Saroyan Mementos Packed into Fresno Warehouse


Haig Mardikian

 

By Tara Albert

FRESNO (Fresno Bee) — For many Fresno residents, the name Saroyan isn’t synonymous with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright or short-story master whose fiction they’ve read. It’s the name of a theater downtown.

“As far as his own home turf, the interest in him has just been lagging for a number of years,” said Bill Secrest, a special collections librarian for the Fresno County Public Library. Looking on the bright side, Haig Mardikian, president of the William Saroyan Foundation in San Francisco, said that the storage warehouse at least protects the items until a museum or university might agree to house them. “For the time being, the foundation is mostly concerned with preserving the material,” he said.

That Saroyan’s possessions now sit in a warehouse gathering dust is an indignity that the author himself might find amusing. After all, Saroyan spent much of his life in a personal war with materialism. According to legend, he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the roulette tables and the racing ponies.

As is often the case with writers, Saroyan had a complicated relationship with the city that defined his early life. Depending on what Saroyan essay or short story you read, he either loved or hated the place. By age 18, he wanted nothing more than to leave Fresno’s small town “rot and decay and ferment,” he once wrote.

The town, in turn, regarded him with similar ambivalence.

Sure, Fresno held a centennial celebration of his life in 2008 that included photo and art exhibits, performances of his plays and discussions of his books, not to mention a Saroyan wine made locally and a bus with the visage of the author, his thick eyebrows and walrus mustache, plastered on its side.

And yet the house he lived in after his birth on August 31, 1908, was long ago torn down to make way for progress. After his death in 1981, local libraries, museums and Fresno State had a chance to keep a treasure trove of his published and unpublished manuscripts, his artwork and correspondence and diary. Instead, most of the Saroyan collection was allowed to slip away to the University of California at Berkeley, and now Stanford University.

For many years, the items that remained in Fresno became part of a highly regarded permanent Saroyan exhibit at the Met. It took up a full room and included rare photographs and letters, his typewriter and the Oscar he won for the screenplay of his novel, The Human Comedy.