William Saroyan in Bitlis - Photos by Fikret Otyam

EPSON scanner imageWilliam Saroyan made his second visit to his ancestral homeland of Armenia in May, 1964. Saroyan was one of the best-known Armenian-Americans in the world, and his visit was covered by newspapers in Armenia and Turkey, as well as around the world. Saroyan was accompanied by journalists, shooting footage for newsreels, writing pieces on the visit, and taking an incredible number of photographs. Several photographers followed Saroyan on portions of his trip, including a legendary newspaper photographer and painter, Fikret Otyam. 

 Born in 1926, Otyam studied at Istanbul State Fine Arts Academy under the painter and poet  Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu. Though he had studied art, his first career after college was as a journalist. He wrote for many newspapers and magazines before largely turning to photography and painting. Notably, he wrote for Cumhuriyet, often considered Turkey's newspaper of record. He often served as the photographer for his own stories and would become known as an important Turkish photojournalist. It was as a part of that job that he covered Saroyan's 1964 visit to Turkey for Cumhuriyet

The portion of Turkey Saroyan visited included much of the area considered historic Armenia, including Van, Erzurum, Agri, and Muş, but a major focus of the trip was Saroyan going to Van, and then on to Bitlis, the birthplace of his parents. 

Van has been a major city since the eleventh century. Located on Lake Van, the largest lake in Asia Minor, it was a part of the Kingdom of Armenia dating back to pre-Christian times, though was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Today, there remains an Armenian minority, though Kurds and Turks are the major ethnic groups. 

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Saroyan then sailed to Bitlis, the traditional home of the Saroyans. Covering the trip for Cumhuriyet, Otyam took photos of Saroyan in many locations, most notably among the ruins of the traditional Saroyan compound. 

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"An old man guided him to the vestiges of a stone house he insisted belonged to Saroyan’s own family. He was photographed before the ruined hearth. “It’s a good place to live forever, the people are good, the flowers good. It’s an unforgettable day.” -  Dickran Kouymjian in the Introduction to An Armenian Trilogy

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“I know all of this. I know the old trees. I am a Bitlistsi! My father walked on these roads.”

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"Saroyan and his entourage walked around town for two hours, then went up to the massive fort that dominates the city. There a performing bear put his paw on Saroyan’s shoulder. He judged that a good omen." -  Dickran Kouymjian in the Introduction to An Armenian Trilogy

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On this visit, Saroyan announced that he would write a play called Bitlis. He would eventually write the play, now a part of his trio of plays known as An Armenian Trilogy, though it would be eleven years before Saroyan tackled the writing of the play. The play, which details Saroyan's journey to Bitlis on his visit in 1964, was first published in 1985, edited by Fresno State University professor Dickran Kouymjian. Ph67 otyam photo018

Though Saroyan spent several more weeks in Turkey, clearly the 1964 visit to Bitlis was an important and powerful stop for the legendary author. He would return twice more, in 1976 and 1978, before passing away in 1981. Fikret Otyam would publish many of the photos in Cumhuriyet, and would send a number that had not been used to Saroyan shortly thereafter. These photos were eventually acquired by Forever Saroyan, LLC, and constitute an important part of our photograph collection. 

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William Saroyan Speaks - 1978 National Geographic Society

 UntitledIn 1978, National Geographic ran an article called "The Proud Armenians" which provided a nearly 30-page look at the history and culture of Armenia, where it stood at the time, and some of the best-known members of the Armenian diaspora, including Krikor Ohanian (actor Mike Conners), financier Kirk Kerkorian, and of course, William Saroyan. 

This article provided an excellent introduction to the Armenian people, both in Armenia, which was under Soviet control at the time, and elsewhere. 

The National Geographic Society would hold annual dinners, usually focusing on a theme that had been a major part of the year's issues. The Proud Armenians, a major accomplishment, was clearly the focus of the 1978 dinner, and William Saroyan was chosen to give the audience his unique good humor and insightful comedy. 

William Saroyan was an in-demand speaker for much of his life. So much so that he was fairly choosey with his appearances, particularly later in life. He was a regular on television and radio in the 1950s through the early 1970s, including a famous 1971 appearance in The Dick Cavett Show with Veronica Lake and Leonard Maltin. He tired of the same questions and began limiting his appearances shortly thereafter. 

The National Geographic dinner speech represents one of Saroyan's last major speeches before his passing in 1981. This comedic look at the Armenian people, and specifically a hilarious portion of the talk where he discusses how many Armenians are in the world and who exactly are the Armenians, gets the audience laughing heartily.

 A digital copy of this recording was provided by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) via  Marc Mamigonian. 


WILLIAM SAROYAN at Arion Press Gallery - A Final Look

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The largest exhibit Forever Saroyan has put together to date ended its two-month run at the Arion Press Gallery in San Francisco. The exhibit attracted visitors from around the Bay Area, all throughout California, and from as far out as Washington, Massachusetts, and even Canada and Armenia!

The exhibit, curated by Dori Meyer and Chris Garcia, featured themed cases focusing on various aspects of Saroyan's life and family. These cases contained items from the Forever Saroyan collection, as well as several reproductions of items from the Saroyan collections at Stanford and UC Berkeley. These were in addition to the 30 drawings and paintings, most of which were displayed for the first time. 


The Human Comedy

Visitors entering were greeted with Saroyan's most beloved novel. The Human Comedy began as a screen treatment Saroyan wrote for Louis B. Mayer of MGM. Disagreements with Mayer led to Saroyan being removed from the project and the screenplay being completed by Howard Estabrook. Saroyan took the outline he had created and turned it into the novel The Human Comedy, which became a best-seller and came out at nearly the same time as the film. The film would win an Academy Award for Best Story for Saroyan in 1944. Our display included an original lobby card for the film, the original Estabrook script, several versions of the book, including an Armed Services edition and German translation, as well as Saroyan's original proof sheet, including corrections made to the text in his own hand. 

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William Saroyan was proud, and acutely aware, of his Armenian heritage. This case featured a look at Saroyan's family, including reproductions of photos of his family, including grandmother, mother, and his father. We also included scans of pages from the Armenak Saroyan diary kept while coming to America in 1906. Saroyan was a major figure in Armenia, and his visit in 1964 garnered major attention. So much so that reporters followed him, taking hundreds of photos. We included two of those original photos. Saroyan often wrote abiout Armenia and Armenians, including in the three plays comprising the Armenian Trilogy.

Following his death in 1981, Saroyan's passing and legacy received significant coverage in several Armenian publications. 

The case was surrounded by pencil drawings Saroyan created in the early 1930s, mostly on Vanity Fair Florists stationary. 

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WILLIAM SAROYAN in San Francisco 

Saroyan was a fixture in San Francisco, maintaining friendships with many of the most colorful figures in the city, including legendary columnist Herb Caen, sculptor Benny Bufano, and celebrity chef George Mardikian. Saroyan often wrote about SF, including writing pieces for books like Let's Have Fun in San Francisco. He also often wrote introductions for books by important San Franciscans, such as Maridikian's Dinner at Omar Khayam's. 

Occupying one-half of our largest case, we included reproductions of pieces on San Francisco by Saroyan and Herb Caen, original telegrams between Saroyan and editor H. L. Mencken, and original copies of Let's Have Fun in San Francisco, and the magazine The Peninsulan. One wonderful late addition to the case was a picture of Saroyan and cousin Khatchik 'Archie' Minasian at Playland-by-the-Beach. 

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WILLIAM SAROYAN: The Daring Young Writer

Saroyan's early career was full of close-calls, as evidenced by the original rejections letters from Viking Press and The New Yorker included in this case, and massive hits, like his 1934 short story "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" and the collection named for it. Forever Saroyan is lucky enough to not only have the original magazines and copies of the various printings of the collection, but also materials including Saroyan's original hand-drawn cover concept for the book, a reproduction of which was shown in the exhibit. Also included was a copy of the 1928 Overland Magazine which was Saroyan's first major publication in 1928. 

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Saroyan's theatrical output got two cases: one displaying the programs and book versions of his plays, and another dedicated to The Time of Your Life. The display of programs from 30 years of Saroyan theatrical performances, including productions featuring Henry Fonda and Walter Huston. Also included were rare programs from Saroyan's earliest plays: My Heart's in the Highlands, Time of Your Life, and Love's Old Sweet Song. Included is also a copy of the Playbill for The Human Comedy, a musical adaptation of Saroyan's book created two years after Saroyan's death. 

Included in the case were two of the most impressive pieces of Saroyana - the telegrams accepting the Drama Critic's Circle award for The Time of Your Life, and a copy of the book of the play signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, members of his cabinet, and actress Carmen Miranda. 

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The Time of Your Life also got its own case, highlighting early printed versions, both for US readers, actors (an early Samuel French script edition from 1940), and UK readers published by Faber & Faber. Rare promotional material from an early run of the play starring Eddie Dowling and Julie Haydon, and an ABC radio adaptation of the play. 

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Saroyan's cousin Archie was his closest friend and confidant. A remarkable poet and playwright in his own right, his book of poems The Simple Songs of Khatchik Minasian, along with three other collections were included in the exhibit. We also displayed several of his watercolors. 

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WILLIAM SAROYAN & His Contemporaries

Saroyan kept good literary company, from sparring with Ernest Hemingway over his portrayal in Saroyan's story 70,000 Assyrians to John Steinbeck, whose story, The Wayward Bus, he adapted into a screenplay. Included in this case are reproductions of letters and published articles dealing with Saroyan's interactions with other significant writers. He was also friends with a number of artists, and we included a copy of a drawing of Saroyan done by legendary artist Varaz Samuelian. 

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William Saroyan famously wrote the song "Come On-a My House" with cousin Ross Bagdasarian. Saroyan and Bagdasarian recorded a version of the song themselves, but it first became a hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1950. Dozens of other artists have recorded versions of the song, with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Kay Star, Eartha Kitt, Dinah Shore, Captain & Tenille, and Bette Midler doing their interpretations. It's been performed in several languanges, including Yiddish, Spanish, Japanese, and even Armenian, performed by legendary Armenian singer Anita Darian. Forever Saroyan holds not only the original sheet music, but the original napkins the song was written on, though we did not show it. We did show the original typed version, including hand-written notes by Saroyan.

Saroyan wrote lyrics for songs included in his plays My Heart's in the Highlands and Love's Old Sweet Song, like The Pitchman's Song, written with legendary composer Paul Bowles. Saroyan worked with composers Alan Hovhaness, Bernardo Segall, Henry Bryant, and Jack Beeson, who produced two operas based on Saroyan works. 

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WILLIAM SAROYAN & Grabhorn Press

Hosting WILLIAM SAROYAN at Arion Press was a particular treat because of the deep connection to Granhorn Press, whose successor, Arion Press, is a part of the Grabhorn Institute, which currently operates the original presses used to print Saroyan works!

The Grabhorn Press, founded by Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, was a long-time publisher of Saroyan's work. They printed no few than five pieces of Saroyan's from the 1930s through the 1950s. He had a close relationship with Jane Grabhorn, Robert's wife, who helped run the press in the years after their marriage. We included original letters between Jane Grabhorn and Saroyan, as well as several of the books Grabhorn printed. 

Of particular note is a rare copy of The Farewell Speech of King Edward The Eighth Broadcast from Windsor Castle the Tenth Day of December, MCMXXXVI, with the Instrument of Abdication & a Note by William Saroyan. 

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WILLIAM SAROYAN - International 

Saroyan was not only a major literary figure in the US, but a significant seller around the world. Here, we gathered a few of his many works published by Faber & Faber in the UK. Saroyan and Faber maintained a relationship for more than 30 years, with T.S. Eliott being one of his editors. He was also widely translated and we are lucky enough to have books in Russian, German, French, Japanese, Polish, and Dutch.  

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Our final case contained two dozen of his books from across his career. While not every collection, novel, and memoir he published, the selection featured almost every major work, of his from across his entire career. We also included copies of two artist's books by artists Saroyan appreciated and wrote introductions for - Dong Kingman and Fletcher Martin



Though the exhibit's run is over, we're working on finding more ways to bring the art and Artifacts of William Saroyan and the Saroyan-Minasian families to the prominence they deserve. We will hopefully be able to create and display more exhibits, as well as our continuing publication and website work. WILLIAM SAROYAN may have come and gone, but Forever Saroyan is just getting started!

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WILLIAM SAROYAN Events at Arion Press Gallery

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Forever Saroyan put on two events during the run of the WILLIAM SAROYAN exhibit, the first being a screening of the Omnibus episode "A Few Adventures in the California Boyhood of William Saroyan" starring Sal Mineo and narrated by Saroyan himself. That was followed by a presentation of the book William Saroyan & Archie Minasian: The Complete Correspondence, 1929–1981 by Blake Riley and Mary Alexander, the team responsible for the book.


On February 4th, 2023, we were honored to have Hasmik Harutyunyan perform in the exhibit space. We opened the event with an invocation by Father Meshrop Ash of St. John's Armenian Church in San Francisco.IMG 2931 1

The event then entered into the first performance phase, with Harutyunyan performing Armenian folk songs, including Bari Bari, with lyrics by Saroyan and music composed by Alan Hovhaness.

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Our founder, Charles Janigian, then read some of Saroyan's words, and the audience was treated to Saroyan himself reading The Armenian & The Armenian, one of his most powerful stories, including the final passage which has become an oft-quoted standard for Armenian resilience. 

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The event drew a crowd that included many young Armenian kids. At the end of the evening, many of them joined Hasmik in singing the Armenian National Anthem. 



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