Thornton Wilder’s Desert Oasis

For the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Douglas, Arizona was a place to “refresh the wells” and drive into the sunset

Thornton Wilder discovered Douglas, Arizona, when his T-Bird broke down. (Douglas Historical Society)
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The playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder won three Pulitzer Prizes, the admiration of his peers and success at the box office and bookstore. Ever accessible, he gave lectures, responded to queries about his plays and even acted in them. But eventually he tired of strangers asking him what the ladders in Our Town symbolized or what metaphor readers should take from The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Wilder had been so famous for so long that, nearing 65, he felt worn down. He wanted a break, he told the Associated Press in March 1962, so that he could "refresh the wells by getting away from it all in some quiet place."

Wilder's travels over the years had taken him to spas, aboard cruise liners and to world capitals, where he mingled with the intelligentsia. This time, though, he sought an unpretentious town in which to settle for a while, envisioning, he told the AP, "a little white frame house with a rickety front porch where I can laze away in the shade in a straight-backed wooden rocking chair." It would be a place where he could belly up to a local bar and hear real people talk about day-to-day trivialities. Most of all, he wanted a place where he could read and write at his own pace. He hoped, his nephew Tappan Wilder says, for "solitude without loneliness."

Shortly after noon on May 20, 1962, Wilder backed his five-year-old blue Thunderbird convertible out of the driveway of his Connecticut home and lighted out for the Great Southwest. After ten days on the road and almost 2,500 miles, the Thunderbird broke down on U.S. Highway 80, just east of Douglas, Arizona, a town of some 12,000 on the Mexican border about 120 miles southeast of Tucson. Douglas lay on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, and summer temperatures there routinely exceeded 100 degrees, broken only by occasional thunderstorms.

Wilder checked into the Hotel Gadsden, where rooms cost from $5 to $12 a night. Named for the United States diplomat who, in 1853, negotiated with Mexico for the land Douglas sits on, the Gadsden has an ornate, high ceiling with a stained-glass skylight. Its staircase is of Italian marble. Its restaurant offered a fried cornmeal breakfast with butter and syrup for 55 cents and a lunch of calves' brains, green chili and scrambled eggs with mashed potatoes for $1.25.

The Phelps Dodge copper smelter just west of town dominated the landscape—and the local economy. Established at the beginning of the 20th century by mining executive James Douglas, the town was laid out in a grid with streets wide enough for a 20-mule team to make a U-turn. It mixed an Anglo upper and merchant class with a strong, union-oriented Mexican-American working class; schools were loosely segregated.

Wilder informed his sister Isabel, who was handling his business affairs back East, that he found his fellow Gadsden bar patrons that first night an amiable lot. No one asked him about ambiguity in the poems of T. S. Eliot or nonlinearity in the fiction of John Dos Passos. He extended his stay for another day, then a week, followed by a month, finally staying more than two months at the Gadsden.

"Arizona is beautiful," he wrote to his friends writer-director Garson Kanin and his wife, actress Ruth Gordon, "oh, overwhelmingly beautiful." Wilder wrote frequently to friends and family, ruminating on literature, theater and his solitary life. He started a ritual of sunset drives into the nearby Sonoran Desert, and when he drove farther in search of good food—to Bisbee, Tombstone or Sierra Vista—he marveled at the "grandeur of the ride, an hour into the Book of Genesis." He introduced himself by his middle name, Niven, and people called him "Doc" or "Professor," perhaps because of the many questions he asked.

In early August, Wilder rented a small three-room furnished flat on the top floor of a two-story apartment house at the southwest corner of 12th Street and D Avenue. It had everything he needed: two single beds—one for himself, the other for his papers—a divan, an overstuffed chair, four gas burners atop a stove he was afraid to ignite, an unsteady card table on which to work and Art Nouveau lamps.

It was here that he established a routine of reading and writing. His agenda included Lope de Vega, Finnegans Wake and refreshing his Greek. He'd set his work aside around noon and stroll to the post office for his mail. Lunch was usually a sandwich of his own making, followed by more work. He'd take an occasional jaunt into Agua Prieta, the Mexican city adjoining Douglas, or explore other nearby towns. Dinner would usually find him at the Gadsden, the Palm Grove or the Pioneer Café. He'd end most evenings chatting in a bar. "My plan is working splendidly," he wrote to Isabel. Back in Connecticut, his sister told callers he was somewhere in the Southwest recovering from exhaustion.

A typical Wilder report: "Midnight: Went up to Top Hat to close the bowling alley restaurant and bar has stolen business from all over town." At the end of one letter, he wrote, "Now I must get this to the P.O and then go to the Gadsden Bar and get a hair of the dog that bit me last night." Sometimes, when Douglas bartenders announced last call, Wilder and his drinking buddies would cross the border a mile to the south to continue their drinking in Mexico.


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