpose of taking the place of the late Caruso. He has not the voice, the personality, nor the appearance, even to be a singer at a nickel burlesque show. Not only do the people named in the paragraph SEVENTH know that, but the entire Armenian community know it, and wherever he has attempted to sing, they have either booed him down, or thrown rotten eggs at him.” Keep in mind, Minasian was also his nephew, whom Aram accused of blackmail and extortion in this case. Though Uncle Aram and William had a complicated relationship, alternatingly hostile and friendly, Aram’s loyalty here is impressive.
Embarrassed, Saroyan writes to Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, explaining that he is apologetic about the whole situation and offers to write as many stories as desired for publication, gratis. He even offers to write a monthly column, “something like Hemingway’s Esquire job” as payment for the inconvenience of the lawsuit. Crowninshield declines, stating that Vanity Fair was combining with Vogue and no longer accepting fiction. Saroyan did go on to write nonfiction for Vogue in the 1940s, and presumably he was paid.
Saroyan writes C. Coudert Nast again, claiming that Minasian wrote him a letter describing “Little Caruso” as “swell,” so how could it have been libelous? Saroyan explains, “I feel that not only would it be impossible for Mr. Minasian, even by identifying himself with my character ‘Mano’ to be in any way damaged, but that his attempt to do so is presumptuous of him. He is completely unlike the character in every respect.” But in August 1934, four months before the story was printed, Saroyan writes to Zav’s brother, Kirk: “The story about Zav that Vanity Fair bought is one of the funniest I ever wrote, and at the same time one of the most significant. I refer to the central character as my cousin Mano: which I think is a good Armenian name. Of course the actual story is not the story of Zav, although the significance of the story is the significance of Zav’s admirable ambition to be a singer. I am sure the story is going to please everybody who reads it. It is full of fine laughter. I sure was surprised to receive an airmail letter from Zav in New York, the very day after I wrote him, in Fresno: it seemed just like some of the things in the story: the same unpredictability: Zav in one place one minute, and in another the next: and why? Well, that is the story.” Zav was known to be a bit of a loner in the family. In William Saroyan & Archie Minasian: The Complete Correspondence, 1929–1981, we see that before 1934, William often asks after Zav and sends his regards through Archie. After 1934, there is little mention of Zav. Saroyan notes that he saw Zav for a minute in 1951, then Archie gives short updates, such as Zav’s upcoming wedding in 1951 and his discovery of uranium ore in Texas in 1954. Saroyan bumps into Zav again in 1957 in New York, but beyond that, relations seemed to have cooled.
In Richard Minasian vs. The Conde Nast Publications, Inc., Conde Nast agreed to pay Minasian $1500 and requested half of the settlement sum, $700, from William. Though the archived records stop there, it appears that Saroyan did end up paying Conde Nast, though the results of the separate case Zav brought against him individually in 1937, Richard Minasian vs William Saroyan, are unknown.
In August 1937, Zav writes to Bill, “If I was the biggest rat in the world, the worst character imaginable, the lowest thing that crawled, I still wouldn’t come to the standard set for me by the Saroyan’s.” He explains that initially he didn’t complain about the story because William promised to help him with a writing career. But when William didn’t deliver, Zav became angry: “I didn’t say anything against the story because in the same letter you mentioned that you would help me when the time came so I waited...Then you disappeared without so much as a ‘so long.’ Do you think you had been fair and square with me? I forgave the story because I really felt and you gave me reason to feel that you’d help me with my career. As you see, I haven’t forgotten one little thing that has happened.”
And here we see a glimpse of the family dynamics emerging. At first, William’s elders shunned him for trying to become a writer rather than earning money more traditionally as a wage worker. Then 1934 happened and William became famous. The family and the community galvanized for him and he became the sweetheart of Fresno and of the entire Armenian diaspora. Not that there weren’t jealousies and bitterness, especially among the cousins of his generation, who competed for attention and accolades, many of whom were also gifted artists. In 1937, Zav writes to William, “My folks as well as your folks will probably hate me for doing this but I’m going through with it. If my mother and family thought I was right they would still be on your side because we were born to take anything but if something went wrong on the other side of the line, the whole world would be split wide open. Its (sic) still in my power to drop everything but I don’t think I will unless there is a settlement.”
Was Mano based on Zav? Did William protest too much? An article from the Fresno Morning Republican on September 25,
1931, states that Mr. Minasian sang ‘La Donna E Mobile’ in the annual district Atwater Kent radio audition contest held before an audience at Fresno State College. In “Little Caruso,” Mano tells the narrator: “Let's go up the alley… I want to sing La Donna E Mobile." Mano packed grapes, Zav worked at a Fresno winery earning meager wages. Mano worked on a ship, Zav worked for Standard Oil on a tanker when he was 22 (Mano’s age). Mano wanted to go to New York to train his voice, Zav did go to New York to “study for the grand opera and concert stage” in 1932, as reported by the Fresno Morning Republican.
Evidence shows that the story was indeed based on Zav, but was it libel? As William writes in a December 1937 letter to Conde Nast’s lawyers, “I maintain that even if the story ‘Little Caruso’ was an out and out portrait of Mr. Minasian, with his name used, it could not in any way damage his good name, since the basis of the story, the mood of it, is admiration for so lofty an ambition. Any other interpretation of the story will be false and distorted.” This introduces the larger question of how a reader interprets a story and if that subjectivity gives them legal standing to complain and win money. One might even argue that this is a type of censorship. Zav said the story painted him as a “colorful bum,” but the narrator ends his story with: “My cousin Mano is the greatest living tenor on earth because he thinks he is, and nothing is going to stop him from walking out on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and electrifying everybody with the fury of his personality…” As with many characters in the world of Saroyan, they are full of life and of foolishness, human flaw being the meat and potatoes of fiction. It’s sort of amazing that more lawsuits weren’t directed his way over the years, as he certainly never stopped using the real-life characters around him in his stories.
Read the story in Raconteur on the Internet Archive, here, and judge for yourself. Thanks to the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries for the use of their records.
This article was written by Dori Myer, archivist, June 2021