Sassy Thornton Wilder and his sister
Not a Midas-touch but a Pulitzer-touch is what her brother displayed three times. She was 76 when I met her and I was 31, not quite like the movie “Harold and Maude,” but close.
I promised myself I would listen if she wanted to speak about her famous brother, but I would not pry or prod or be nosy. I had only met him once, over drinks at New Haven’s Old Heidelberg in 1975. Now he was a front page article in the New York Times Dec. 8: “Thornton Wilder is dead at 78. Won three Pulitzers for his work.”
I made the mistake of addressing Miss Wilder with the feminist “Ms.” She corrected me instantly: “It is ‘Miss,’ DECIDEDLY ‘Miss’ not ‘Ms’!”
When she paid me to drive her to her beach cottage on Martha’s Vineyard in 1977, she declared: “Thornton bought this house for me as a thank you for my work for him.” To avoid prying, I changed my would-be question to a declaration: “You were practically his private secretary!” She shot back indignantly, “What do you mean ‘practically’!” I remained silent.
She and Thornton never married, and when he died in 1975 at age 78, they had lived together all her life. Even though she was barely 5 feet tall, I envisioned a huge tree split down the center by lightning, leaving one half standing, scarred from canopy to roots.
She was three years younger than him. Her Jan. 13, 1900, birth date made it easy for me to always know her age.
When I became an errandrunner and paid driver for her in 1976 I was a first year student at Yale Divinity School. But I had met her originally the year before as a member of the mayor of Hamden’s Bicentennial Commission. The commission had directed me to write Miss Wilder asking her to donate her late brother’s study furniture for permanent display in Hamden, his town. “Our Town” (1938) is Thornton Wilder’s second Pulitzer Prize winning work. Negotiating donation of his desk and memorabilia became my job for our town as a member of the commission.
Later, as a friend, I helped Miss Wilder move two times: first, in 1977, nearby to New Haven from Hamden’s 50 Deepwood Drive, which the Wilders dubbed “the house ‘the Bridge’ built” because it was erected with profits from his first Pulitzer Prize winning work, the novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (1927).
Her second move, a few years later, brought her back to our town to the newly created assisted living facility Whitney Center in Hamden at age 82.
When I became Miss Wilder’s paid driver, she owned a four-door Mercedes Benz which Thornton gave her as a Valentine present. In 1980 I was maneuvering the clunky, box-shaped Benz through Hamden when, unexpectedly, Miss Wilder directed me to turn off Route 10 into a highbrow neighborhood. “Now go slow,” she said.
“Do you see that house? A doctor lives in that house. He asked me to marry him. (pause). I turned him down. (a longer pause). I had my chance.” (silence)
I tightened my hands on the steering wheel to avoid looking at her, respecting the delicacy of that moment with my own silence.
There is a third silence between us. Miss Wilder was 93 and I visited her in Hamden from Vermont where I was by then an English teacher. She had helped me earn my teaching certificate 1987 by underwriting my room and board for an unpaid sixmonth internship at Vermont’s Bethel High School.
She was bedridden but her secretary and a nurse both left the room. I thanked her “for all you have done to help me” in our friendship, which encompassed the deaths of both my parents — my mother in 1985, my father, in 1992.
She replied “If it was going to be done it had to be done the right way.” I was returning to Vermont and asked if I might kiss her goodbye.
She said, “Would you do something for me before you go? I need help in writing a check.” I thought for a long moment and then heard my voice refuse Miss Wilder for the first and only time in 17 years:
“Miss Wilder, I think it would be a very bad idea for me to look in your checkbook. And I think it would be an even worse idea for my handwriting to appear in your checkbook.” We were both silent, letting the significance of my refusal sink in for a moment. Then I leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. I had never kissed her before. She died two years later in 1995.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is the title of Thornton Wilder’s third Pulitzer Prize winning work (1942), a brilliantly crazy play with a dinosaur in it. It is also an apt title for how I met Miss Wilder in the first place: By the skin of my teeth — due to a classic mix-up.
When the Mayor’s Bicentennial Commission asked me to write Thornton Wilder himself in 1975, it was to request that he lend his name and photo to our commission’s fundraising brochure for our bicentennial project, “a museum for Hamden.”
Wilder wrote a delightfully rude, handwritten, sassy reply to me:
“How can I ask them to contribute to anything as vague and unnecessary as a ‘museum for Hamden’? ... Until your commission finds a more laudable project (also excluding a birdbath and horse trough) I do not wish to be represented on your fund raising brochure…
Miss Wilder stumbled across our commission’s letter after her brother died. Thinking it unanswered, she wrote me offering a monetary contribution to the commission’s “project” in her brother’s memory.
Her later decision to donate her brother’s study furniture to our commission instead of money was the outcome of that mix-up. That’s how Thornton Wilder s desk and memorabilia —— not a “horse trough or birdbath” — replaced our town’s original “vague and unnecessary” bicentennial project. Wilder’s desk in 2023 is permanently on display in Hamden’s Miller Library.
Sassy Thornton Wilder might be amused.
When Wilder became a world-famous author in 1927 at age 30, Sigmund Freud offered to give him free psychotherapy as part of his own research into “the artistic temperament.” Thornton Wilder turned him down.
“Think of that!” Miss Wilder said to me when she told me the story. “Imagine anyone turning Sigmund Freud down!”