Steve Hauck

The Time of Their Lives: William Saroyan, Steinbeck, and the Dollar Short Story

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By Steve Hauk

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — The following remembrance of William Saroyan and John Steinbeck by journalist and writer Steve Hauk first appeared at SteinbeckNow.com on June 19, 2021. Steinbeck Now is an independent information resource with no institutional affiliation. It is a not-for-profit, non-commercial educational portal developed to benefit the public. It accepts original articles and art with a fresh, transformative perspective on Steinbeck’s life, thought, and persona.*

It was a time in the mid-1930s. The writer William Saroyan was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles and, some miles down the road, decided he’d like to visit John Steinbeck in Pacific Grove. So he detoured. Steinbeck was busy writing but broke off to sit and talk with his fellow Californian.

Neither could know the coincidence and irony of what was coming. In 1940, both men would win the Pulitzer Prize: Steinbeck in literature for The Grapes of Wrath, Saroyan in drama for The Time of Your Life, an alarmingly original treatment of people waiting for something to happen, and a harbinger of plays like “Waiting for Godot” — except that in Saroyan’s piece something dramatic finally does happen. Really, what were the odds of a couple of guys sitting in a little room in Pacific Grove, each simultaneously nabbing a Pulitzer a few years later — though Saroyan would turn his Pulitzer down, saying he did not believe in awards in the arts. Steinbeck would be quoted as saying, “Bill knows what he wants to do and I don’t see that it is anybody’s business.” He said he felt better about his Pulitzer because Saroyan, though rejecting it, got one too.

Of course Steinbeck had already shown what he could do, having written Tortilla Flat, his first popular novel — along with the stories later collected in The Long Valley — and likely at work on his 1937 hit, Of Mice and Men. When they met, however, Saroyan was simply the hottest short story author in America, closely identified with California’s Central Valley and the Armenian community around Fresno, much as Steinbeck came to be with the Salinas Valley and the characters around Monterey County. Known for writing quickly, Saroyan believed in spontaneity — which produced frequent masterpieces but also, now and then, a story that might need more work. But Saroyan was Saroyan, and The Time of Your Life, The Human Comedy, and The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze would make him famous.

Back in Pacific Grove, Steinbeck said he’d like Saroyan to meet Bruce and Jean Ariss, who lived nearby. Bruce was an artist and Jean was a writer whose novel, The Shattered Glass, was inspired in part by the Monterey of the 1930s and 1940s. Saroyan followed Steinbeck in his car to the young couple’s home, and the evening went well, with plenty of wine and lots of talk. Recalling the evening some years later, Jean said that eventually Steinbeck decided he had to go home and get back to writing. Jean and Bruce invited Saroyan to stay for more talk and another glass, and they mentioned that they had become involved with a local literary magazine. Saroyan found that interesting and asked for more information.

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Finally Saroyan said it was time for him to get going. But as he was leaving he changed his mind about trying to drive all the way to Los Angeles. “You know, it’s gotten late and I’m tired and have had too much wine,” he said. “Is there a hotel or inn nearby?” Bruce and Jean recommended one, then said goodbye to the hottest short story writer in America. The next morning they heard a knock on their door. A red-eyed Saroyan stood holding a thin, wrinkled manuscript and said, “A short story I just wrote. I hope you like it. That will be one dollar, please. And now I have to be on my way.”

“That was so wonderful of him — a William Saroyan short story for our magazine!” Jean told me many years later. “We loved him forever. John Steinbeck was a good friend, but he would never have done something like that for us.” Jean added that, while Steinbeck took time with his writing, spending too long on a short story might have been considered slothful by Saroyan. I don’t know the title of the story Saroyan wrote that night — if Jean told me I’ve forgotten — and I don’t even know if Bruce and Jean ever published it. But the episode meant enough to Jean to have created an indelible memory.

Saroyan first moved me when I did a scene from his sad and lovely play, “Hello Out There,” as a student at Los Angeles City College. In it, a young man passing through a small town is falsely accused of rape and jailed. As citizens gather to lynch him, he gives the jail’s shy and gentle young maid the money to get out of town and start a new life, urging her to leave the building before the lynching party arrives. As she exits, their eyes meet and you realize the young man and timid maid have fallen deeply in love. Then there was the inaugural art exhibit at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, which I co-curated with Patricia Leach more than 20 years ago. The morning after the opening, a young artist named Gailyn McClanahan walked into our Pacific Grove gallery, looked around, and said, “I have to go get my husband — be right back!” Her husband was William Saroyan’s son, Aram, a writer, playwright, and poet. How ironic, I thought at the time: Steinbeck last night, Saroyan today.

Nancy and I got to know and like Gailyn and Aram, and I thought of them when President Biden condemned Turkey for the Armenian Genocide during World War I. This horror haunted William Saroyan, who expressed his feelings in the brilliant story-essay “Seventy-Thousand Assyrians.” And I knew that Aram could carry a similar heaviness. At dinner some years ago, the topic of the Armenian genocide came up in conversation and Aram seemed to slip into a dark mood. When he excused himself from the table, Gailyn explained that this happened occasionally, that what had haunted the father also haunted the son.

The other day I contacted Aram to ask him what his father would have thought about the President’s comments, and I was saddened to learn that Gailyn, like Nancy, had died. Of his father’s response to Biden’s censorship of Turkey, Aram said, “I certainly support your idea about my father’s no doubt very positive response to President Biden’s official recognition — that Ottoman Turkey’s massacre of the Armenians was an act of genocide.” He continued: “Virtually all Armenians, including hybrids like me, were/are deeply heartened by his act, which has been so long in coming.’’

More than a century late! But President Biden deserves great credit for articulating what others thought but shrank from saying. Like William Saroyan, John Steinbeck would approve.

 

William Saroyan

Pacific Grove is a coastal city in Monterey County, California. Founded in 1875 as a seaside getaway for camp-meeting Methodists, one where liquor was outlawed and modesty was mandated, Pacific Grove soon became a summer destination—Chautauqua West—for vacationing non-Methodists from inland towns such as Salinas. Pacific Grove is located between Point Pinos and Monterey. It has numerous Victorian-era houses, some of which have been turned into bed-and-breakfast inns. Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson frequented Pacific Grove. Author John Steinbeck resided in Pacific Grove for a number of years. While Steinbeck resided in Pacific Grove, he came up with the plot of The Grapes of Wrath, and became friends with Ed Ricketts, the inspiration for the character “Doc” in Cannery Row. The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Steve Hauk, a former journalist, is a playwright, short story writer and art dealer in Pacific Grove. Co-curator of This Side of Eden—Images of Steinbeck’s California, the National Steinbeck Center’s inaugural art exhibition, he has written on John Steinbeck for Steinbeck Review and is the author of two CINE Golden Eagle award-winning PBS-telecast documentaries narrated by Jack Lemmon: “Time Captured in Paintings: The Monterey Legacy” and “The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy.” His plays include “Fortune’s Way, or Notes on Art for Catholics (and Others)”; “The Floating Hat,” a play on the relationship of Charlie Chaplin and deaf-mute artist Granville Redmond; “Reflections of an American Mossad”; “A Mild Concussion or The Forgotten Computer Genius,” on software pioneer Gary Kildall; and “The Cottages, Scenes from Lives Interrupted,” on the tragedy of dementia.

Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of fictional stories published by SteinbeckNow.com based on Steinbeck’s life, is available through Amazon.com, in Monterey-area bookstores, and at Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove and Steinbeck House in Salinas, California. His most recent work on Steinbeck, the play “Eden Armed,” is published online on SteinbeckNow.com. As a journalist, he has interviewed or covered figures as diverse as Muhammad Ali, Paul Newman, Dame Judith Anderson and Pope John Paul II. Steve recently helped jury a major exhibition at the Museum of John Paul II in Warsaw, Poland.

With his late wife Nancy, Hauk founded Hauk Fine Arts, which specializes in early and contemporary art of California and the Monterey Peninsula. The gallery is interested in connecting the art to the times in which it was created and the strong connection of literary and scientific figures to the painters of their time. Hauk Fine Arts serves as a forum for the Monterey Peninsula’s vibrant artistic community. Gary Kildall, Steinbeck, and impressionist Effie Fortune all did important creative work in Pacific Grove. For more stories by Steve Hauk, go to: http://www.steinbecknow.com/author/steve-hauk/ and for Hauk Fine Arts visit http://www.haukfinearts.com/)

Contributed by Christine Vartanian Datian to The Armenian Mirror-Spectator Newspaper.

 

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