Major Ben Amirkhanian Letter

As a result of an announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle which asked for letters from persons whose lives brushed with William Saroyan. The following letter was received from Virginia Scardigli who was friendly with Saroyan in 1933. This letter details how Saroyan wrote his first book that made him famous –



This letter was received on October 23, 1995 by Major Ben Amirkhanian who established The William Saroyan Society in 1985

Dear Major Ben Amirkhanian:
Sorry for the long delay in writing to you. I am just now coming out of a total exhaustion from a too heavy schedule which piled up on me in August, September and the first part of October and am now in Hilo, Hawaii, putting body, soul and mind together. Be home Nov. 3 but hope to be able to get this note off to you before that.

So for remembering Bill

We met in the late fall of 1933 when I was working for Ansel Adams– Joseph Danysh Art Gallery at (I think) 133 Gleary St. (2nd floor) in San Francisco. This was a gathering place of writers, artists, photographers- young and old, Bill was 23-24 and probably came in to see this exhibit of Atanas Katchmatov’s (not sure of that name) paintings. Bill didn’t have a job and was living out on Carl Sweet with family. Like so many of the bright, excited young talents of (he depression, he spent a lot of time walking, observing and visiting with all kinds of people and maybe four or five times a week he checked in for some stimulating talk about art, music, the Municipal Railway (5c fare), Mussolini, Hitler. the big world, his little world. After we would pool what little cash we had (taking out 21c for the ferry to Berkeley and Bill’s 5c to Carl street and would walk up to Yee Jim’s in Cbinatown and eat the rest or cross Market Street and go to Breen’s for a 35c turkey leg or the 3′ dinners at The Cannary Den in the basement of the Swedish Old Sailors Home on Drumm Street-pitchers of orange juice, trays of sauerdough bread–a single entree–even a piece of pie if you had an extra dime. Then walking through the commission market and to the Ferry Building-so many ships on the embarcadero then. And talk and talk.

I remember Bill telling me of his time in the orphan home in Oakland when a death in his family (father) made it impossible to care for Bill and his brother. Of his grandmother complaining that she had lived 50 years in Fresno next to a women who had never learned a word of Armenian. Of raiding orchards and garden plots for fruit and vegetables-of his job with Western Union-so many things that turned up later on in MY NAME IS ARAM and THE HUMAN COMEDY.

We went to heat Father Divine at his storefront church on Pacific Street-at first just to hear the music but then holding bands to keep each other from going up to the mourner’s bench to confess our sins (we were so innocent) when the sermon and call began, The title PEACE ITS WONDERFUL came from father Divine-a big black man with a magic voice and white Cadillac and oval following.

Always, Bill talked about being and becoming a writer, of all the stories and ideas inside him that had to come out.

We knew he had been sending out stories all along and collecting rejection slips but the day in 1934 when Joe Danysh and I arrived at the front door of the gallery and found the envelope addressed to us both, we knew it had really begun. Inside were two one dollar bills, two street car transfers and a card which read-One for the, money / one for the show / one For Virginia / and one for Joe.’ Signed William Shakespeare

Bill received $15 for that first story published in Story magazine – THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPESE-but he paid back his debts and then disappeared for a month and wrote 30 stories-published that year-his first book–same title,

Ben, I have the magazine, I have the book and I have the photograph taken by Ansel Adams of Bill grinning, his black hat cocked on that head of bushy black hair (no beard or mustache in those days) The card I gave to some lovely people in San Francisco who helped set up a chair in Armenian Studies at UC Berkeley-but the other things I would be happy to donate to the Fresno Library or whatever you set up for the public. There’s more in my memory but I’d have to answer a lot of questions.


Virginia Scardigli