Sloan Wilson

Author of 'The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit'

Friday 06 June 2003 00:00

Sloan Wilson, writer: born Norwalk, Connecticut 8 May 1920; twice married (one son, three daughters); died Colonial Beach, Virginia 27 May 2003.

Only a handful of writers have come up with titles that take on a life of their own. Joseph Heller and Catch-22 is probably the best-known example but Sloan Wilson runs him a close second with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The title of Wilson's best-selling 1955 novel still stands for US corporate man, sacrificing individuality and family life to get on in the organisation. Indeed, the novel's continuing relevance is shown by its recent reissue, with an introduction by the novelist Jonathan Franzen.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit caught the mood of middle-class American men who had fought in the Second World War and then in the Fifties were living much more prosaic but equally demanding ways of life. It sold more than two million copies on its first publication and yet more when it was filmed the following year, in 1956, with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in the lead roles. The book's success was something Wilson would never repeat over 15 novels. He did write one other best-seller - A Summer Place (1958) - but that bizarrely became a 1959 teen-movie starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue

Many critics disparaged Wilson's characterisation and plots and his apparent obsession with the problems of conformity. He countered that he never thought about conformity, rather that he wrote about his own life and the things that affected people like him. Those things included divorce, alcoholism and nervous breakdowns - all of which he did indeed experience first-hand.

Sloan Wilson was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1920, one of the three children of writers and academics. His father was a professor at New York University. Sloan Wilson's grandfather was a US Naval Academy graduate and the family sailed a 76ft schooner. Wilson recalled later: "My father thought sailing would be a good pastime for his sons during those long hot Connecticut summer days, rather than sitting around drinking beer." Wilson took to the sea. He went to Harvard University but, in his first year, when he was 18, chartered a schooner to sail from there to Havana.

In 1941, he married a Boston debutante, Elise Pickhardt. Early the following year, after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Coast Guard Reserve and it was on board his first vessel, the Tampa, that the seeds of his writing career began. He wrote poems and one of them, "Soldiers Who Sit", was published by The New Yorker.

As with most armed-forces personnel, the transition to civilian life after the war was not easy. Wilson went to work as a reporter with the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. He liked the work, but couldn't get by on the salary of $50 a week. His first novel, Voyage to Somewhere, based on his wartime experiences, was published in 1947 but did not make him any money. So he went to work for Time-Life as a researcher and assistant to its president, Roy Larsen. The pay was better, but he still felt unfulfilled and company politics maddened him.

He moved on to work for the National Citizens Commission for Public Schools (1949-52), became an assistant professor of English and information director at the University of Buffalo (1952-55), and worked at Parents magazine and The New York Herald-Tribune before becoming a freelance writer in 1958.

All the time he was writing - largely about his own experiences in corporate America. The result was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which the suit symbolises a culture that rewards conformists who put work and career before family. The novel struck a major chord and became a massive best-seller - although not all critics liked it. Time magazine called it an "upper-middle-class soap opera" and indeed most of Wilson's novels were marred by sentimentality. Years later Wilson said that he wished he had made the neat happy ending more complex.

He earned about $1m from the book but later claimed the money was swallowed up by tax men, accountants and, eventually, his divorce. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was heavily autobiographical - the main character's problems echoed many of Wilson's problems with his wife and his struggles to support their three children whilst he worked unhappily at Time-Life.

Wilson had intended to become a full-time writer after the success of Gray Flannel. However, he was also a strong advocate for integrating, funding and improving public schools, so he became assistant director of the National Citizens Commission for Public Schools and assistant director of the 1955-56 White House Conference on Education.

In 1958 he published A Summer Place, and in 1960 A Sense of Values but, by the next year, his marriage broken down, he took a job teaching English at New York University. There he met his second wife, Betty Stephens, a student. Wilson was living alone at the Beaux-Arts Hotel in New York and drinking heavily. On the last night of term, Stephens asked him what he was going to do now that class was over. "I'm going to buy a boat and sail around the world," responded Wilson. She offered to be his first mate and they married in Dublin in 1962.

Over the next decades, Wilson published another dozen or so novels but none were anywhere near as successful as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. They included Georgie Winthrop (1963), Janus Island (1967), All the Best People (1970), Small Town (1978) and The Greatest Crime (1980). In later years he supported himself by writing privately published biographies and yacht histories. He did write a sequel to his best-known novel in 1984: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II was set in 1965 around Wilson's divorce, remarriage and work for government agencies. It did badly. He had more success with the autobiographical What Shall We Wear to This Party? (1976).

For some years, Wilson and his wife lived on a boat in Florida and the Bahamas. In 1999, the Wilsons settled in Colonial Beach, Virginia. Although afflicted by Alzheimer's later in life, Sloan Wilson never stopped writing. Just before he reached his 80th birthday he began a story, "Brooklyn Girl", about his wife Betty. After 38 years of marriage, Wilson said, she remained "the best miracle that ever happened to me".

Peter Guttridge

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