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Monday, May 26, 2003

Sloan Wilson, Author of Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” Dies

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“Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” movie poster. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo
Sloan Wilson, the Norwalk-born author of the 1955 bestseller “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” which was set in Westport and later became a hit film starring Gregory Peck and was partially filmed in Westport, died Sunday after a long illness. He had turned 83 on May 8.

He died in Colonial Beach, Va., and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, according to The Free-Lance Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

Wilson wrote “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” while working at Time-Life Inc. and was based on his experience with corporate culture at the publishing firm.

The novel portrays young executive Tom Rath’s struggles with his conscience as he tries to get ahead and provide for his social-climbing wife.

The opening lines set the tone of the novel: “By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it. There were many reasons, none of them logical, but all of them compelling.”

The 1956 film, which also starred Jennifer Jones and Frederic March, opens with Peck getting off the train at the Saugatuck Railroad Station. As he drives in his car, moviegoers see stretches of still-recognizable Bridge Street and Compo Road South in the background.

The films last scene shows Peck getting into a car on Westport’s Main Street near Achorn’s Pharmacy, a fixture there since 1927 and which still exists today.

Longtime Westporters still remember the presence of Peck and producer Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century-Fox film crew in Westport almost 50 years ago. It was one of the most exciting things to happen in the quiet suburban community in the post-World War II years.

The novel was translated into 26 languages and its title has become a permanent part of America’s cultural vocabulary. It was reissued last November as a paperback by an independent New York publisher.

In a 2001 interview with his local Virginia newspaper, Wilson said perhaps the most powerful identification with “Gray Flannel” character Tom Rath came one day when Wilson was commuting on a train

“I looked into one of those hall mirrors and saw a man in a gray flannel suit.” That man was himself. “It was interesting because that was what I had been writing and feeling.”

The AP said Wilson, a Harvard graduate, lived for many years in Florida, where he spent time as distinguished-writer-in-residence at Rollins College and indulged his passion for sailing.

He and his wife, Betty, settled in Virginia in 1999 after visiting the Colonial Beach area on a sailing trip. He is survived by his wife, four children, a brother and sister and 10 grandchildren, the AP said.

Update: Tuesday’s New York Times, in its lengthy obituary, erroneously said Wilson was born in Westport.

It also quotes a review of “Gray Flannel” by Atlantic magazine which called it “one of the great artifacts of popular culture of the 50’s.”


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