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.
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 bar…new 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.
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.”
Who among us doesn’t seek a hideaway, a place without distractions, a neutral space in which to do whatever it is that nurtures us—solitude without loneliness? Thornton Wilder regained his literary voice in remote Arizona, and for him his temporary hometown’s name became synonymous with rejuvenation. More than five years after departing the Arizona desert he wrote a friend: “Ever since I keep hunting for another ‘Douglas.’ ”
Tom Miller has written ten books about the American Southwest and Latin America, including The Panama Hat Trail. Originally published at Smithsonian.com.