The Place of Places - 40 West 58th Street, New York, 1948
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 look at the marital home in 40 West 58th Street, New York, 1948.
Here we face another bitter chapter about Carol Marcus. You know it’s going to be a negative when he starts calling her “the little woman,” which he does throughout this book. His marriage to Carol was passionate for both of them, filled with love and lust and also anger and resentment.
By 1948, their marriage had begun to fall apart. In 1946, Saroyan had moved the family to the house on Taraval Street in San Francisco. Carol felt far away from her friends, isolated from what she had always known. She tells Saroyan, “San Francisco is for the birds.” In 1948, remember, Carol was still only 24 years old, having lived with her parents and been surrounded by people her whole life until her marriage to Saroyan. San Francisco was foreign to her and she also wasn’t used to running a household.
In this vignette we find her requesting a move back to New York and involving her mother in the preparations, to Bill’s dismay. Newspapers and biographer John Leggett actually have the Saroyans moving to apartment 3A, 41 West 58th street, near the Plaza Hotel. It was built in 1941, so must have been very new and luxurious, at $395 per month in 1950, though this chapter has it at $500. Incidentally, whether the newspaper’s figure or Saroyan’s figure was correct, a unit in that building today rents for twice as much, adjusted for inflation, at $10,000 per month. $395 per month is the equivalent of $4700 today. So, it’s no wonder that when Saroyan left the country following their first divorce, Carol and the children were evicted for being unable to continue paying rent.
40 West 58th Street, the name of this chapter, was the location of the Plaza Funeral Home. The five-story building housed the funeral home from about 1930 to 1968. It was demolished in the fall of 1968 to make room for a luxury 50-story residential building. This would be a very specific and esoteric joke for Saroyan to make, mixing up 41 West 58th with 40 West 58th. Though, it may have been a natural joke he made in 1948, looking out at the funeral home and imagining what he called the suicide of having to live with a miserable Carol.
He writes, “If the little woman, who kept crying before she became the little bride, swearing devotion and all of the other wifely things, is unhappy where she is and must be diverted every fifteen minutes, or must be moved into a new place in which to be unhappy, and to make phone calls all day and all night –her mother said her bones were strong, she didn’t say anything about her real charms, her hilarious untidiness if she didn’t have somebody do everything for her, or her continuous sickness if she wasn’t on the phone or giving a party or buying clothes for herself.” He goes on to explain that she exhausted him and he turned to drink and their relationship became little more than a sexual transaction at some point. The reference to her crying before she became the little bride may sound familiar to readers who remember chapter 44, The Hampshire House, where Saroyan turned her away while they were courting, and she wept until he took her back.
Here he explains that he had to work to support his family, but the implication is that previously writing hadn’t carried that weight for him. It supported him when he was poor and alone, but now it had to support four people, one of whom he considered irresponsible with money. He writes, “The lucky husband went to work and tried to write something, but the stuff just wasn’t any good, he was too shot, too confused, too tired, too dried out, too juiceless, too alone – in spite of his bed pal, in spite of his two kids, in spite of crazy women who were hired to look after them.”
The chapter is wry and sarcastic but also a little frantic. His sentences are long, filled with breathless commas that keep thoughts going with a sense of unease. Whereas this type of rhythm in his writing had once served him well in the 1930s, describing the fast pace of city life, it was now used to express his growing madness and the loss of hope for a happy family life. What he had wanted – a wife and children – had actually interrupted his essence as an isolated writer who was primarily an observer. Suddenly his life was once again out of control, as it had been when he was a small child.
He and Carol were both miserable. Carol had filed for divorce while they were still living in San Francisco, charging extreme cruelty and seeking $1000 per month for herself and $250 for each of the children. They reconciled at the time, and considered moving to Fresno, which didn’t pan out. Divorce occurred in 1949 in Reno.
Saroyan paints a picture of Carol and her mother, Rosheen, betraying him by arranging to move to New York behind his back. Aram Saroyan’s biography of Bill argues that Saroyan was in so much gambling debt that he may have also wanted to move the family to New York to escape the temptation and the growing debt in San Francisco.
In Aram’s assessment of his parents’ marriage in his biography, William Saroyan, Bill preferred Carol dependent, and when she showed any signs of independence or self-worth, he railed against her, favoring a servile partner. Aram’s examples of this dependence include the Hampshire House meltdown and her imperative pregnancy before marriage to prove she could mother his children. On the other hand, various social occasions in which Carol demonstrated her charm and individuality to others annoyed Saroyan. This chapter might be another such example where Carol made a decision that she felt was right for herself and the kids, and that assertion and proactive movement enraged him, possibly even causing him to fail at his writing, which may have been the most offensive part to him.
Artie Shaw, when interviewed, claimed that Saroyan “Wasn’t in love with her. Not love as I understand love…Bill wanted to own Carol. Carol was a thing, a status thing to him. Blonde, beautiful little girl…She represented a big step up in the world. A little immigrant, second-generation Armenian boy marries this society girl” (William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered, ed. by Leo Hamalian).
New York was a place of mixed blessings for Saroyan. It was where he could produce his beloved plays, but it was also a place where Carol was the stronger of the two socially. It was the place his father had lived, but it was also a place where he didn’t have any family or many close friends he could trust. In New York he could make great art, but it was commodified in ways he found disgusting.
After a short time of reconciliation at West 58th Street, Carol revealed her Jewish heritage and Saroyan raged, leaving the family for a bender in Europe, where he would gamble, drink, and eventually write the novella, The Assyrian. When he finally returned to find Carol in a serious relationship with another man, he begged for reconciliation and they remarried for a brief time. Much has been said about their relationship, both in Saroyan’s memoirs and in his various biographies. But the complexity of his family’s dynamics is hard for anyone looking in to understand completely. It’s chapters like these that today may look different than how he intended, after these biographies were released, and especially after Aram’s Last Rites was released, which told an intimate story about how the four of them related to each other. From the perspective of this chapter, Carol is conniving and a traitor. But after many decades of analysis from insiders and outsiders, it seems to be much more complicated. This chapter leaves a sour taste for the reader, whether or not they have hindsight. Once again, he is laying his grudge out in the open, proving that this book is full of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Although it’s uncomfortable to read, it does invite the reader in and once again creates a well-designed sense of intimacy.