Tuesday, September 24, 2013

* In-ing a Very Cool Old Lady: Miss Isabel Wilder

Me at a gathering arranged
 by Miss Wilder, circa 1978.

Miss Wilder and my parents
at the 1985 dedication of
The Thornton Wilder Room
at Miller Library in Hamden, Connecticut

1976 -1995: A Friendship 
Bridging the Generation Gap

I met Miss Isabel Wilder in 1976, soon after her brother, Thornton, the famed author of Our Town  and The Matchmaker (later to be “Hello Dolly”) died at age 78. I had met him the year before and corresponded with him twice.

They had lived together their entire lives, making his loss the equivalent of losing a mate after three quarters of a century. Since they were both published writers, their intimacy was more than familial, it was an artistic marriage of the minds.

One Yale Ph.D in Romantic Literature asserts,”Not since Dorothy and William Wordsworth has there been a brother/sister literary team like Isabel and Thornton Wilder.”

Miss Wilder and I began our association  as citizens of “our” Town, Hamden, Connecticut, she contributing her brother’s  furniture and books from his Deepwood  Drive study for a permanent display in his name, now at the Town’s Miller Library since 1985. 

Number 50 Deepwood Drive in Hamden was the home Thornton Wilder built for his mother and siblings with the profits from his first blockbuster, the 1928  novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey
It is modeled after Goethe’s cottage, I am told. Thornton Wilder called it “The house The Bridge built.”

Miss Wilder and I  started as associates and became friends for twenty years. It is easy to know her age at all dates I will mention here since she was born in 1900.

I promised myself when I met Miss Wilder that I would NEVER ask her a question about her brother, since I assumed she had been pumped for such tidbits all her life. I kept that promise, only revealing it to her after fifteen years in 1991  when enough time had passed for her to judge in retrospect whether I had meant what I said. 

Even after that I kept my word. 

That doesn't mean I wouldn't offer a kind ear when she chose to speak about him or about her burden as his literary executor, but I never opened and never pursued in more than a gentle comment or with affectionate silence.

The latter is what I used with a blase, dismissive wave of the hand  the day she sputttered about having stumbled upon the  chapter  on Wilder's sex life when reading  the pre-publication  manuscript of Gilbert Harrison's authorized biography, The Enthusiast. (Ticknor and Fields, 1983).

I was about to drive her to the Graduate Club for a working lunch with her editor as her brother's literary executor,  Donald Gallup,   and she grumbled. "They send me a manuscript to read without any warning . And I come upon some old homosexual encounters they dug up about Thornton. I'm an old lady after all.  It isn't right."

I wondered if she was sounding off with me to test public opinion, and I ventured to ease her worry, "They say that about all bachelors," and waved it off as an inconsequence.  She later told me that as a punishment, when she had to speak at the testimonial inaugurating publication of the book, she spoke only kind words about the author, but never once referred to the book itself.  

That is a lady.

In the name of full disclosure let me say up-front that Miss Wilder paid for my four month internship in 1987 as an English teacher in Vermont schools, a career from which I just retired  in 2012, after  25 years.

I never revealed that fact until after I retired. Most people in Vermont wouldn’t have believed it.  Or cared. 

Vermonters don’t name-drop.

She also underwrote two of my other projects as a student activist, one in 1977 related to Kent State where I had witnessed the student murders  by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970,  and the other in 1984 at Yale where I was a Divinity student from 1976-80, and where in 1984, I discovered the first woman in America  known to have transmitted AIDS (then mistakenly  thought to be a gay disease). 

She asked that her part in both of these  endeavors remain anonymous.

I have honored that promise even after Miss Wilder’s death in 1995,  but in the spirit of Voltaire who said “To the living  we owe respect but to the dead we owe the truth,” I reveal them here now, outing her as one very cool "old lady".

The first project she paid for was called Kent State F.A.C.T. (First-Amendment Conservation Task-force.)  It was a a watch-dog group of two Kent faculty members, the eight parents of the four students killed at Kent State,  and other civil liberties advocates, who were concerned that student freedom of speech was again being jeopardized when students staged a sit-in (a tent-city) on the site of the shootings which the Kent Board of Trustees had approved for a new gymnasium, a building which conveniently would have made historians think the National Guard who shot the students in 1970 had been trapped in a near cul-de-sac..  That project cost about a thousand dollars in 1977 money. Civil liberties were preserved but the Gym was built anyway: architectural revisionist history. 

Miss Wilder’s only condition for paying for this project was that (LINK) “You must agree to give up Kent State” (which I did until after her death in 1995).

She didn’t want me to become a one-trick pony.

 And I didn’t

The second project, AIDS Information Dissemination Service (A.I.D.S.), involved printing and publication of a brochure describing transmission of AIDS. by sexual behaviors and by contaminated needles, after I had discovered a prostitute and heroin addict who was still on the streets of New Haven after having transmitted  AIDS to her infant, who never left Yale New Haven Hospital in his short two year life. 

At this time the H.I.V. virus had not been discovered and the disease was superstitiously attributed to American gay men since they seemed to be the primary victims. Later epidemiologists monitoring cases of AIDS in Africa would certify it to be a heterosexual disease in that country , but that was unreported by American media at the time and gay men, it was sadistically and perversely hoped by society at large , would be the only victims, so why bother alerting society in general !

 To combat this prejudice and to alert the public, a brochure was written by a Yale biology professor and myself in blunt, sexual street-language about what NOT to do if you wanted to stay safe. 

At first the Yale Health Service refused to be associated with it because of its blunt language. Later, when 60 Minutes (LINK) did a segment on the New Haven prostitute, President Giamatti of Yale intervened, and saw to it that the brochure was distributed to all Yale students, a distribution which was paid for by Miss Wilder.

By the way,  I was embarrassed - - - even a bit shocked - - - when Miss Wilder, at age 84, insisted on reading the brochure in my presence which she had paid for. 

She never batted an eyelash.
Am I reading too much into these philanthropic gestures on Miss Wilder’s part at age 77 and 84 when I  interpret them as  a rather cool old lady’s vicarious participation in the activism and liberation of the 1970’s and 80’s?

As Sabina says in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth: 

“Think it over."

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