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January 4, 2012

Patricia Bosworth on a Special Christmas

Posted by Katherine

Patricia Bosworth was born in Oakland, CA, the daughter of writer Anna Gertrude Bosworth and attorney Bartley Crum, one of the six lawyers who defended the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare at the start of the Cold War in 1947. Her younger brother, Bartley Crum Jr., and her father both committed suicide. Bosworth wrote a memoir about her family ANYTHING YOUR LITTLE HEART DESIRES, published by Simon&Schuster. After receiving her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College in 1955 she became a member of the Actors Studio, in Manhattan, but in 1964 she quit acting and went into journalism. Since, she has worked at and written for  the New York Times, McCalls, Harpers Bazaar, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire and Vanity Fair where she has been since 1988. In the 1990s she began teaching non-fiction writing at Columbia and Barnard; she lectured at Yale and the New School and is currently co-chair of the Biography Seminar at NYU. She has published biographies of Montgomery Clift and the photographer Diane Arbus; she is also the author of a short biography of Marlon Brando. Bosworth is the winner of the Front Page award and was a senior fellow at the National Arts Journalism program at Columbia. Here she talks about the Christmas she met William Saroyan.

Books have always been a huge part of my life. Books, in fact, reflect my worlds and always evoke vivid memories. Today books surround me in my loft; my shelves overflow with books from my parents’ vast library in Berkeley, California. Dog-eared copies of Rebecca West’s THE MEANING OF TREASON, collections of George Bernard Shaw, my father’s favorite playwright, all of Willa Cather’s novels (my mother’s idol), Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal’s essays, the complete works of Mary McCarthy.

Books were always given to me as gifts --- and not just at Christmas but at the slightest provocation. On the first day of spring long ago my father gave me ALICE IN WONDERLAND,because he said Lewis Carroll was so fanciful. My father gave me fairy tales too. For my tenth birthday I received GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and PETER PAN. My mother gave me Shakespeare’s Love Sonnets to celebrate Valentines Day.

However there was one special Christmas I will never forget. That’s the Christmas - it was either l938 or 39 --- William Saroyan came to dinner. I had never met a writer before --- I mean spoken to a writer, listened to a writer. My father told me Saroyan had written a play called The Time of Your Life set in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco. It was peopled with eccentric characters, lost souls, originals.

The play had won the Pulitzer Prize, which Saroyan had turned down. His reason was “commerce should not judge an artist.” My father admired his independent spirit. At the dinner table Saroyan never stopped talking. He was shaggy haired and messy. For a while he focused on me, which was embarrassing. We were being served a huge dinner and I didn’t feel like eating it so I left much of the food on my plate.

Saroyan was annoyed. “Wipe your platter clean, little lady! Remember the starving Armenians.” (This was a phrase used over and over again in the late l930s) and he then launched into an eloquent description of the horrific Armenian massacre that had occurred after World War I when millions of Armenians (including many of his relatives) were brutally killed by Turks. (It’s widely acknowledged as the first modern genocide. The second of course was the Holocaust.) Needless to say after Saroyan’s impassioned outburst I ate the rest of my dinner.

At the end of the evening, Saroyan sat me on his lap and gave me a copy of his book THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (which I have to this day.) And then he asked me what did I plan to do when I grew up. ”I want to act and dance and write,“ I answered. He nodded and then told me, ”Sure you do little lady. But first you must learn how to concentrate.” I had no idea what he meant.

Many decades went by. I became an actress and then a journalist. I was in my late thirties when I saw Saroyan again. Oddly enough it was Christmas time. I was backstage at a play my husband had written. I never knew why Saroyan was there but he was standing in the wings. He told my husband he liked his play and then I introduced myself and he remembered me and remembered that Christmas in Berkeley so long ago.

“So little lady,” he murmured, “Have you learned how to concentrate yet?”

“Yes, I have,” I said.