Thornton Wilder Commemorative
April 17, 1985
Miller Memorial Library
Introduction: Paul Keane
Well . . . here we are: Assembled in his town, on his birthday in an auditorium named in his honor. A hundred yards away, in the main lobby, is the centerpiece from his study at 50 Deepwood Drive, now on permanent exhibit: His desk and its surrounding furniture.
Why are we paying tribute to him tonight? He is, after all, just one of the millions whose footprints have disappeared from the earth. And isn’t that one of the recurring themes in his writing –the significance of the insignificance of our individual lives and passions? Why then this commemorative?
I guess it’s because we’re pleased that for 50 years he made our town his town, 50 years during which what he wrote won him three Pulitzer prizes .(Of course his itinerary was such a whirlwind of world travel that we can only guess which pages of which works might actually have been written on a desk in Hamden.) I guess too that we want to puff ourselves up a bit (that’s OK, it’s human nature) and remark that in our small town there worked and walked a literary giant. And finally, as our guests tonight -–themselves Hamden authors –-will reveal, we want to enjoy his prose and characters, their passions and predicaments, again, reminding ourselves of the larger pattern of the tapestry of which we are each a strand.
I’d be misleading you if I said I was a friend of his or even that I knew him. But I did spend an hour with him once over a dinner table and I did exchange two notes with him. I’d like to share those memories with you tonight for they reveal what I have since learned was one of his consistent and remarkable traits: His accessibility to others. He was a philanthropist in the pure sense of the word: a lover of mankind.
It was eleven years ago (when he was 77) and I was sitting with a friend in the Old Heidelberg on Chapel Street. I mentioned to my friend that Thornton Wilder was supposed to be a regular at this place . “I’ve been coming here all my life,” I said, “but I’ve never seen him.”
At that very moment, like a deus ex machina, a stout, older man with bushy white eyebrows, in a trench coat and crumpled fedora, BLEW into the restaurant and darted for the empty crescent shaped booth under the windows, in the corner next to the bar. As he zigzagged through the tables, he was all the time saying hello to regulars, patting the crown of his hat as if perpetually tipping it in respect. (After his death a waitress there told me he would pace up and down on the sidewalk outside, peering in the window, waiting for that booth, his booth, to be empty, whereupon he’d make a dash for it. And I learned too, that that crumpled fedora was the hat he’d worn for years when he’d play the Stagemanager’s role in Our Town.)
“You won’t believe this,” I said to my friend, “but I think Thornton Wilder just walked in.” He dared me to go over and speak to him, and when I demurred, he did it himself. Before I knew what had happened, we’d been invited to sit with him through dinner. He bought the rounds of drinks and ate the Seafood Platter, a mountain of fried fish which would have tried the digestion of a man 20 years his junior. [he had two martinis, two scotches, and two Beck’s beers. When he spilled food on his suit jacket, he poured the Beck’s into a linen napkin, aggressively and blithely washing the stain with a further stain] I won’t try to recount that hour here but, suffice it to say, Thornton Wilder was everything I’ve since heard him to be: A raconteur extraordinaire, (Garson’s Kanin’s famous remark is, “I didn’t go to college, I went to Thornton Wilder.”) To say he was animated is an understatement. He was effervescent — -his hands punctuating the air, his bushy white eyebrows dancing over his glasses.
He talked about everything and anything: The house on Armory Street that is a replica of Goethe’s cottage; the virtues of ‘we senior citizens” as good drivers; the reprieve the eye doctor had just given him to renew his own driver’s license; his upcoming trip to Sanibel Island, Florida where he’d be met at the airport by one of the “Ford family of cars” he’d rented; Proust’s observation that the hardest thing about being a writer is being able to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper for three hours without getting up. And he inquired about his table guests. When I mentioned I was between graduate school and I knew not what, he chimed in with gusto — as if on cue –“A perfect opportunity for you to develop your native abilities as a writer.” I later learned that he said that to a lot of people, almost like handing out bouquets, walking the extra mile of accessibility as a famous writer. But “the difficulties of getting published”, I said. “Excuses, excuses, why not to write” he rejoined.
My friend and I adjourned, a bit tipsy on Thornton Wilder’s company. The next day, my friend, who lived around the corner from Mr. Wilder on Armory Street, took a walk up Deepwood Drive and left a note under his windshield wiper inviting him over for drinks. Mr. Wilder called with regrets, on his way top Sanibel. We did not know at that time that this was to be the last year of Thornton Wilder’s life.
I sent Mr. Wilder a copy of Donald Hall’s poem about he Sleeping Giant, since I’d mentioned it but had been unable to quote it at the Olde Heidelberg. I received this reply on a postcard from Sanibel, Florida:
January 30, 1975
Dear Mr. Keane:
Thanks for the note with Donald Hall’s poem. I met Mr. Hall
Over 20 years ago in Cambridge and I think I recall his saying he was brought up in Mt. Carmel. He has written many better poems than that one.
I cite this postcard as an example of the literally tens of thousands of cards, notes and letters Thornton Wilder wrote over the years to those who solicited his reaction, even veritable strangers like myself.
Later that year, I was asked to join the Mayor’s Bicentennial Commission in Hamden. We chose as our project fund-raising for a museum for Hamden to house the Town memorabilia then stored in the basement of the Jonathan Dickerman House. The Commission proposed that we invite Mr. Wilder to endorse this project and ask him if we could use his photograph and sentence of endorsement on our fund-raising brochure. I neglected to spell out the proposed museum’s relationship to the Jonathan Dickerman House, an omission in my letter which brought this peppery response from Mr. Wilder:
Edgartown, Mass. 02539 August 19, 1975
Dear Mr. Keane:
Many thanks for your letter. I have tried to reach you by the telephone
Num. 203–388–4873 four times during the day, hence my delay in replying.
Your request presents some difficulties.
I have recently approached a number of friends for donations to what I feel to be urgent and highly worthy causes. HOW CAN I APPEAL to them for money anything [sic] as vague and unnecessary as a MUSEUM for Hamden? Hamden is contiguous to New Haven, notable for museums, cultural, scientific and historical.
Until your Commission finds a more laudable project (also excluding a horse trough and birdbath) I do not wish to be represented on your fund-raising brochure.
Sorry to disappoint you.
As I shall probably spend part of September in a Boston Hospital, I shall be unable to reply promptly to correspondence.
Isn’t that Mt. Carmel-Dickerman House the seat of a historical society in Hamden? — and a good one –
Well, yes it is. I wrote again, clarifying my mistake and renewing the invitation .
Not mentioned in this speech, and never revealed to Miss Wilder in her lifetime, is my sassy reply to his rude letter in which I request that he permit the Commission to cannibalize his letter and use its words on our brochure in the following manner in exact contravention of his wish:
[Dear Mr. Wilder:
Thank you for your enthusiastic letter of August 19, 1975 . We welcome your words:
“. . .A MUSEUM for Hamden? . . . a laudable project . . .and a good one . . .” and hope to use them on the Bicentennial Commission brochure.
Mayor’s Bicentennial Commission ]
This time, his sister, Miss Isabel Wilder, responded, delicately and graciously alerting me that the time has come in her brother’s life when his accessibility to others had to be curtailed. Her letter is a kind of postscript to the decades Thornton Wilder has spent sharing himself with others.
Edgartown, Mass. 02539
Sept. 14, 1975
Dear Mr. Keane:
My brother, Thornton Wilder, has been for almost two weeks now, a patient in a Boston hospital recovering from an operation more drastic than was anticipated. The surgeons have warned him the recuperation period will be long & he must undertake no outside responsibilities of any nature.
This present crisis climaxes several years of poor health & long stretches of invalidism, further handicapped by failing eyesight.
I regret that I must tell you that there is no question of his being able to give you his name or use of his picture to be used in publicity for the very important and challenging project for the Hamden Historical Society. (He was relieved to know the plan is part of the Dickerman House Museum.)
What he must have now is complete seclusion, far from the public scene. He has always preferred that & for years except when necessary as recently for the good of those involved in producing his plays in the theatre, he has tried to live in retirement & privacy. The mail year in and year out is horrendous & we do the best we can to be fair and generous about that. To have his name & picture on 1,000’s of brochures would lead to a shattering extra invasion of his desperately needed retreat for his health’s sake.
He regrets sincerely that he must seem so unappreciative of your interest in writing him & so heartlessly uncooperative. All his active years he did what he could when asked for many causes. The time inevitably comes when younger men & women must take over & share their talents and responsibilities with others. Hamden is full of men & women distinguished in the fields of Art, Architecture, Archeology & history & museum experts who could bring the name & enthusiasm you need.
Again his regrets & cordial good wishes for the success of the project.
(Miss) Isabel Wilder
Such a sad moment for us to have intruded. I wrote expressing the Commission’s wishes for his swift recovery and enclosing a copy of the Bicentennial Calendar with sketches of Hamden landmarks drawn by Hamden school children, hoping it might brighten his day.
Thornton Wilder died two months later, December 7, 1975. I had seen him one more time, walking down Chapel Street one evening away from the Old Heidelberg, wearing the same trench coat but no hat, his head swiveling upward, drinking in all of the architecture, as if for one last time.
Six weeks after his death, I received this letter from Miss Wilder.
50 Deepwood Drive. Hamden, Connecticut 06517
Jan. 22, 1976
Dear Mr. Keane:
I regret more than I can say the long silence since your most gracious letter of October 26, 1975 & the Calendar which you so kindly sent.
It is delightful! Thornton was still well enough to look through it carefully — -The idea of the Calendar at all was wonderful & the work of the young people full of charm & budding talent. A great success. He hoped it was selling “like hot cakes” to help the cause.
When the campaign for the Historical Society is under way please send me a form. My brother wanted to make a contribution. Now I’ll do so in memory of him
Thank you again for your thoughtfulness and understanding of his condition last October which was rapidly deteriorating to his death December 7th, & for the Calendar which gave him much pleasure.
I proposed to the Commission that we decline Miss Wilder’s gracious offer of a contribution and request instead that she donate her brother’s desk for display in the Museum. She agreed, and seven years, three Mayors, and thirty meetings later an architect created a setting in the lobby of this building for permanent exhibit of that centerpiece from Thornton Wilder’s Deepwood Drive study. If viewing that exhibit inspires one child to develop his or her “native abilities as a writer” we trust that Mr. Wilder would feel it to be “a laudable project.”
Paul D. Keane
Mayor’s Bicentennial Commission (1976–1985)
Town of Hamden, Connecticut