Thornton Wilder “bubbled like champagne” and “could provoke interest in any variety of ordinary subjects” according to his students at The Lawrenceville School. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, to United States diplomat Amos Parker Wilder and Isabel Niven in 1897, Thornton and his four siblings spent their early childhood in China while Amos worked in American Consular Service. Thornton returned to the United States in his early teens, graduated from high school and attended Purdue University Law School. He withdrew from the program after two years of study and enlisted in the Coast Guard during World War I. Following his military service, he received a B.A. from Yale University in 1920. In 1921, Thornton’s father, Amos, arranged for him to teach conversational French at The Lawrenceville School, as his son was proficient in four languages.
Davis House, ca. 1900-1915
Initially passed over for a position at Blair Academy, Lawrenceville offered Thornton provisionary employment as an Assistant House Master in Davis House and French instructor, which paid $1,600 per year. Amos’ description of his son appealed to Head Master, Mather Abbott. Amos wrote, “He is dark, rather slender, wears glasses; I suppose would be called of the Elizabethan Club type and cannot help you on the athletic side; yet has worked many summers on the farm and it is gratifying to find some leadership developing in him due partly to his wide experience and keen observation. He writes for the Boston Transcript, chiefly drama criticism.” Thornton would spend the next eight years on The Lawrenceville School’s campus teaching, advising THE LIT, and acting as the “Dramatic Censor.” While teaching, he also earned his Master of Arts degree at Princeton University in 1926. Decades later, Thornton’s sister would remark that he had “the happiest memories” of his time at the School.