Armenians - Program notes from William Saroyan

31cGZorCTML. BO1204203200 Starting in 1973, William Saroyan began what has come to be known as An Armenian Trilogy. In these three plays, Saroyan reflects on the Armenian diaspora, the nature of Armenian-ness, and his own set of life experiences. It is a deeply personal set of plays, largely unknown today, and some of Saroyan's most evocative writing for the stage. 

In the 1986 publication of An Armenian Trilogy, editor Dickran Kouymjian describes the play's setting: 

The action in the original scenes one through seven (Act One) takes place in the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Fresno, still on the corner of Ventura and M Street in the heart of what was once the Armenian town of Saroyan's youth. He called it the Red Brick Church because of the building material used to erect it in 1914. Act Two, scenes eight through twenty-one, takes place just across Ventura in the Armenian Patriotic Club, called until recent years the Asbarez Club after the Armenian newspaper of that name moved to Los Angeles in 1974.
 

In the Spring 1993 issue of Ararat, H. Aram Veeser says of the play -

The first play, Armenians recreates the author's native Fresno circa 1921. Homelessness, angst, radical doubt­- the leitmotifs belong to literary modernism. One character's speech recalls Gayev in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard: "Again we have failed . We cannot even talk together about the same thing. Our minds wander. Well, all the same, I say long live Armenia ." As in Chekhov, characters assert strong positions and in the same breath withdraw them.
  In Armenians all characters but one endure this psychic immobility which matches their claustrophobic sur­roundings. That one character-the Reverend Knadjian, modeled on the minister who gave books to the young Saroyan-confesses a rather peculiar habit.
  "I write history. Well at any rate I write what I have felt, and of course I also invent out of these things a kind of truth which I feel is greater than factual truth. Armenian truth."


Armenians (Also called The Armenians) had its premiere at the Diocese of the Armenian Church in America in the Haig Kavookjian Armenian Arts Center in New York City on October 22nd, 1974. The show was directed by Ed Setrakian.

 
~CAST~
Ed Setrakian as Father Kasparian
Warren Finnerty as Reverend Muggerditch Knadjian
Luis Avalos as Reverend Papazian
Terese Hayden as Almast
Nicholas Daddazio as Sexton
Joseph Ragno as Doctor Arshak Jivelekian
Murray Moston as Farmer
Vahagn Hovannes as Man from Bitlis
Raymond Cole as Man from Moush
Harold Cherry as Man from Van
David Patch as Man from Harpoot
Bob Doran as Vasken
Rudy Bond as Man from Erzeroum
Saul Carollo as Man from Dikranagert
Robert Coluntino as Man from Giligia
 
 

The following piece was originally published in the January 1975 issue of The Armenian Church, and later included in the 1986 publication of An Armenian Trilogy, edited by Dickran Kouymjian. 

 
 
ARMENIANS BY WILLIAM SAROYAN
Program Note by the Author


Armenians Armenian Church 1975 CN32.96The play called Armenians is about people. The time of the play is approximately yesterday, 1920. At that time the playwright was twelve years old, and pretty much fascinated by everything that he saw in the streets and places of Fresno, California, which he visited daily in the course of his work as a newsboy-not a route carrier, that's another kind of connection with newspapers, but a seller of papers, a walker, a headline-shouter, a visitor of places, an observer of people.

Some of the playwright's observations of some of the people of Fresno are in this play, from both before 1920 and from long after, including this morning when a man outside a dentist's door said, You are not what I expected you to be.

I said, Well, I can't say I'm sorry because I don't know what you expected, or why. Do you speak Armenian?

He then said in Armenian, I expected you to be shavlar, or something like that, which he said was the proper Armenian word for fat.

I replied in Armenian, Oh, I thought your disappointment was the consequence of having read my book and then many years later finding me coarse and common in comparison with them. (You should have heard me in Armenian. It was really elegant.)

No, he said, from photographs in papers and from friends who know you.

And these friends of yours, I said, where are they now?

Well, he said, home, or dead. I myself am eighty-two years old and had a stroke two years ago.

How many children have you? I said, and he said, Well I married this Pennsylvania Dutch woman who is in the dentist's chair right now and we don't have any children.

Well, the man's dying, you see, and he hasn't left any fighters in the world, half Armenian and half Pennsylvania Dutch. Of course this compels regret in me because while Armenians have in America married into all races there is enough of Armenia in their kids to keep the old fight going, and so here this morning was this good man at death's door with his wife in the dentist's chair and no kids at all, and therefore no grandkids who, like as not, would be only one-quarter Armenian.

I tried not to show my astonishment and disappointment, but soon enough got back on my bike and rode off, wishing him good luck, although I can't imagine where.

This play is a little bit about that sort of thing, if in an indirect way.

In wanting ourselves continued in the fight of the world, what we really want is the continuance of the human family itself, in its broadest, deepest, most complex, most troublesome, most unaccountable, most unacceptable, most preposterous, most contradictory, and most inexhaustibly unpredictable reality.

But what for?

Why?

For the reason that only out of that awful but also magnificent fullness may we expect the human race to begin- to begin mark you- to become the fulfilment of what has been indicated in his nature and truth for as long as there has been a chronicle of such things- chiselled in stone, painted on cave walls, put up into breathtaking architecture, murmured in lullabies, whispered and roared in symphonies, held fast and secret inside all invented shapes---ship, locomotive, airplane, phonograph, radio, television (for instance). But probably even more significantly in the model of all shapes, the egg, which of course eludes us entirely, having come as we ourselves have come, from the soul and heart of secrecy itself.

We certainly want everybody to continue in the fight, and that of course has got to include the Turk, may his eyes open into the privilege and helplessness which is the mark of humanity.

The play Armenians perhaps says, It's hopeless and we know it, but not so hopeless we don't want to find out how hopeless it is.

Quote

Chris Garcia, Archivist Forever Saroyan, San Jose, CA July 2021

Little Caruso and the Case for Libel

VanityFair1934

“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.

Enrico Caruso ca. 1910. Wikimedia Commons

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

Breen's, 1974. Courtesy San Francisco Public Library

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.

Zav (Richard) Minasian, 1920s. Forever Saroyan

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.

Frank Crowninshield, ca. 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress

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.

Minasian siblings, with Zav in the middle, 1940s. Forever Saroyan

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,

Richard Minasian, 1931. Courtesy Fresno Morning Republican

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.

raconteur

 

This article was written by Dori Myer, archivist, June 2021

Where Can I Find Saroyan Today?

publicity 003One of the most frequently asked questions about William Saroyan's materials is exactly where is the rest of it, and how do I access it?

Few authors manage to have their entire output in a single location, especially if they were publishing frequently, were prolific letter writers, and created non-written material as well. It's not unusual for a suitably prolific author to have their published work held in one archive, their letters in another, and a third holding recorded audio-visual material. Even an author who establishes a foundation or archive dedicated to their work, as William Saroyan did, further materials such as letters, manuscripts, and various ephemeral items can make their way into other collections. This can make research and investigation into an author difficult, not to mention exceptionally time-consuming. 

William Saroyan was a prolific writer. William Saroyan was a prolific correspondent. William Saroyan was a prolific artist.

Saroyan's paintings are in both private and public collections. Major museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Fresno Art Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, the Bakersfield Art Museum, and several university museum collections hold his paintings, mostly created in the 1960s. As with most museums, art works come on and off display quite frequently, meaning they may not be public-accessible. Some museums will include images in their collection website searches, giving at least some access. The Antaeus Theatre in Glendale, California, has several Saroyan works hanging, as well.

Several libraries hold varying amounts of Saroyan's written material, including the Fresno public library, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, University of Southern California, California State University at Fresno, UC Berkeley, and Cornell University. Accessing these materials can be difficult, and largely research within them must be done in person. Luckily, the Online Archive of California makes it quite easy to search through finding aids relating to Saroyan, and nearly any other topic you could imagine. 

Collecting William Saroyan First January 1998 Page 1There are many private collectors who hold some truly phenomenal Saroyan artifacts. Since William was such an active correspondent, often sending several letters or telegrams a day, there's a great deal of material that is currently in the hands of collectors or held by the original recipients' families. In addition, book collectors and antiquarians love Saroyan's work for the variety of editions and the number of inscribed copies. These are prized, and sometimes hoarded, by collectors. Private collections have a way of being broken up before they can be acquired by a collecting institution. The combination of eBay, Craigslist, a burgeoning online collection network, and ever-increasing prices for antique books, has led to piece-mail sales of much of Saroyan's work. Several public collections also started out by the acquisition of one or more private collections. Getting a hold of materials in private collections can be a very difficult matter, and pretty much requires a personal connection to discover. 

The largest single collection of materials is the massive collection that William Saroyan himself had overseen and was used as the basis for the William Saroyan Foundation. During Saroyan's lifetime, he had deposited material with the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, and eventually the entire collection came to the University. This amounted to almost 200 boxes worth of material, one of the largest single-author collections in any American university library at the time. The library cataloged and conserved the material for several years until 1996. The Saroyan Foundation, who owned the materials at Berkeley, was approached by Stanford to see about arranging the transfer of the entire collection. The Stanford libraries, under the leadership of Michael Keller, had set a goal to acquire several significant collections to cement Stanford as "an institutional curator of culture." The wheels were set in motion, quietly at first, but eventually an agreement was struck between Stanford and the Saroyan Foundation, and filings began to finalize the transfer. The initial filings gave the impression the Foundation didn't seem particularly sure the move would be go unchallenged - 

A petition was prepared to obtain Superior Court approval of the transfer to Stanford, “to the extent it might be considered inconsistent with the terms of the will of William Saroyan.”

scans485Stanford received the entire collection, as well as the stewardship of the copyright to all of Saroyan's work. This, along with Stanford's acquisitions of large collections relating to Allen Ginsberg, John Steinbeck, and many others, certainly made the university's libraries the expected cultural dynamo that Keller had set out to create. The Saroyan Collection today represents the single largest collection of his material, and one of only a few collections of its kind that also handles the full copyright of an author's published works. Little of the collection is currently available online, though a thorough finding-aid is available. The library can be contacted by researchers and journalists for access. The matter of the Saroyan collection's disposition is still discussed in library and museum studies classes as a case study in the difficulties of how to weigh what's best for large collections when it comes to preserving material, working with third party organizations, and honoring a creator's wishes.

For the most complete telling of the events, read the exceptional SF Weekly article Snatching Saroyan from 1998. 

The Bancroft Library still holds some Saroyan materials, including a large collection of documents and photographs from his niece Jacqueline Kazarian. This large collection was donated after the Saroyan collection moved to Stanford and sits alongside other items that had come in from other sources as well.

Forever Saroyan is lucky enough to have a strong collection of materials covering nearly every period of Saroyan's work, and at least some representation of every medium he worked in. The hundreds of books and magazines cover his authorial work from start-to-finish. Manuscripts cover his published, as well as several unpublished and hand-annotated stories. Recordings and videos cover his work and his appearances on television and radio. Letters help us look into the ways he communicated, both personally and professionally. It is a collection largely compiled from several smaller collections acquired over the last decade. We are also lucky enough to be the collection that looks not only at William Saroyan's life and works, but are also able to put that into context with a large amount of material detailing the life and work of his family members. On our site, you'll find everything from scanned letters to music, video, and scans of manuscripts. In-person research can be arranged by emailing .

 

Chris Garcia - Archivist, Forever Saroyan, June 24th 2021 San Jose, California

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