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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Wilder came to douglas with no grand work in mind, theatrical or literary. Yet slowly, an idea began taking shape, one more suited for the page than the stage—a murder mystery, one that began in a mining town and, like its author, traveled far and wide.

In the winter of 1963 he felt confident enough to divulge his book's beginnings to intimates back East. He described his manuscript, eventually titled The Eighth Day, "as though Little Women was being mulled over by Dostoyevsky." Soon he hit his stride: "Every new day is so exciting because I have no idea beforehand what will come out of the fountain-pen," he wrote (and underlined) to his sister. It opens in early 20th-century "Coaltown," Illinois, and spans continents, generations and philosophies. A convicted murderer escapes from custody and, as a fugitive, develops a new personality. After 15 years writing exclusively for the stage, Thornton Wilder was once again writing a novel.

At least once a month he would drive to Tucson, where, as "T. Niven Wilder," he used the University of Arizona library, bought the New Yorker ("It continues its decline," he wrote home) and visited Ash Alley 241, a folk music club. He enjoyed the long drives not merely for the change of pace, but also because, lacking a radio in his apartment, he could listen to the news as he drove. During the Cuban missile crisis that October, he drove 50 miles to dine at the Wagon Wheel in Tombstone in part, he acknowledged to a friend, because "I wanted to hear what the air could tell me of Cuba and the United Nations." For Christmas he gave himself a record player from Sears and bought recordings of Mozart string quartets.

The citizens of Douglas thought Wilder a most amiable odd duck, recalls Nan Ames, whose husband owned the Round-Up, a bar the writer visited regularly. People nodded to him on the street, and he nodded back. On occasion he'd drop by the telephone company to make a long-distance call—he had no phone at his apartment—and provoked some suspicion on the part of the local operator, who detected an odd accent in the voice of this man who invariably and unaccountably wore a coat and tie.

Wilder would have an occasional drink with Louie, the town engineer, Pete from the Highway Patrol or Eddie, the Federal Aviation Administration man at the local airport. Among his acquaintances he counted Rosie, the Gadsden elevator operator, and Gladys, the cook at the Palm Grove. He wrote home that Thelma's daughter Peggy, who had gotten fired from a bar, married a fellow named Jerry. He learned that Smitty, a bartender at the Gadsden, was hospitalized with stomach ulcers and that Smitty's wife spent "a good deal of time on a high stool at Dawson's." He referred to his nighttime coterie as "the Little Group of Serious Drinkers."

He was more observant than judgmental. "Peggy was fired, I guess," he wrote of the merry-go-round among tavern employees. "And is replaced by Haydee—there's this floating population of waitresses—bar attendants— each several times divorced; each with several children...our geishas." The bar crowd's intrigues sufficed. "I've met no 'cultivated' folk," he wrote a friend a year after moving to Douglas, "and I have not missed them."

Wilder accepted an invitation to dinner at the home of Jim Keegan, the town's surgeon, and his wife, Gwen. While she prepared spaghetti in the kitchen, Wilder peppered the doctor about his profession. "He brought a bottle of wine," Gwen recalled recently. "I loved his laugh. He was a very curious guy—easy to talk to, full of knowledge and life. He was very vibrant."

The relentlessly curious Wilder listened to his Douglas acquaintances talk about how to make soap and which drinks go with kippered herring. He asked a lot of questions, and many of the answers found their way into The Eighth Day. "He wanted to know how one would set up a boardinghouse," Nan Ames recalls. "He was not as down-to-earth as most people in the world. He was learning to be casual. Ask questions—that's what he did best."

For all the goodwill and friendly respect Douglas offered, Wilder began to detect an undercurrent "bubbling with hatred." At a bar one night, a rancher pounded the table with his fist and declared: "Mrs. Roosevelt did more harm to the world than ten Hitlers." A woman who worked at the telephone office asked another townsperson, "Who is that Mr. Wilder, is he a Communist?" Just after the assassination of President Kennedy, a fellow at the Gadsden bar said, "Well, he had it coming to him, didn't he?"

After a year and a half, Wilder left Douglas, Arizona, on November 27, 1963, never to return. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, then to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for his brother Amos' retirement from the Harvard Divinity School faculty. The Eighth Day, after considerable expansion and revision, was published in 1967. By far Wilder's longest and most ambitious book, it became a best seller and won the National Book Award. Tappan Wilder, the author's nephew and literary executor, says "he went to Douglas, Arizona, as a playwright and came home a novelist."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus