Episode 52 - Attic Room, Fred Finch Orphanage, Oakland, 1912

\Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter by chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we go back to the Attic Room, Fred Finch Orphanage, Oakland, 1912.


This is a heartbreaking chapter. Four-year-old Willie is struck with an illness at the Fred Finch Orphanage. He is quarantined and isolated in the attic, with nothing to distract him from his fever and discomfort. It’s Christmas Eve and he can hear the other children singing O Holy Night. All he wants is his mother, who is working as domestic help at a house on Laguna Street across the bay in San Francisco. But she doesn’t come to him, quite probably doesn’t even know he is ill.

It sounds like the stuff of nightmares. Relegated to a room that wasn’t really a room, the attic, and hearing the sounds of children singing, reminding him of angels whisking him off to death. A woman wordlessly came in to check on him, offering no comfort. But he decides to live on:

“That night was one of the longest I have ever lived through. I might have died. I knew something deadly wrong had happened to me, but at that time I did not believe, I refused to believe that anything could kill me. At the same time I knew everything could, anything could – it happened every day, and it could happen to me – but I refused to believe that it could or would… I fell into delirious, painful sleep but hated it so deeply that I woke up almost instantly and waited awake, and then around daybreak I knew I had come through, and now at last I fell into real sleep – alone, and proud, and alive –now more alive than ever.”

Willy6HankThe five years he spent at the orphanage were developmentally difficult for him. Although his siblings also lived there, he didn’t always have access to them, and what he really needed and wanted was his mother, who visited briefly on weekends but who was drifting away from him as their communication began to falter. At the orphanage he only learned English, and so he didn’t understand the conversations she would have with his older sisters in Armenian, and her English was broken. 

This chapter is about two major themes in his works: mothers and death. The concepts of motherhood and fatherhood were incredibly important to him. Not knowing his father beyond stories, he looked to other father figures in his life, like his uncles. But the absence of his father troubled him his whole life and made him outcast among the children in Fresno. Eventually, he wanted to become a father to truly understand the role. Equally, motherhood was important to him. He observed his own mother, his grandmother Lucine, and many other women in his life, and felt the significance of the role. Though he met Carol when she was little more than a child, he made sure she could bear him children before marrying her. He had expectations of her that matched the mothers he had known – people who cooked, cleaned, kept house, raised the family, were in some way the spiritual leaders of the family. Carol didn’t grow up like this and struggled to live up to those expectations. However, her mother was also of enormous importance in her life.

When Saroyan calls his mother “The Great One” in this chapter he’s being both very serious and a little snide. What he wanted the mothers in his life to be, none of them could fully live up to. Here, his mother couldn’t hear his cries from across the bay, and she wasn’t there to comfort him in the way he would expect the prototypical mother would and should. Instead, he felt abandoned by her at the orphanage and at other times in life. His relationship with his mother was at times strained. She worked constantly at the canneries in Fresno and also had to raise four children without their father. When Bill spent money on a typewriter as a child, she was furious, assuming there would be no money in writing. For years after that she was still not happy about his choice not to work a traditional, reliable job. Once he made good money as a writer, he bought her the house in San Francisco and continued to send money to her and his sister for their daily expenses. She was proud of him, but it took time, and he sought her approval.

CosetteTakoohiWhen his mother dropped her children off at the orphanage and he began to cry, she apparently responded, “No, you are a man now, and men do not cry.” So, he stopped crying. But he didn’t feel any less hurt and confused, at three years old. Once he began telling these stories about the orphanage, starting with The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills in 1952, the floodgates opened and his own personality development became clear to him and to others. Aram writes in his biography, William Saroyan, “If his orphanage experience had effected a kind of psychological freeze, there is evidence from Saroyan’s earliest history after the orphanage of a personal emphasis on speed, of a delight in accelerated physical mobility in general, that might be regarded as a compensation for the immobilization of his deeper reality.”

We’ve discussed the Fred Finch Orphanage in other chapters. It was a place that he considered very important in his development. Aram writes, “It may also be possible that this suppression of grief by the power of his will – initiated at the orphanage and then presumably sustained throughout Saroyan’s five years there – created that habit of extraordinary discipline which in the grown man would produce an enormous quantity of literature, a great deal of it written with unprecedented speed.” Aram explains in Last Rites that he believed his father had to become emotionally frozen in order to survive when his father and then mother abandoned him. It was Aram’s feeling that falling love with Carol thawed some of that emotional ice, which upset Bill and made him unpredictable and that he blamed Carol for this.

In this chapter, his mastery over his fear, pain, and disorientation is something to be proud of. He was evidently taught as a three-year-old that emotions were to be overcome and controlled. There in the orphanage attic, he powered through the painful emotions, writing, “I was alone, and it would never be known that I cried, but I refused. For I did not feel I was really alone as long as I was there. I was still there, changed, in trouble, burning, desperate, but I was still myself, and I lived by the law and preference that I would look after myself.”

This chapter is also about death and his complicated relationship to it. Aram suggested that being sent to the orphanage was its own kind of death -- the death of the family, the death of hope -- that was the cause of his inability to love intimately later in life. Here in this chapter Saroyan tells us that he was struggling with the concept of death as he lay feverish in the attic. This obsession followed him throughout his life, with some of his memoirs named Not Dying, Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, I Used to Believe I Had Forever Now I’m Not So Sure, and of course, Obituaries. And though he is known for celebrating life, as in the famous quote, “In the time of your life, live,” his whole career had been consumed with philosophizing about death. He wanted to understand the death of his father and he wanted to understand how he could make himself immortal through his writing legacy.

The Human Comedy centers on a missing father lost to an early death and the death of sons in war. The mother in the story tells her son, “‘You shall know your father better as you grow and know yourself better,’ she said. ‘He is not dead, because you are alive. Time and accident, illness and weariness took his body, but already you have given it back to him, younger and more eager than ever. I don’t expect you to understand anything I’m telling you. But I know you will remember this—that nothing good ever ends. If it did, there would be no people in the world—no life at all, anywhere. And the world is full of people and full of wonderful life.’”

TheBeautifulPeople003He became interested in the duality of life and death, how one couldn’t exist without the other. In The Beautiful People, he wrote, “Sooner or later everybody’s got to know that death is with us from the first breath we take.”

His early works were full of morbid curiosity and dying protagonists. In his early short stories from the 1930s, we possibly find him at his most philosophical, unburdened by the heaviness of full adulthood. In “The Gay and Melancholy Flux,” published in his sophomore effort, Inhale and Exhale in 1936, he writes, “Therefore, while is the world. I mean, word, not world, though either will do. While is the holy word. The word of God and man and earth and universe. While one thing, another. While sun and warmth, darkness and cold. While decay, growth. While laughter, weeping. While death, life. While everything, nothing. While nothing, everything. While now, never. Forever and forever.”

Later in his memoirs, he considered why this theme pervaded his works: “I have thought about death all of my life, most likely because my father died before I was three. I didn't like that. As the years go by I continue to dislike it, even though I am now fifteen years older than my father was when he died” (Here Comes There Goes You Know Who). And in the same book he writes, “I love death, I have always loved it, I have always hated it, but there is something between death and myself that is very close, closer than anything else I have with anything else, but I hate the idea of losing the sun. I want to go along with death, but I don’t want to leave the sun.”

Clearly, he had a confusing relationship with the concept of death from a young age. But this also led to an interest and perhaps fear of immortality. As previously mentioned, The William Saroyan Foundation was set up as a way to ensure his literary immortality when he believed his family would allow his legacy to shrivel. He considered art the ultimate way to live on past physical life. In The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, he writes, “Every day was an adventure, a new chance to draw nearer to that great state of health which approximates immortality, where the senses are so finely alive."

This short moment on Christmas Eve in the attic of the orphanage contained the ingredients that would make a literary career, and it’s told with pathos for the child he was. In his telling, the version he wants us the readers to know, the boy overcame his longing for The Great One (his mother) and the specter of death itself. Even on his deathbed, his final quote to the Associated Press was, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” When you read Saroyan’s works, if you haven’t noticed these themes before, pay attention to their prevalence throughout his 50 years of publishing.


Yesterday's News Today: An Open Letter from William Saroyan

publicity 017The tradition of the open letter dates back to some of the earliest public writings. Composed as a letter, and usually addressed to an individual or specific group, they are intended to be widely copied and distributed. Some open letters became quite famous, including Émile Zola's J'Accuse...!, Ghandi's open letter to Hitler, Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Bill Gates' An Open Letter to Hobbyists. Open letters are usually drafted to allow for a freer form of speech, often more personal, while still addressing a mass audience. World War II saw many open letters written and printed, including the famed A Soldier's Declaration by Siegfried Sassoon.

Recently, an open letter written by William Saroyan came to light.

Written on Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943, it was addressed to all writers, educators, publishers, industrialists, statesmen, and church leaders, among others. At the time, Saroyan would have been assigned to the Army Pictorial Service working in Astoria, Queens, New York. In the letter, he addressed not the specifics of the Second World War, but the general idea of war, how it infests humanity, and what war and peace can, and should, mean. It is at once a call for peace and for contemplation.

Forever Saroyan, LLC, has not been able to locate any printing of this letter, though it may have been withheld by Saroyan himself, fearing the reaction of his command chain. It may have been submitted and not accepted, as this sort of material would have had a hard time finding publication during this period of the war.

One matter that should be addressed is the date- April, 1943. Saroyan seems certain that the war is nearly over, but it would be two years before the war’s end. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, or maybe it was simply wishful thinking. The signs were pointing towards Allied victory, with the Navy shooting down the plane carrying Admiral Yamamoto, as well as the Warsaw Uprising, and general victories over the Axis powers in Europe all occurring over the previous month.


publicity 003





We are all over 21 years of age. We are all human. We are all civilized. We are the heirs of many cultures and many political, economic and religious systems.

We are the inheritors of the earth.

While it is true that radio communication and air transportation have reduced the size of the earth, we do not believe it has become too small to contain all of us.

The time has come for the asking of questions. Therefore, let us ask. Let us talk about one another.

Wars are fought for peace.

But what is peace?

Is it poverty, injustice, disorder, political trickery, religious corruption, might amuck, right afoul, truth confounded and so on?

It is.

Is peace anything else?

It is.

War and peace are aspects of the same event: human beings trying to live.

No war has ever been fought by an army against anything inhuman, such as untruth. No army has ever marched onward as to war upon any enemy other than another army marching onward as to war. There are fiercer enemies than the enemies who are also only men, consequently every army is at least partially right and somewhat wrong.

War is peace in a frenzy. It is human anarchy organized, disciplined and controlled. To say that war is wrong is as idle as to say that disease is wrong.

When there is a war, it is beside the point whether or not it is right or wrong.

To feel that war is psychic collapse is all right, but no matter; to feel that it is man's abuse of himself is all right, but no matter; to feel that it is the profoundest disgrace of which man is capable is all right, but no matter. Or to feel that war is man's only chance for salvation, for dignity, for immortality, for exaltation, for escape from the narrow limits or physical mortality and so on is all right, but again no matter.

Whatever is, is part of everything else, and everything is part of the life of man on earth.

Peace is an illusion we no longer need. We do not need peace. There is no peace. We do not need war. There is no war. Each is the illusion of the other, and together they are the illusion of what we really need and want, which we must now identify and then seek to achieve and enjoy.

The present war is almost won---or lost, as you prefer. We---whoever we are---are determined that we shall win the war, whatever it is, and that the enemy, whoever he is, shall lose the war, whatever that means—and we shall win the war, whatever we mean.

Since this is so, since the war is almost ended, and we shall all soon be forced to go on living without any assistance from any Army, or from any idea of quick winning or losing of anything. In short, we shall all be forced to return to what we have inherited:

the earth and human life upon it.

It is not too early, therefore, to try to find out what we want to do with ourselves when we shall have once again all the time in the world.

What do we want to do?


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

William Saroyan, Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943, New York, New York. 



The Place of Places: Chapter 51, 24848 Malibu Road, Malibu, California, 1951

MalibuWelcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter by chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we move in 24848 Malibu Road, Malibu, California, 1951.

This is another sequel chapter, as it relates to the previous chapter in New York. In 1948, the Saroyans were on the precipice of their first divorce. In 1951, they were remarried and then again resigned to their second divorce. He begins this chapter, “Suicide is suicide. Divorce is divorce. I flipped a coin, and it came up divorce.” These times were bad. He was in excessive debt and now he was setting Carol and the children up in a comfortable, safe home away from him. Though he was prolific in the 1950s, his finances rarely improved again.

SOnesComeAndGoThis and the previous chapter aren’t the only times he wrote about suicidal ideation. When Hemingway killed himself in 1961, Saroyan was deeply affected. In Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, published in 1976, he wrote, “I was shocked. I was sorry, not only because Ernest Hemingway was dead, but because I myself was in a fight that could suddenly become deadly. I was broke. I was in debt. My career as a writer was shot. I was fighting the world. I hated publishers, editors, agents, critics, book reviewers, newspapers, magazines, publicity agents, lawyers, dentists, and taxi drivers. I owed the Tax Collector so much money there just didn’t seem to be any way I could possibly pay him off and keep myself alive –and now Ernest Hemingway was dead. It had to be an accident, pure and simple. And I hated that kind of accident.”

In this chapter he describes the situation after his second divorce from Carol: “Her lawyer was the most famous in Beverly Hills, who imagined he was among the immortals of law. My lawyer had been recommended by a man I had considered a friend.” Carol’s lawyer was Jerry Giesler, who had represented the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Bugsy Siegel, Marilyn Monroe during her much-publicized 1954 divorce from Joe DiMaggio, and many other rich and famous. Huston Carlyle also represented her, who had previously represented Bill with recording contracts. Saroyan preferred the legal aid of his family members who were lawyers.

Around the same time as this story, his Uncle Aram had represented him and Carol when the landlord of their Beverly Hills apartment sued for property damage. And his cousin, Suren Saroyan, was attempting to sort out his tax troubles and his divorce. Manuel Tolegian had recommended Huston Carlyle, who was also Armenian American, and it went poorly. Carlyle sued Saroyan for nearly $2000 for lawyer’s fees. Saroyan remained bitter towards Tolegian and delayed the release of their joint publication about art.

In a letter to his cousin Archie from 1952, he writes, “You should have been in court with me the two days I was in court: it was a real fiasco: the little Judge in the midst of proceedings suggested that the lawyer bringing the action against me and my lawyer try for a settlement: I told him, O.K., I would give the Armenian lawyer what he was demanding and a bonus besides: so then the case continued and the little Judge awarded him almost the entire amount he was demanding, and then wanted to know if I wanted to appeal: I told him I couldn’t afford it. But the joke was my lawyer: he turned out to be almost as feeble-minded but not nearly as clever as the Armenian lawyer. The Armenian is Manuel Tolegian’s friend: I suppose they’ll divvy up the loot. That’s O.K. with me. It is painful to find Armenians like these two, but let’s face it, for the most part these are the commonest variety. So what does a man do? He plunges into more work. I have been as busy as a squirrel, but so far the only deal I’ve made is a swap with the Ford Company: one Station Wagon for six short motor-travel pieces by me. I’ll take the kids on a few trips during their vacation: this little coupe pleased me very much: but I’ve got to write the six pieces of course.” Saroyan published these stories in the Ford Times.

omnibusThe Ford Foundation was sponsoring the program Omnibus, which aired on NBC. Saroyan wrote many scripts for Omnibus in the 1950s and would travel to New York for the filming of some of these episodes, always wanting to return to his beach house. He also unceasingly tried to get teleplays written by Archie produced on Omnibus. Their correspondence shows the immense effort, but Saroyan couldn’t make it happen for Archie, who was frustrated but had a family and job to distract him. Saroyan was furious with Hollywood’s treatment of Archie.

His cousin, Ross, late in the 1950s told him to take it easy with his reactions to producers, but Saroyan wouldn’t have it. Ross told him he “was beginning to have a reputation as somebody nobody in Hollywood could talk to, and this prevented studios ready to do business with me from even trying to reach me. I told him that he was very kind to let me know about something like that, but I had known it long ago, and there was really neither any reason for me to take it easy, or to adjust to the peculiarities of people in business, nor any in offices, writers or hustlers of writers, and then we went on to a bar, and the boredom was so profound in my soul that I finally went away without comment or explanation” (Obituaries).

Though times were tough, he loved the house in Malibu, perhaps to his own surprise. Hollywood had always bothered him and the business of Hollywood was very distasteful to him. But that’s where his family landed, and it was where he was given some opportunities to write and make money. He was also closer to family, within driving distance to San Francisco and Fresno, and he was near old friend John Fante. These years in Malibu were also some of the closest he would have with his children. Even his relationship with Carol was often friendly during the Malibu years, as she established her own professional path as an actor and writer, and he helped her along on occasion.

Around 1952, he bought a home for his family in Pacific Palisades, a coastal community north of Santa Monica. And he moved into the house in Malibu, just a bit farther north up the Pacific Coast Highway. Both are wealthy enclaves that attract the rich and famous. His children would alternate living between the two homes, for a time. He writes of his small house in Malibu, “In that house on the Beach I had the feeling that I was home, I was back in the world of the spirit, the world of truth, and I began to get back my soul” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Because of potential tax liens, he had his sister, Cosette, purchase the house. And later they would have joint ownership of it. The house sat on pilings that allowed the tide to roll in under the house. This was something Saroyan loved about it, but without consistent maintenance, the seawater and salty air caused the house to fall into disrepair. But early on, everything about the house was refreshing after a few bad years back in New York. “24848 Malibu Road—the very number won my heart when I saw the for sale sign on the house” (Chance Meetings).

Cover513Many of the stories released in I Used to Believe I had Forever Now I’m Not So Sure were written in Malibu. Saroyan didn’t get to know his neighbors well, but he did play with their dogs that roamed the beach freely. And there was pleasure in this simplicity of life to be found so close to a major metropolis.  In “A Seaside Friendship,” written in 1956, he explained, “I did a lot of walking on the beach at Malibu, talking to myself, to the sea, the sky, the great rocks, the pebbles, the sea gulls, the live seals, the dead sharks, and the dogs that came up to tag along. This was one of six or seven such dogs, but I still remember her with a particularity that is understandable, for she was quite simply a very real personality.”

Also contained in I Used To Believe, “Pebbles on the Beach” shows how much peace the house brought to him during the tumultuous time. The story “tells something more about my life on the beach at Malibu. I was unavoidably in the general vicinity of Hollywood, with its preposterous people and values, and I had to see about not letting it bother me too much. Being on the beach helped…Pebbles on the beach are marks of time. Each of them is also a thing of beauty and meaning for whoever happens to be there to notice. Frequently I came upon a patch of pebbles that made me feel I was in the presence of a congregation of people. A pebble is not unlike a face, and a crowd of people seems to be a sea of faces, as the saying is. I loved the pebbles. I loved getting out to them every day. But most of all I loved the sea.”

In Not Dying, he sums up his time there:

“For six years he had lived in a little house on the beach at Malibu, watching the shore birds on the beach, the whales moving slowly south from the north, the seals swimming silently to the shore and lying on the hot sand until dogs came along and drove them back into the sea, the little lizards basking in the sun on the front porch, the gophers in the garden, the sparrow hawks that lived in the eaves of the house next door, the hummingbirds that came to the blossoms of his trees, the slow-moving skunks that came down from the hills after dark almost every night to have a look around and to leave their cool pungent smell in the fog from the sea. He had been out there with the sea, the birds, the lizards, the rodents, and the animals. At least twice a year, driving home late at night or early in the morning, he had seen a young deer at the side of Malibu Road, and he had stopped to watch it bound up the hill and disappear. Once he had seen a little red fox, and another time a slow, thoughtful mountain lion, each of them on the prowl for a stray chicken.

During the six years at Malibu, the six years of having his back turned to the world, he had worked and waited, and finally he had decided he wanted to work no more, to wait no more. And that was how it came to pass that he believed he had stopped writing the day he had left New York, had left San Francisco, Malibu, and America, and had set out for Europe, even though he had taken the typewriter along.

How much in money had he earned during the six years in Malibu? A quarter of a million dollars, most likely. And how much did he have? He had nine thousand dollars in traveler's checks and nine hundred in new one-hundred-dollar bills, or at any rate that was what he'd had when he'd left New York.”

Around 1958, he closed up the beloved house in Malibu and went to Europe. He would move on to his next chapter, living in France and catching his breath after a bad time with the IRS that still wasn’t over.  “From the beginning I had thought of the place as heaven, as perhaps it was, but even heaven will not do, cannot do, forever. It must be closed, and the back must be turned to it.” (Here Comes There Goes You Know Who).

Look001smAlthough he loved his little house and was prolific, he was bankrupt and deep in debt. Any opportunity to get a paid gig was returned happily. And in Sons Come and Go, he tells us that this is how he found himself writing about Jack Benny for Look magazine in 1955. The editors were offering 2500 dollars and Saroyan wrote the story for them even before they made the offer. He was laser focused on making money.

He wrote many such articles, as well as the serials that would become Mama I love You, Papa You’re Crazy, his first memoir – The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, The Laughing Matter, The Whole Voyald and Other Stories, the plays The Cave Dwellers and The Slaughter of the Innocents, the partially completed novel, My Father Is a Writer, and the mysterious play, An Imaginary Character Named Saroyan, which he wrote in Malibu but never published or produced. Not until 1980 would he announce it, for sale for $5 million with his Malibu property separately available for $500,000.

The ad for the properties was published in Daily Variety and promoted as a “local eyesore.” He got no takers. A San Francisco Examiner article from 1980 describes the absurdist advertisement (clipping below). Lawrence Lee explains, “When he returned to California in the fall of 1980, he began to place his affairs in order, taking an advertisement in Variety to offer for sale the beach house at Malibu, now something of a wreck atop pilings. The rent, earmarked for Cosette's well-being, had long gone unpaid, and the house itself eventually would have to be demolished. But Saroyan was in a playful spirit, as he had been when forced to sell the worthless hilltop property near Fresno, which he had bought to stave off the first divorce. His nephew Henry told reporters who called, ‘I think it's his way of letting everybody know he's still alive. Everybody thinks, you know, that Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Saroyan all died in the same car crash.’ But the ad itself said plainly that the money was to go to the William Saroyan library and estate.”

The Malibu house eventually sold, with half the earnings going to Cosette and the other half to the William Saroyan Foundation.  Although this chapter focuses again on his marriage and debt, Malibu represented so much more to Saroyan, as evidenced in his other books.



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