Sunday, April 10, 2011

* Dedication of the Thornton Wilder Study and Memorabilia

Thornton Wilder portrait rendered and donated
by artist Clarence Brodeur.
(L-R Miss Isabel Wilder of Hamden, 
Mr.and Mrs. Robert Keane of Mt. Carmel)

Paul Keane in front of replica of Thornton Wilder's study 
including the desk from 50 Deepwood Drive, 
"The House The Bridge Built"
Invitation to the Ceremony 


April 17, 1985*

Thornton Wilder

Miller Memorial Library
Hamden, Connecticut

Introduction and Background:

Paul Keane,
Mayor's Bicentennial Commission

N.B. Bracketed words [ ] not included in original speech (added 2008,9)

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 Olde 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 an 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 Becks beers. When he spilled food on his suit jacket, he poured the Becks 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’s be met at the airport by one of the “Ford family of cars” he’s 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 to 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 [Hamden's own special mountain] the 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.
Thank you.
Thornton Wilder

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 a 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. 203-288-4873 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.
Sincerely yours,

Thornton Wilder

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 mentioned by me to Miss Wilder in her lifetime, is my insouciant, nay downright fresh, request in that reply 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: “. . . A MUSEUM for Hamden? . . . a laudable project . . .and a good one . . .”] This time, his sister, Miss Isabel Wilder, responded, [and it may have been a response to my insoucient note] 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 and he must undertake no outside responsibilities of any nature.
This present crisis climaxes several years of poor health and 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 and 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 and privacy. The mail year in and year out is horrendous and we do the best we can to be fair and generous about that. To have his name and 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 and so heartlessly uncooperative. All his active years he did what he could when asked for many causes. The time inevitably comes when younger men and women must take over and share their talents and responsibilities with others. Hamden is full of men and women distinguished in the fields of Art, Architecture, Archeology and history and museum experts who could bring the name and enthusiasm you need.
Again his regrets and 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 Olde 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, 2976

Dear Mr. Keane:
I regret more than I can say the long silence since your most gracious letter of October 26, 1975 and 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 and the work of the young people full of charm and 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, and for the Calendar which gave him much pleasure.

Isabel Wilder

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
Town of Hamden, Connecticut


Invitation says June 22, 1983. My notes say April 17, 1985.


Edgartown MASS  02539  August 19 1975

Dear Mr. Keane;

     Many thanks for your letter. I have tried to 
reach you by telephone [number?] 
203-288-4873mfour times during the day,
hence my delay in replying. 

     Your request presents me difficulties.

     I have recently approached a number of my friends 
for donations to what I feel to be urgent and 
highly worthy causes. HOW CAN  I APPEAL to
them [for] anything 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 a part of September 

in a Boston Hospital I shall not be able to reply 
promptly to correspondence.

                                            Sincerely yours

                                            Thornton Wilder

Isn't that Mt. Carmel Dickerman House the seat of 
as historical society in Hamden?---and a good one ---


POST SCRIPT (23 years later)

New Haven Register

Writer's furniture finds home at 



Seen above in Keane's Vermont home: The desk  on which Thornton Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey; his favorite  chair (at the desk); a hearth rug from Deepwood Drive ("The house The Bridge built"); a bookcase from his study; his grandmother's sideboard; his portrait in the Stagemanager's costume,  painted by Clarence Brodeur)

Portrait of Thornton Wilder in the Stagemanager's costume from Our Town and also The Skin of Our Teeth. ( Artist, Clarence Brodeur.) Donated to the MacDowell Colony in 2008 by Paul Keane.

By Herb Epstein

After 33 years in Paul Keane's home, former Hamden resident Thornton Wilder's furniture is now on display at a New Hampshire artists' retreat where he wrote part of his classic play, "Our Town."

Keane donated Wilder's furniture in honor of the writer's late sister, Isabel Wilder. She privately gave Keane the furniture in 1976, a year after Thornton Wilder's death. Included in Keane's donation are the desk at which Wilder wrote "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"; his favorite chair; a Persian rug; and a bookcase from Wilder's study on Deepwood Drive in Hamden. Wilder was a Hamden resident for 50 years.

"Her private donation to me has been in my house for 33 years," said Keane, a former resident of Hamden, who now lives and teaches in Vermont. "This is the first year it'll be on display."

A year before Wilder died, Keane met him at dinner in the Old Heidelberg on Chapel Street in New Haven. Over the final year of Wilder's life the two exchanged a few letters.

"He was very charming," said Keane.

While on the Bicentennial Commission in Hamden, Keane had asked Wilder to endorse a project for fundraising for a museum in Hamden. However, Isabel Wilder wrote to Keane telling him that Wilder was unable to endorse the use of his name and pictures in promotion of the project because of his declining health.

Once Wilder died, his sister decided to make a contribution in his honor. She donated another desk of his, which is on display in the Miller Memorial Library in Hamden. It took nine years for an architect to create an exhibit that would display Wilder's desk in the library.

"I exchanged letters with Thornton enough that Isabel Wilder wanted to honor him," said Keane.

In a letter to Keane, Isabel Wilder wrote, "My brother wanted to make a contribution. Now I'll do so in memory of him."

Keane and Isabel Wilder developed a strong relationship over the years, as she even gave Keane some of Thornton's furniture.

"She took a liking to me," said Keane. "She treated me like a son."

Isabel Wilder died in 1995 at 95 years old. Now Keane has decided to donate the furniture in her honor. At 64 years old, Keane wanted to see the furniture go into good hands.

"I wanted to see for myself before I died that it got into appreciative hands," said Keane. "I have received as much pleasure in giving this furniture away as I have had in owning it for the last 33 years."

Keane offered the furniture to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., and officials there were happy to have it.

"It means quite a bit for this piece of history to come back here," said Cheryl Young, executive director of the MacDowell Colony. "Especially as a writer to get his desk means a lot."

Keane added, "All I wanted was for someone to enjoy it. It is something that ought to be shared."

Keane understands how fortunate he was to meet Thornton Wilder and later Isabel.

"If I hadn't been invited to sit down with him, then none of this would've happened," said Keane.

Keane added that "Isabel and Thornton made a conscious decision to share with the public, and they were extremely generous in that way."

From The Director of the MacDowell Colony, Cheryl Young


Hi Paul, 

Here are photos of the Wilder side board and Thornton's writing desk, both in Hillcrest. The side board is in the side entry room. The desk is in the east wing on the second floor landing where the light is beautiful. The MacDowell medalists often stay in that wing. Albee, Roth, Munro and even Duchamp have all stayed at Hillcrest. In a few weeks, Stephen Sondheim will be with us. 

Thanks again for connecting our cultural heritage through the generations.

Warm regards,


* Documents Relating to the History of the Thornton Wilder Project

(work in progress)
Left click or press Ctrl and (+) as many times as you wish to enlarge text.


The log-jam was broken when I persuaded G. Harold Welch to join the Reconvened Bicentennial Commission. He was then 84, but still very active as New Haven's most prominent real estate investor . (He owned the the Century Building and property on which sat Macy's in the Chapel Square Mall complex) and Hamden's wealthiest resident.

The Hamden Chronicle failed to 
note that these "friends" of 
Thornton Wilder were the artist 
and his wife, Clarence A Brodeur, 
who painted and donated the 
portrait of  Wilder  (immediately 
behind him on the wall in 
this picture) to the Hamden 
Bicentennial Commission.