When my wife and I opened the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard, Thornton Wilder was one of our first customers. He came early in the season, in a rumpled suit with a raincoat over one arm and a crush hat on his head. I knew that he stayed with his sister in Edgartown. When I remarked on his early arrival he said, “I come with the bluefish and I leave with the bluefish.”
We sold records as well as books, and his first stop was to go to our pitiful collection of classical records. “Any new Bach?” he would say. From the Schwann Bach list we may have had something by Bach, but if he was as thorough as I was sure he was concerning Bach recordings, there was no chance we would have anything for him. “Mr. Wilder, classics make up only three per cent of the record business. If you want Beatles or Rolling Stones or folk or jazz I can sell you something,” I said. “Oh no, Bach is the best,” he returned.
We had recently held an autographing for Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, and I tried to interest Mr. Wilder in it. “No, no, must economize,” he said. “Have you any Dickens?” I pointed and he plucked a couple of paperbacks saying, “I must refresh myself a bit.”
On another of his visits, I remarked that I had had a letter from Mary McGrory, one of my favorite columnists, which concerned him. On a QE2 trip to England she found herself at table with Mr. Wilder. She wrote how charming he was and how much she enjoyed his company. As the ship was about to dock he presented the ladies at the table with bottles of Chanel No. 5. After musing a bit, Wilder said, “Chanel, always appropriate.”
One August night after closing the bookstore, I repaired to a favorite watering hole, the Lampost in Oak Bluffs. I took the next-to-last seat at the bar. On the last seat was Thornton Wilder with a glass of amber liquid in front of him. He turned, searched his memory and said, “Bookstore?” “Right,” I said.
We had a general Island-type conversation, and in the midst of it he said, “Do you do any writing?” I said that I had and had a few things published in newspapers and magazines. “Did you do anything today?” he asked. I said no, awfully busy with the store, etc. “Must do something every day,” he said. “I’m a bit too convivial tonight, but I will be back at it tomorrow.” The bartender came over and said, “Mr. Wilder, your cab is here.” We shook hands and as he left he said, “Remember, something every day.”
The last time I saw Thornton Wilder he was seated in a rocker on the porch of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, no doubt waiting for the BSO to play some Bach.
David Hugo lives in Lovell, Me.