The Saroyans, Chance Encounters and a Briefcase of Coffee

Over a year ago, I uncovered a relatively forgotten story on the transfer of William Saroyan’s ashes from the United States to Yerevan, Armenia, where they were subsequently buried at the Komitas Pantheon. My report was based on research I conducted using online and print sources. This was when I discovered that my great-grandfather, Armenian playwright Aramashot Papayan, had been a part of this historic transfer and was one of the leaders and members of the Yerevan delegation that went to Moscow, Russia to greet the U.S. delegation tasked with bringing the urn to the homeland.

At the time, I did not know that I would, over a year later, have the unexpected chance to personally speak with a key figure of the U.S. delegation who brought Saroyan’s urn from the United States to Armenia. 

William Saroyan with the Jendian family: Allan Jendian and his wife Rosemary Jendian with their children Matthew and Megan (Micah not pictured). Witnessing William Saroyan’s will being signed. April 11, 1981. Fresno, CA. Photo captured by Penny Console.

Just a few weeks ago, as I sat celebrating my birthday at a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant, I received an excited text from Dr. Tony Saroyan, a distant relation of William Saroyan and a doctor of psychology, someone I had interviewed in the past about his family’s history and relation to William Saroyan. “Allan Jendian,” the text read as my phone lit up. “I met him right now. He was in charge of transporting William Saroyan’s ashes. He has amazing stories.”

“What are the chances?” I thought to myself. I immediately asked Dr. Saroyan to ask Jendian if he had any memories of my papik. “He said in a briefcase [Papayan] had a burner and coffee,” was Dr. Saroyan’s reply. “Yep,” I thought, smiling to myself. “That was definitely my papik.”

A few days later I got in touch with Jendian, who was gracious enough to lend me his time and shared a more revealing perspective of this historic moment. Jendian was born in Boston and raised in Watertown, Massachusetts. He graduated from Fresno State University in 1967 with a degree in accounting and worked as a Revenue Agent for the IRS until his retirement. 

Jendian has been, and still is, very active within the Armenian community. He is an ordained deacon and has been involved with organizations such as AGBU, the Armenian Assembly, ACYO Central Council, Knights of Vartan and many more. 

As a Fresno resident, his path crossed William Saroyan’s on several occasions. Jendian first met Saroyan at a laundromat, where Jendian approached him to hand him a booklet on the writer himself, one that had been created during his time at the United Armenian Commemorative Committee, on which he served as chairman for 15 years. 

They subsequently had coffee, and their relationship sparked from there. Years later, Saroyan asked Jendian to witness the signing of his will. This was the last signing of Saroyan’s will, which took place on April 11, 1981, a month before his death. Saroyan called Jendian and personally asked him to be present at the signing, insisting that he not forget to be there.

“I can’t forget, because April 11 is my daughter’s birthday,” said Jendian.

Jendian arrived at the signing with his wife and two of his three children. Saroyan had a book prepared and signed for Jendian’s daughter, Megan, in honor of her birthday.

After Saroyan passed away, a tribute committee was created by community members, of which Jendian was the acting chairman. The tribute was held in Fresno, California and attended by Vardges Petrosyan, president of the Writers Union of Armenia, and Lusine Zakaryan, beloved Armenian lyrical soprano, both of whom had hoped to return to Armenia with Saroyan’s ashes.

U.S. and Yerevan delegation arrive at Yerevan airport with William Saroyan’s urn. From left: Aramashot Papayan, Vardges Petrosyan, Vardges Hamazaspyan (chairman of Spurk), Robert Demir, Allan Jendian and Dr. Dickran Kouymdjian. 1982.

Due to the time pressure of the Armenian Orthodox tradition of conducting a requiem at the one-year mark of a person’s death, the organization agreed to create a delegation to transfer the ashes to Armenia. 

The delegation consisted of Jendian, William Saroyan’s attorney Robert Demir and Dr. Dickran Kouymdjian, former director of the Armenian Studies program at California State University, Fresno. Later, the Committee for Cultural Relations Abroad (Spurk) chose Osheen Keshishian, former editor of the Armenian Observer, to join the delegation in representation of their organization. The four of them garnered the endearing nickname, “Saroyan Quartet.”

Members of the Writers Union greet the arriving U.S. and Yerevan delegations. From left: Mkrtich Sargsyan, Vardges Petrosyan, unknown, Aramashot Papayan, Robert Demir and Allan Jendian. Yerevan airport. 1982.

When the U.S. delegation arrived at an airport in Moscow, a delegation from Yerevan was waiting to greet them. The Yerevan delegation consisted of Papayan, Petrosyan from the Writers Union, Perch Zeytuntsyan, Karlen Mikaelyan, Robert Galustyan, Albert Gasparyan and Garo Atoyan. 

The urn was revealed at the foot of the plane, and members of the Yerevan delegation took turns holding it. Following their arrival, the two delegations had dinner at the Budapest Hotel, which went on for hours as the writers took turns eulogizing William Saroyan. 

“You could see that Saroyan meant so much to them,” said Jendian. “They were all very somber. [Papayan] more so because they both had the same make-up as individuals. There was a lot of likeness. For them, being Bitlisian meant the world.”

Yet the urn was not officially transferred to the possession of the Writers Union until the group reached Yerevan and an event took place for the transfer. Until then, Jendian was primarily tasked with protecting the urn.

Writers Union event of William Saroyan’s urn transfer. Vardges Petrosyan and Vardges Hamazaspyan carry William Saroyan’s urn. Allan Jendian stands in the center. Yerevan, Armenia. 1982.

Early the next morning the delegations boarded the plane for Yerevan and were taken to Armenia Hotel, now known as Armenia Marriott Hotel Yerevan. Later, at an official event, the urn was transferred to the Writers Union. 

Over the course of the next few days, the Yerevan and U.S. delegations explored the city together and attended many events. They went around the city in free taxi rides, this being a luxury bestowed particularly upon the Saroyan Quartet on behalf of the generosity of the taxi drivers. Every time Papayan visited their hotel, he pulled out his briefcase, stuffed to the brim with ingredients and tools for coffee, and made everyone cups of coffee.

William Saroyan’s urn is presented to the Writers Union at the official event. Photo includes Vahagn Davtyan, Allan Jendian, Robert Demir, Dr. Dickran Kouymdjian, Vardges Petrosyan, Hrachya Hovhannisyan, Vardges Hamazaspyan and others. Yerevan, Armenia. 1982.

A day after watching one of Papayan’s plays at a theater, the group decided to visit one of the writer’s homes. There happened to be no taxis out at this time, so Papayan hailed a bus instead and earnestly explained who they were and the unfortunate predicament that had left them with no transportation. “The bus driver, then knowing this was the Saroyan Quartet, went off the route and took us,” said Jendian.

Several days later, on May 29, 1982, the burial of the urn took place at Yerevan’s Komitas Pantheon. The observance lasted two hours and consisted of numerous speeches. Jendian stood on the dignitaries platform along with the Writers Union Members, First Secretary of the Armenia SSR Karen Demerdjian, and other dignitaries, alongside thousands of admirers who came to honor Saroyan’s life and cultural contributions. 

The burial of William Saroyan’s ashes at Komitas Pantheon. The dignitaries’ platform. Vardges Petrosyan and Vardges Hamazaspyan stand behind the microphones, alongside First Secretary of the Armenia SSR, Karen Demerdjian (left). May 29, 1982. Yerevan, Armenia.

Jendian visited Armenia several more times after this event. In 1995, Jendian returned to Armenia as a delegate representing the National Ecclesiastical Assembly for the election of the Catholicos of All Armenians. At this event, 13 years after the burial of Saroyan’s urn, when Jendian entered the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin during a procession, his eyes met Papayan’s. 

The burial of William Saroyan’s ashes at Komitas Pantheon. The dignitaries’ platform, including the U.S. and Yerevan delegations, Writers Union members, Armenian government officials and other dignitaries.

Life has a way about it sometimes, as it delicately weaves the past and present together into images of unforgettable people.

“It took me back to when I first met him,” said Jendian. “Many years later, neither of us forgot each other. [Papayan] was a really nice man. Very bubbly. Somewhat reminds me of Bill.”

William Saroyan was the reason Jendian and Papayan met. Dr. Tony Saroyan was the reason Jendian met me, Papayan’s great-granddaughter. Life has a way about it sometimes, as it delicately weaves the past and present together into images of unforgettable people. Jendian and I are a snapshot of such moments. When worlds collide and memories revive, they help us breathe life into the photos in our possession. Through his own memories, Jendian helped me gain a clearer understanding of my great-grandfather.

“He was a warm, very gentle person. With his white wavy hair and all, you can’t miss him. Even today while we are talking,” said Jendian, “I could just picture him.”

Dignitaries and citizens gather around in Komitas Pantheon to mourn William Saroyan.
Jane Partizpanyan

Jane Partizpanyan

Jane Partizpanyan is the Development Assistant for the Armenian American Museum and Cultural Center of California, a historic world-class project currently under construction. She is also a regular contributor to The Armenian Weekly and a published poet, having been featured in several literary journals and magazines. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and public relations from California State University, Northridge, where she graduated magna cum laude.
Jane Partizpanyan

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  1. Very interesting piece! Thank you for sharing this story. I’d like to point out that the individual standing third from the left in the third photo is probably not Razmik Davoyan, as mentioned. It could be worthwhile to investigate the actual identity of this person.

  2. Great story. Not enough is written about our American armenian history and the figures who left should an important imprint.

  3. If I remember right, William Saroyan’s cousin was Ross Bagdasarian, who had an interesting career progression:

    *He appeared as the pianist in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”. There’s a photo from the set of Hitch pouring water on RB like a plant.

    *He did the song “Witch Doctor”, but had to use the pseudonym David Seville, as celebs weren’t supposed to sound ethnic.

    *He created Alvin and the Chipmunks. He got the names Alvin, Simon and Theodore from some execs whom he met while recording “Witch Doctor”.

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