This morning's SF Chronicle has a long generous article on William Saroyan, reminding us that, born in 1908, he would have been a hundred years-old last Sunday, and that a party this evening in Frisco will celebrate some of the 7000 paintings he produced later in his life, when his writing had gone out of fashion.
Saroyan, coming of Armenian stock in Fresno, California, was most identified with San Francisco. That association was especially marked in his masterpiece, the play The Time of Your Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and was made into a movie by the Cagney's in 1948.
[From his first recognition in 1934, by 1939, he had three plays running simultaneously on Broadway.]
Darkly handsome when he broke onto the artistic scene in New York, and later Hollywood, he had a number of connections with Orson Welles, in particular through Paul Bowles. Later, his wife, Carol Marcus, was courted by Welles after she divorced Saroyan.
Seven years older than Welles, as a young man, Saroyan had a temperament rather like that of our other American theatrical and literary boy wonder. He loved stories and characters, and was recklessly generous, a prodigious eater, drinker, and gambler. But Saroyan had come to manhood in hard times, and he never forgot who the enemy was. It embittered him in a way not immediately apparent in Welles.
At his best, Saroyan's philosophy was summed up by:
"Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might. When you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough."
[Welles might have subscriped to some of those words, too.]
In 1941, Saroyan was on top of the World, and then, he embarked upon service in the Armed Forces to aid the War Effort, and a career in Hollywood. The two experiences, according to a number of biographers, broke him.
The Army tried to have Saroyan court martialed for using his time to produce a pacifist novel. And Louis B. Mayer took away from him his film, THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943), which won Saroyan an Academy Award for Best Original Story. Some who saw the uncut version thought THE HUMAN COMEDY comparable in a gentler way to CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. He proceeded to turn the scenario into a novel.
Robert Setrakian of the William Saroyan Foundation is quoted in the Chronicle article as follows: "He wanted to be angry. He couldn't stand being rich and famous. He thought an artist had to have anger."
Orson Welles never publicly subscribed to such an idea, but perhaps in some subliminal way, he acted out a similar course.
I didn't know whether to post this item under Prodical Sons or Personal Creation in Hollywood: Can It Be Done?
Finally decided William Saroyan, so similar to Welles yet so different, deserved a place of his own.