Thornton Wilder, renowned writer and meticulous taxpayer

A copy of the playwright Thornton Wilder’s 1040 tax form from 1968
A copy of the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder’s 1040 tax return from 1968 (Photo credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Thornton Wilder 1920 B.A. won three Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award over the course of his distinguished career as a playwright and novelist. With success came royalties. With royalties came taxes.

Wilder’s papers, which are part of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, include copies of his tax returns for 1965 and 1968 through 1973. Like any conscientious taxpayer, Wilder carefully documented his tax-deductible business expenses. His returns from 1968 to 1972 include meticulous, multi-page accounts of his work-related travel and associated expenditures. Originally intended to justify tax write offs, today these records offer a unique perspective into Wilder’s writerly life at the twilight of his career.

Wilder’s Yale yearbook photo.
Wilder’s Yale yearbook photo.

Each return features a first-person narrative in which Wilder (and/or his tax preparer) emphasized the importance of travel to his writing process. They begin identically:

I work every day (save for occasional overriding interruptions). My work requires that I be free of such interruptions.”

Wilder explained that living in a big city or near New York subjected him to constant harassment from “interviewers, photographers, enthusiasts, student delegations, visitors from Europe and Asia.”

It is necessary that I remove myself,” he stated.

To escape the distractions, Wilder informed the Internal Revenue Service, he would go to “villages where I am little known,” such as Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and Saratoga Springs, or travel overseas. 

Many months of the year I live and work in hotel rooms or on slow ocean ships,” he wrote. “These are my places of business, my ‘offices,’ — essential to my profession.”

Wilder tries to make the case that his cottage on Martha’s Vineyard should be considered an office for tax purposes, asserting that he never went there during the peak vacation months of July and August “because of the harassments I have described.” 

The cottage is not a ‘pleasant summer residence’; it is an essential working hideaway,” he wrote.

At this point, the introductory narrative either concludes or describes a particular circumstance during the year in question. For example, the narrative for his 1968 tax return mentions that he lived in hotels “all January, February and half of March; all of April; all of August; and from November 25 to the end of the year.” This “hotel life” would have been even more extensive had a medical procedure not forced him to spend June and July in New Haven, he explained.

For each year, a detailed record of Wilder’s domestic and foreign travel follows the opening narrative.

He spent the first five days of 1968 in Paris, where he worked daily, met with his French publishers, and saw two plays — one three times and the other twice — that he was hoping to adapt for the New York stage, according to the record.

In my life I have adapted four European plays for America,” he wrote, adding that three had flopped while one had been an enormous success. “I request consideration for tax-reduction for this aspect of my profession which involves so uncertain an element of success or failure after many months of search, selection and hard work.”

He spent the rest of January traveling through Germany to Austria, where he planned to visit Vienna and attend the Austrian premiere of “Hello Dolly,” the musical adaptation of his play “The Matchmaker,” which was itself a remake of Wilder’s failed adaptation of a 19th-century European play. (“The Matchmaker” might be the successful adaption mentioned earlier in the record.) An illness forced him to change his plans.

I found that my condition of health did not permit me to continue my journey to Vienna and expose myself to the exhausting demands of a first-night production,” wrote Wilder, who was 70 years old during the period described. 

Wilder arrived in Milan, Italy on Feb. 17 where he visited a doctor and also had meetings with his literary agent and Italian-language publisher to select the next work of his for translation, according to the record.

He set sail for New York on March 7, arriving in the United States on March 20. He consulted doctors in New Haven and was scheduled to have an operation to repair a hernia on July 2.

Under “pre-operation instructions,” Wilder retired to Martha’s Vineyard in April, spending the first month in a hotel, he reported. Following the operation, he spent August recuperating at a hotel in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He returned to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall, the record states.

Always working,” he noted of his autumn sojourn on the Vineyard.

Wilder set sail for Europe on Nov. 24. He closed out the year in Paris, where he reportedly entered negotiations to hire a new French literary agent with an eye toward switching French-language publishers, according to the account.

His travel and hotel expenses for 1968 totaled $4,658.76, according to the tax documents, which is about $34,000 today adjusted for inflation.

The archive includes copies of his handwritten drafts of his travelogue for 1969 and 1971. The tax records for 1970 and 1971 reference his work on a new autobiographical novel, “Theophilus North,” which was published in 1973. It was his last novel. Wilder died of heart failure at his home in Hamden, Connecticut, on Dec. 7, 1975. He remains the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes, both for drama — a feat he accomplished twice — and for fiction.

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548