THE BOOK SHELF: New Biographies of "Marc Blitzstein" and "Thornton Wilder"

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04 Nov 2012

Cover art for "Thornton Wilder: A Life"
Back in 1972, when still a teenager, I wangled my way into my first black-tie Broadway gala. The opening of the Theater Hall of Fame, in what was then the brand new Uris Theatre, was capped with a grand buffet dinner at the sprawling restaurant downstairs (originally a Stouffer's, most recently Mars 2112). My plate loaded with high-class banquet food, I wandered through room after room until I spotted a six-person table with only one occupant, a large old man with bushy white eyebrows starting in on his food. I asked if the other seats were taken, he invited me to join him.

And so we started talking. He wanted to know all about me, of which there wasn't that much to tell. All along, I kept wondering what this out-of-place fellow was doing at this celebrity fete.

He wasn't a famous old actor, obviously. I quickly paged through all the old-time pros who were still alive and presumably in attendance; Abbott, Rodgers, Logan, Balanchine, Robbins, Atkinson. This guy was none of the above. Besides, he looked out of place and uncomfortable, like he clearly felt he didn't belong. Maybe he was some celebrity's father or grandfather? But no; his family wouldn't leave him eating alone like that. And besides, he didn't look like he was anyone's father. If he was someone, wouldn't he be surrounded by other celebrities and hangers-on?

As we sat there sawing into our food — our plates indicated that we had the same culinary taste, at Least — he responded to one of my questions that he felt out of place but must have been invited (aha!, he's one of the 132 honorees!) because of a play he'd written back during the Depression.

That was enough to get me on the scent. It turned out that this interesting and friendly but run-down and ailing 75-year old — alone and ignored, despite his fame and three Pulitzer Prizes — was Thornton Wilder, sitting there eating roast beef with me.

Wilder was already then, and remains now, surprisingly obscure. Our Town is performed frequently, and annually assigned to high school classes across the nation. But his life remains an underexplored mystery; the last biography came in 1983. So who was Thornton Wilder (1897-1974), the award-winning novelist who within six short years came up with both Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth?

Penelope Niven does a masterful job of answering that question, over 800 or so pages, in Thornton Wilder: A Life [Harper]. Niven has a major advantage over prior biographers; Wilder's surviving sister Isabel kept a close hold on her brother's papers, work, and letters until her death in 1995. The story Niven tells is of a brilliant but intensely private soul.

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