Cover image for A daring young man : a biography of William Saroyan
A daring young man : a biography of William Saroyan
Leggett, John, 1917-2015.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiii, 462 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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PS3537.A826 Z78 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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He was so famous that Saroyanesque entered the vocabulary of his time, an adjective expressing the childlike sweetness, the evocation of loneliness, the innocence that characterized his work. His name was known to anyone in America who read a magazine, listened to the radio, cared about theater, or bought a book. At one time he had three plays simultaneously on Broadway, including My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life (which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics' Circle Award). His first collection of stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was published by Bennett Cerf when Saroyan was twenty-six years old; it was a critical and commercial success. Saroyan went to Hollywood and wrote The Human Comedy over a Christmas holiday; it became a major wartime movie and won him an Oscar for best screenplay. His writing was a mixture of old-world suffering and new-world optimism. But for all of his promise and brilliance, and his half-century struggle to reach the pantheon of American writers, his gift was not large enough to sustain him. Now, in this full-scale biography, John Leggett gives us Saroyan whole, from the immigrant boy and his lonely orphanage years to the internationally acclaimed American writer. Here is the all-encompassing story --the fun, the follies, the lights, and the shadows of his life. Leggett writes about Saroyan's roller-coaster courtship and two marriages to the beautiful Carol Marcus (she was seventeen and he thirty-four when they met); about his relationships with his publishers and with his long-time agent, Hal Matson; about his friendships with Budd Schulberg, Irwin Shaw, George Jean Nathan, and others, and the many productions (on Broadway and off) of Saroyan's plays. He writes about Saroyan's constant struggle with his addictions to gambling and extravagant living . . . his disappointments as a writer and his undiminished belief in his own talent, a belief that it would prevail, no matter how many colleagues turned away from his excesses and his demands. Drawing on interviews and on Saroyan's letters, notes, and diaries, John Leggett, author of Ross and Tom ("A great book"--Leon Edel), gives us a revealing portrait of the man and the writer whose work charmed and touched the heart of mid-twentieth-century America.

Author Notes

John Leggett was born in Manhattan, New York City on November 11, 1917. He graduated from Yale University in 1942. During World War II, he entered the Navy and served in the Pacific theater. He worked as a publicist and editor for Houghton Mifflin and later as an editor for Harper and Brothers.

He wrote several novels during his lifetime including Wilder Stone, Who Took the Gold Away, and Gulliver House. He also wrote some non-fiction books including A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan and Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies. In the late 1960s, he became a writer in residence at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and become its director in 1970. He retired in 1987. He died on January 25, 2015 at the age of 97.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Leggett has taken on the unpleasant biographical task of probing the rapid decline of a gifted, once highly successful writer into a futility that deeply undermined his posthumous reputation. Leggett tells the story with such poignancy that even readers indifferent to Saroyan's work will care about Saroyan's life. And what a strange life it was, combining a rags-to-riches young manhood straight out of Horatio Alger with a bleak maturity that might have been scripted by Eugene O'Neill. Yet behind both the early triumphs and the later breakdowns, Leggett discerns the same fierce self-reliance. For while Saroyan's self-reliance impelled him to wunderkind success on Broadway and in Hollywood (The Time of Your Life, The Human Comedy), it also made him combative when dealing with editors who tried to help him recognize and overcome his creative limitations. Leggett limns a parallel pattern in Saroyan's personal life, showing how affectionate amiability degenerated into misanthropic bitterness, twice destroying his marriage to Carol Marcus and poisoning his relationship with his children. A memorable portrait, sympathetic yet unsentimental. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Famous for his literary portrayal of failures and angry men, playwright William Saroyan (1908-1981) might have appreciated Leggett's depiction of his life as a "tragedy of rage and rejection." Leggett has experience with tragic author figures (he wrote an acclaimed biography of Ross Lockridge Jr. and of Thomas Heggan), and he describes in painstaking detail the hubris and callousness not to mention the gambling debts that destroyed Saroyan's once-charmed career. Though he became an international celebrity and consorted with literary and Hollywood luminaries from Hemingway to Greta Garbo, his impetuousness also caused him to lose his money and become estranged from most of his friends. Leggett offers keen insights into the motivations that drove Saroyan's outrageous behaviors, arguing, for example, that Saroyan rejected the Pulitzer in 1940 (for his play The Time of Your Life) because he saw all honors as "transactions in which he seemed to lose some precious independence and to catch an offensive whiff of servility." At times, such insights get lost amid the minutiae of Saroyan's career. As well, Leggett offers some implausibly detailed reports about Saroyan's internal state (for instance, Saroyan "managed to contain his joy... and thanked Arthur Freed in the most casual way," when the MGM exec praised a screenplay in a telephone conversation). Still, fans of publishing history will enjoy Leggett's play-by-play of Saroyan's career, and literary biography buffs will embrace the book as a cautionary tale. Photos. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A former director of the Writers' Workshop reconstructs the life of the writer who gave us the term Saroyanesque. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The son of Armenian immigrants who survived the Turkish massacres, Saroyan (1908-81) is a remarkable phenomenon in American literature. Although he was orphaned and never completed the eighth grade, he read US and foreign writers voraciously, began writing when he was 13, and ultimately became a brilliant short-story writer, novelist, and playwright. In 1939, he refused a Pulitzer Prize (for his play The Time of Your Life) because "commerce" was irrelevant to art. What apparently made Saroyan so popular was his unshakable belief in the innate goodness of humanity and in the conquest of evil. Perhaps Saroyan's principal literary achievement was his ability to transform his Armenian heritage into a truly American experience. Leggett describes in considerable detail Saroyan's early years, his rise to literary fame, financial and marital difficulties, and addiction to alcohol and gambling (the last, when he suffered losses, stimulated his creative powers). Though Leggett seems to believe that factography is the quintessence of biography (noting, for example, the "formidable bad breath" of a large audience Saroyan addressed in Beirut), this book deserves attention. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All audiences. V. D. Barooshian Wells College