The Place of Places: Chapter 51, 24848 Malibu Road, Malibu, California, 1951
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 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.
This 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.
The 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).
Many 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).
Although 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.