Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder Biography

Playwright, Author (1897–1975)
Thornton Wilder was a multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright known for works like The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Ides of March and Our Town.


Born April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, Thornton Wilder released his debut novel, The Cabala, in 1926. Later novels included The Woman of Andros, The Ides of March and The Eighth Day. He won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, as well as the 1938 and 1943 awards in drama for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, respectively. He died on December 7, 1975, in Hamden, Connecticut.

Early Years

Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin. The second child of Amos and Isabella Wilder, Thornton grew up in a highly educated and accomplished family. His father was a newspaper owner and editor and was a powerful public speaker. His mother was well-educated, cultured and a successful poet. Both parents instilled a love of the classics and intellectual curiosity in all their children.

In 1906, the family moved to Hong Kong when Amos was appointed American consul general. There Thornton attended an English-speaking school, but soon returned to America with his mother and siblings when political conditions in China grew unstable. While in high school in California, Thornton became interested in theater and writing. Upon graduating, he enrolled at Oberlin College and then transferred to Yale University in 1917.

When the United States was drawn into World War I, Wilder volunteered for the 1st Coast Artillery in Rhode Island. After the war, he received a bachelor's degree from Yale and published his first play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, in the Yale Literary Magazine.

Writing in Several Genres

During the 1920s, Thornton Wilder moved between extensively teaching, writing and continuing his education. He taught French and English at various schools and wrote scripts for silent films. Throughout his life, he read widely in English, French and German and spoke in Italian and Spanish. His first novel, The Cabala, was published in 1926 and received lukewarm reviews. However, his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, proved immensely popular and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.

In the 1930s, Thornton Wilder began writing plays for Broadway. His first scripts were translations of the works of European playwrights, such as Andre Obey's Lucrece (1932) and A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen (1937). In 1938, Wilder's reputation as a dramatist soared with the production of Our Town. Set in the fictitious hamlet of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the play traces the childhood, courtship, marriage and death of Emily Webb and George Gibbs. The production broke ground with its bare stage setting and use of a narrator to move the audience through the different time periods.

Just before America's entry into World War II, Thornton Wilder wrote the screen play for Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 classic psycho-thriller Shadow of a Doubt and received another Pulitzer Prize for his play The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder joined the war effort, enlisting in the U.S. Army and rising to lieutenant colonel, serving as an Air Force intelligence officer and earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star.

Later Years

After the war, Thornton Wilder wrote plays and lectured at various universities. While living in Chicago, he became friends with Gertrude Stein. Wilder never referred to his homosexuality, but it is believed that he had one or two affairs with younger men and a male lover in his later years. Publicly, he was more renowned for his wide circle of friends, which included Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Montgomery Clift. In 1955, Wilder rewrote his 1938 play The Merchant of Yonkers under a new title, The Matchmaker, and it enjoyed a long run on Broadway. It became the basis for the 1964 musical Hello Dolly, which made Wilder internationally famous.

Thornton Wilder died in his sleep on December 7, 1975, of an apparent heart attack in Hamden, Connecticut where he lived for many years with his sister Isabel. He was 78 years old.

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