In 1975, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Someone handed me a copy of Thornton Wilder’s “The Eighth Day.” When I finished that novel, someone else handed me “Theopolis North.”
I decided I had to get in touch with Thornton Wilder. I remembered from the play “Our Town,” by Wilder, that little Rebecca tells the story of Jane Crofut getting the most amazing letter.
To: Jane Crofut
The Crofut Farm
United States of America
The Mind of God
So I sent my letter to Thornton Wilder, Connecticut. I didn’t know where, but I knew Connecticut. About nine days later, I received a letter.
Oct. 6, 1975
Dear Mr. Heyde,
Thank you for your kind words. I’m 78 years old, I’m half blind, I’m recovering from a serious operation but I’m cheerful. I’m so happy that you’re writing your own novel. However serious you think it is, you should take a break occasionally. And maybe consider the sublime. I’m so happy that you have a musician in your home.
50 Deepwood Drive
I wrote another letter, asking all the questions I had been holding back, and I finished it with really cogent questions like, “Do you have anyone who takes care of you?” and “Could I send you some cookies?”
I also said, "Please do not feel like you have to answer this immediately, but I really, really, really need to know the answers to these questions."
I waited for a response. And I waited, becoming more depressed each day.
I woke up one Saturday morning in a panic. I decided I had to get a hold of Wilder that day. I got on the phone and called every Wilder within 50 miles of Hamden, Connecticut. And of course I couldn’t reach anyone I needed to reach, because they weren’t listed. In fact, half the Wilders hadn’t heard of Thornton Wilder.
On Monday morning I got up, I turned on CBS, and Charles Kuralt did a brief news survey: “Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thornton Wilder died at his Hamden, Connecticut, home on Saturday, Dec. 7.”
I just crashed. I found my favorite Wilder passages, and I lit candles and I held a memorial service.
My wife took the kids shopping. On the way out, she said, “I think you need to get some counseling.”
What I decided to do instead was to read every press release so that I could get a name. The only name I could get was Tappan Wilder, and he was a nephew. I wrote to him, and about 10 days later, I received a letter from Isabel Wilder, his sister and executor. She was his right-hand person for about 50 years of his literary career.
She wrote, “Thank you for your letter. I am currently answering about 800 letters of condolence. I’m really happy that you got one letter from him.
“Do not come.”
And then a very strange P.S.: “Mr. Heyde, if you do decide to come, here is my personal number. Please do not give it to anyone.”
That was in December. In April, my wife and I and another couple were in New York. I called the number. This chirpy voice answers the phone.
“It’s Gary Heyde.”
She said, “Are you here?”
I said, “No, I’m in New York, but I’d like to see you.”
“Well how about Thursday?” she said.
When I saw her, she looked like Wilder in drag. She said, “Are you hungry?” And I said, "Very."
“Well,” she said, “Yale is right here at New Haven, and Wilder is kind of a god at Yale, and I made a private reservation.”
She pulled up over the curb trying to park.
We were escorted back inside the restaurant into a private room. As we came in, people said, “It’s Isabel Wilder!”
Before the salads arrived, she was already confiding in me. She said, “I’m so upset, Gary, there are two biographies coming out, and neither of them are authorized. And both of them suggest that Thornton was a homosexual.” She got very teary.
I said, “Oh Miss Isabel, no one would really care.”
“You think not? Well he wasn’t. I would know, because I’m his sister.”
Then she said, “I bet you would like to see one of his manuscripts?”
At the library, she took me to see Don Gallop.
She said, “This is Gary Heyde; he has come all the way from Indiana.”
Don reached down and grabbed a bunch of paper and said, “This Gary Heyde?”
He had every letter I had ever written to Wilder on his desk.
Miss Isabel got quiet. It was just a bit too strange.
“Don,” she said, “Gary would so much like to see a manuscript.”
“Theopolis North,” I said.
The minute I saw those words and saw his handwriting, I literally started weeping. And when I started weeping, Miss Isabel started weeping, and Don Gallop was very embarrassed.
Isabel said “Gary, hon, wouldn’t you like to see the house?”
For those of you who don’t know, in 1929, Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize for “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” He took the money and built this amazing house for his family.
She pulled down Deepwood Drive, pulled off to the side of the road, and she said, “Do you like to play games?”
She said, “I’m going to let you out here, you’re going to walk two blocks to the house. That will give you two minutes to walk to the house. That will give me time to park the car underneath the house, you ring the doorbell I’ll be upstairs by then, and we’ll play ‘Thornton’s here.’”
I said, “I’m sorry, what are we going to play?”
But I broke out into a run, because I couldn’t wait to play Thornton’s here.
I rang the doorbell. She answered the door, she smiled and looked over her shoulder and yelled, “Thornton, Gary’s here!”
I looked passed her, and I actually said, “Where is he?”
She said, “He’s in by the piano. And here’s how it works. He will never speak with someone he hasn’t met before. Unless he plays duet piano with them.
“You look through the duet piano pieces, and I’ll get you boys something to eat in the kitchen.”
Before I could even start, she walked in with two little lemon-lime drinks and some cookies. And she said, “Gary, ask me anything you would have asked him.”
For the next three hours, I asked her everything.
She would fill in the blanks with things like, “Did you did know that Thornton and Freud were good friends?” And I said, “No, I had no idea.”
We went upstairs to this amazing studio. We walked in and she said, go on in. There was his desk and a little daybed to the left.
“I haven’t been in here since he died,” Miss Isabel said. “Lie down on the bed, read everything. Touch the books, touch everything.”
There were all these first editions from Wilder, 74 different language translations of most of his books. He was a Joyce scholar, so there were all of Joyce’s works. I picked one up and it was in Icelandic.
I started sobbing. I looked at the door and there was Miss Isabel, and she was crying.
“I have lived here since 1930 – 46 years,” she said. “I cared for both of my parents until they died. I have literally taken care of Wilder, all of his business. Even when he wasn’t here for years and years, I was here maintaining the house. When he wanted me to sell it, I just hung on. I never had a servant of any sort.
“But now I’m going to have to move because it’s too much. So please take a photograph of this room so that you’ll remember, because you’ll be one of the last people in it.”
We moved down the hall. She showed me a painting I didn’t recognize. Francis Rose, she said.
“In 1936, Thornton and I were visiting Gertrude Stein. She took us outside, and she said, ‘You must buy something from Francis, he is starving to death.’ We bought this little picture. Sadly, he was so tortured he killed himself.
“I have read the best transcripts of the last century, and Gary, most of those writers didn’t have their works published. And sadly, many of them have committed suicide.”
“Let me ask you something,” she said. “Have you had a wonderful day?”
I said, “Miss Isabel, this has been a most wonderful day.”
Then she said, “Will you make me a promise? When you go back to Indiana, promise me you’ll just live.”
“I promise,” I said.
We got in the car and headed back to the train station. But there was a question burning.
“Miss Isabel one more question: Did he ever say anything about my letters?”
“Why yes,” she said. “I forgot to tell you. They came on a Saturday. I remember very well. This postman rang and he couldn’t get in the mailbox. And Thornton said, ‘What is it Isabel?’
“And he says, ‘It’s from some damn neophyte writer in Indiana, but give it here.’
“He never missed lunch, but I called him. About an hour later, he comes down. I said, ‘What on earth have you been doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve been reading these letters from this boy in Indiana.’
“I said, ‘What boy?’
“And he said, ‘Isabel, I found him.’”
Then she just drove on, like that was the end of the story. I said, “I’m sorry, Miss Isabel, what do you mean, ‘I found him?’”
“You did know that Thornton was a twin?” she said. “He had a twin brother who died shortly after birth. Thornton vowed he would find that twin.
“Scholars believe that the protagonist of Thornton’s novels were based on his brother Amos,” she said. “And some of them were. But basically what he did was try to imagine what his twin would have been like had he grown up.
“Dear boy, I don’t know what you said in those letters, but somehow he thought it was you. And that’s what this day has been all about.”
This story has been edited and condensed. Gary Heyde told this story on stage on July 23, 2009 at the Rendezvous in Seattle. It was aired in 2010 as part of a KUOW storytelling series A Guide To Visitors.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org through December. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one you've seen that deserves more notice - contact Isolde Raftery at email@example.com or 206-616-2035.