New Haven Register
Writer's furniture finds home at retreat
By Herb Epstein
After 33 years in Paul Keane's home, former Hamden resident Thornton Wilder's furniture is now on display at a New Hampshire artists' retreat where he wrote part of his classic play, "Our Town."
Keane donated Wilder's furniture in honor of the writer's late sister, Isabel Wilder. She privately gave Keane the furniture in 1976, a year after Thornton Wilder's death. Included in Keane's donation are the desk at which Wilder wrote "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"; his favorite chair; a Persian rug; and a bookcase from Wilder's study on Deepwood Drive in Hamden. Wilder was a Hamden resident for 50 years.
"Her private donation to me has been in my house for 33 years," said Keane, a former resident of Hamden, who now lives and teaches in Vermont. "This is the first year it'll be on display."
A year before Wilder died, Keane met him at dinner in the Old Heidelberg on Chapel Street in New Haven. Over the final year of Wilder's life the two exchanged a few letters.
"He was very charming," said Keane.
While on the Bicentennial Commission in Hamden, Keane had asked Wilder to endorse a project for fundraising for a museum in Hamden. However, Isabel Wilder wrote to Keane telling him that Wilder was unable to endorse the use of his name and pictures in promotion of the project because of his declining health.
Once Wilder died, his sister decided to make a contribution in his honor. She donated another desk of his, which is on display in the Miller Memorial Library in Hamden. It took nine years for an architect to create an exhibit that would display Wilder's desk in the library. http://wilder1985.blogspot.com
"I exchanged letters with Thornton enough that Isabel Wilder wanted to honor him," said Keane.
In a letter to Keane, Isabel Wilder wrote, "My brother wanted to make a contribution. Now I'll do so in memory of him."
Keane and Isabel Wilder developed a strong relationship over the years, as she even gave Keane some of Thornton's furniture.
"She took a liking to me," said Keane. "She treated me like a son."
Isabel Wilder died in 1995 at 95 years old. Now Keane has decided to donate the furniture in her honor. At 64 years old, Keane wanted to see the furniture go into good hands.
"I wanted to see for myself before I died that it got into appreciative hands," said Keane. "I have received as much pleasure in giving this furniture away as I have had in owning it for the last 33 years."
Keane offered the furniture to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., and officials there were happy to have it.
"It means quite a bit for this piece of history to come back here," said Cheryl Young, executive director of the MacDowell Colony. "Especially as a writer to get his desk means a lot."
Keane added, "All I wanted was for someone to enjoy it. It is something that ought to be shared."
Keane understands how fortunate he was to meet Thornton Wilder and later Isabel.
"If I hadn't been invited to sit down with him, then none of this would've happened," said Keane.
Keane added that "Isabel and Thornton made a conscious decision to share with the public, and they were extremely generous in that way."