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Only in America

The first time I met Vartan Gregorian he gave me a big bear hug. I had known from Philip Hamburger’s profile of Gregorian in a 1986 New Yorker that he tended to hug people, but I thought that meant he hugged people he knew or was at least acquainted with, not people he had never met before. Hugging people, however, is part of Gregorian’s charm, a charm that is backed up by a remarkable intelligence and a driving ambition.

Although his autobiography is much more formal and sedate than the gushing volubility of Gregorian’s recollections recorded in Hamburger’s profile, it is equally honest and straightforward. In the book Gregorian tells us how he made his way up from his impoverished beginnings in the provincial city of Tabriz in northern Iran to become not only a famous American educator but also an exponent of American values.

Growing up in Tabriz, Gregorian always thought of America as a dream. America, he writes, was always “a fantasy built and rebuilt in my mind and psyche.” Although like many other immigrants he mainly created that fantasy from the scores of American movies he saw, “in the United States,” he writes, “I saw hope. I perceived the United States as a place where dreams did not die, and one did not have to live off the flesh of dead dreams.” One of the first books he read when he arrived in America was Elmer Davis’s But We Were Born Free, a defense of personal liberty. For him the “joy in being an American has been the joy of freedom.” He was shocked to discover when he first arrived in America in 1956 that African-Americans were not born as free as other Americans; but apart from this, his early impressions of most Americans as hard-working, friendly people who don’t like to be bossed around or told what to do have stayed with him, reinforced again and again by what he calls “American openness, generosity, and the volunteer spirit.”

Despite his obscure and poor beginnings Gregorian has never thought of himself as a victim overcoming adversity. He knows he is too talented for that. His is the traditional American success story, modeled on that of Benjamin Franklin—the bright young boy who read book after book and rose out of nowhere to become one of America’s preeminent citizens. He calls his autobiography “The Road to Home,” and his home is America. Although he is as much a citizen of the world as anyone could be (he went to school in several different countries and speaks seven languages), Gregorian loves America as perhaps only an immigrant who has made it can.

Although Gregorian never tells us the actual date of his birth (indeed he is sometimes as casual in omitting dates in this memoir as he notoriously is in omitting articles in his speech), we can deduce that it was sometime in 1934. Iran in the 1930s was predominantly Muslim, but it included many minorities; the largest and one of the oldest was the Christian Armenian community into which Gregorian was born.

Being Armenian has been crucial to Gregorian. It has given him a stabilizing sense of who he is amid the shifting languages, events, and locales of his life. Throughout the autobiography he speaks often of his Armenian heritage and the ways in which Armenians from different countries relate to one another. He tells us that he has spent a good deal of time reading and rereading the observations of the Armenian writer William Saroyan on “this race, this small tribe of unimportant people,” who, wrote Saroyan, cannot be destroyed. “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.”

Without the help of numerous Armenians throughout his career, Gregorian could never have achieved what he has. Time and again he tells us how one Armenian or another—a friend, a relative, or a complete stranger—encouraged him, promoted him, financed him simply because he was a fellow Armenian. An Armenian pharmacist and the leader of the Armenian community in Tabriz encouraged him at the age of fourteen to write articles for the Armenian newspaper. A short time later the vice-consul of France in Tabriz, a French Armenian, wrote letters of introduction and arranged for him to go to a French-Armenian lycée in Beirut, the Collège Arménian, to further his education.

In Beirut two Armenian strangers tutored him in French, one of the languages, along with English and Arabic, that he had to learn in his first year at the Collège. So too did the Armenian wife of one of his teachers arrange for his room and board in Beirut. His greatest patron, Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the short-lived Armenian Republic (1918–1920), said to the supporters of the Collège that he directed, “Build and expand. Don’t worry, the Armenian nation will take care of you.” This could be applied to Gregorian himself. Throughout at least the early parts of his career Gregorian always discovered an Armenian ready to lend him a hand.

All this patronage from fellow Armenians was essential since his father, who does not come off very well in this memoir, refused to help him. It is not surprising therefore that Vratzian became Gregorian’s “surrogate father.” Gregorian’s mother died when he was seven, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, who emerges as one of the most extraordinary characters in his story of his life. His grandmother had a hard life and suffered calamity after calamity—losing her husband, six of her seven children, her home and village—yet, as Gregorian recounts in wonder, she never complained and bore all her miseries in private. Since his father, who seems to have resembled Dickens’s father in his jovial nonchalant manner amid many business failures, took little or no interest in the young Vartan’s upbringing, it was his grandmother who raised him and his sister.

Although his grandmother was illiterate, she always valued learning, something Gregorian’s father seemed not to care much about: he had no books in the house, bought no newspapers, and, though a translator of English himself, never responded to Gregorian’s desperate requests to be taught English. “To this day,” Gregorian writes, “it is a great puzzle to me that my father did not take an interest in our education.” Although his grandmother could not read to him and his sister, she told them stories and instilled in him a sense of character and honor. Gregorian suggests that this illiterate and superstitious peasant woman with remarkable dignity was the most important influence in his life.

Gregorian graduated with honors from the Collège Arménian in 1955, but, as he sadly relates, without a single relative present. He was embarrassed that he was several years older than many of his classmates. But after all, he explains,

I had lost at least three years in transit from an Armenian-Russian, to a Turkish, to a Persian, and then to a Lebanese school. I had been in three different systems that, among other things, required knowledge of Armenian, Russian, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, French, and English.

When Mr. Vratzian decided that Gregorian ought to go to the United States for further education, several American graduate students at the Collège expressed concern about this transplanted Iranian’s command of English. “They were right to worry,” Gregorian recalls.

In America it was Armenian strangers again who eased his way. He had always thought of diasporas as limited and parochial. But now he came to realize that he had been wrong. “Diasporas tend to be cosmopolitan, international. In any distant region, country, or city, one has an instant link to one’s diaspora through one’s extended, dispersed family, one’s religion, cultural institutions, language, press, and, of course, commerce. An immigrant, a student, a visitor finds an easy foothold, a pathway, a bridge to a foreign country.”

In 1956 he entered Stanford University and flourished. “I studied hard, I partied hard, I worked hard.” Being a foreign student who knew several languages became an asset, “for I could be in two or more places simultaneously: I could compare my experiences, could see things from different perspectives, and be both observer and participant.” He tells us about his favorite professors and some of the stimulating courses he took; he even takes five pages to describe a research paper he wrote on the character of Karl Marx, only to conclude that it was a “crude attempt at psychohistory.” Nevertheless, the professor gave the paper an A.

Gregorian does not hide the fact that he performed superbly at Stanford. That he rushed through the undergraduate program in two years and was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in history in 1958 was among the least of his triumphs. He became president of the campus’s International Center and received an award “for the student who has contributed most to international understanding.” Throughout his autobiography he has a major problem with his own brilliance: he can’t avoid the displays of egotism inherent in a life full of awards, achievements, and A papers. He would have been better off if he could have written the autobiography of someone else, who could then describe him in the way Gertrude Stein was able to use The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to describe her own genius without seeming to take direct responsibility for what she had written.

The best Gregorian can do to solve this problem is repeatedly to poke fun at himself and his shaky English. He tells us, for example, that when he was president of the International Center at Stanford, “I was asked to welcome the ‘top brass’ of the university. I had heard of ‘brass tacks’ but not ‘top brass,’ so I welcomed the ‘brass tacks’ of Stanford University.” These malapropisms, indeed, his many humorous misunderstandings of American customs, became part of Gregorian’s charm: he eventually refined them into an art.

While at Stanford, he bought a car, learned about dating and necking, and had what appears to have been a hectic social life. He organized scores of parties and became well known and well liked: he quotes a Stanford chaplain who called him “a very popular young man on campus.” To the consternation of his future wife, Clare Russell, an undergraduate whom he was taking out, he always parked illegally on campus and got away with it. “The fact is,” he tells us, “that almost all Stanford policemen liked me, my car was well known to them, and they almost always overlooked my parking infractions.”

He married Clare in 1960, to the great dismay of his Armenian friends who expected him to marry an Armenian. At the same time Gregorian received a Ford Foreign Area Training Fellowship to travel abroad to carry on research for his dissertation on the history of Afghanistan between 1880 and 1946. He and Clare moved to Beirut, where their first son was born. He then set off for Kabul to do more research. On the way he stopped off in Iran to see his father and for the last time his beloved grandmother. Tabriz, his formerly great city, now seemed to be merely a big village, especially since his achievements so far were enough to make him the toast of the Armenian community. He proudly tells us that he was now called the “nation’s lighthouse,” but tries to soften the remark by noting Lloyd George’s comparing Marshal Haig’s mind in World War I to a lighthouse: “Once in a while there was a light beam, followed by prolonged periods of darkness.”

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