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

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04 Nov 2012

He was raised partially in China; his father, a struggling newspaperman, wangled the post of American Consul to Hong Kong and then Shanghai. This meant that Thornton was uprooted from Wisconsin at the age of eight, eventually winding up alone and stranded in a German-language boarding school in China (without friends or the ability to speak German). Thus was the pattern set, leaving him something of a permanent outsider. At one point, when he was 65 and world famous, Wilder packed up his car and drove off until he came upon a small town in middle-of-nowhere Arizona. There he lived hidden from the world for almost two years, writing away.

The author theorizes that Wilder was psychologically scarred from his earliest days by the knowledge that he was a twin, with his brother stillborn. Thornton and Theophilus, they were named. His final novel — finished just after our roast beef dinner — was "Theophilus North," with "North" drawn from "Thornton"; part memoir, it was framed as the autobiography of his absent brother. It all makes an intriguing story, with a brilliant but reserved and mightily uncomfortable hero.

Niven — who in the course of her research discovered that she was a distant relation of Thornton Niven Wilder — ends her account with a short trip the dying writer made to New York during Thanksgiving week, 1975. She tells us that he went to a couple of movies, spent time at the main branch of the New York Public Library, and had Thanksgiving dinner with Ruth Gordon (who had starred in his adaptations of A Doll's House and the play that became The Matchmaker). What Niven doesn't tell us — because it went undocumented — is what Wilder did on one of his final nights before going home to Connecticut to die. Which he did, a week later, on Dec. 7.

He went over to the Majestic Theatre, down 44th Street from the Harvard Club (where he was staying). He knocked on the stage door and asked for Leo Herbert, who had been the head propman on both The Matchmaker and its offspring, Hello, Dolly! Wilder painfully took a seat upstage by Herbert's workbox and sat whispering through the performance of Mack & Mabel, patiently waiting while Leo went off to do his cues. There were no earthshaking pronouncements that night. Wilder was clearly making his final goodbye to the world, as in the last act of Our Town. Leo concluded that he simply wanted to sit backstage in the dark, smelling the greasepaint and inhaling the theatre dust one more time before making the last, long journey from Manhattan to Hamden.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens's On the Record and The DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at


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