The Woman Who Wouldn't

The Woman Who Wouldn't

by Gene Wilder

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The beloved actor and screenwriter's second novel, set in 1903, stars a young concert violinist named Jeremy Webb, who one day goes from accomplished adagios with the Cleveland Orchestra to having a complete breakdown on stage. If he hadn't poured a glass of water down the throat of a tuba, maybe he wouldn't have been sent to a health resort in Badenweiler, Germany. But it's in that serene place that Jeremy meets Clara Mulpas, whom he tries his hardest to seduce.

Clara is so beautiful that Jeremy finds it impossible to keep from trying to find a chink in her extraordinary reserve and elegance. He finds himself reflexively flirting to get a reaction—after all, a tease and a wink have always worked before, with women back home. But flirting probably isn't the best way to appeal to a woman who was married to a dumb brute and doesn't want to have anything more to do with men. Jeremy isn't sure how to press his case—but he won't give up.

Wilder's prose is elegant, spare and affecting. But it's his romantic's eye for the intense emotions that animate a real love story that makes The Woman Who Wouldn't an unforgettable book.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312541491
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/17/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 889,888
Product dimensions: 5.04(w) x 7.14(h) x 0.51(d)

About the Author

Gene Wilder (1933-2016) began acting when he was thirteen and writing for the screen since the early 1970s. After a small role in Bonnie and Clyde pulled him away from a career onstage, he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Leo Bloom in The Producers, which led to Blazing Saddles and then to another Academy nomination, this time for writing Young Frankenstein. Wilder has appeared in twenty-five feature films and a number of stage productions. His first book, about his own life, was Kiss Me Like A Stranger, and was followed by the novels My French Whore, The Woman Who Wouldn’t , What Is This Thing Called Love? and Something to Remember You By.

Read an Excerpt

The Women Who Wouldn't

By Gene Wilder

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Gene Wilder
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3971-3


IT SEEMS THAT THE MORE UNBELIEVABLE A STORY is, the more I'm able to believe it.

I'm thirty-three years old. In 1903 I had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a neuropsychiatric hospital wrapped in a straitjacket. How that came about is still hazy, but I'll tell you what I remember.

I'm a concert violinist; at least I was before the breakdown. In May of 1903 I was in Cleveland, Ohio, playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, when — right in the middle of the cadenza I had been working on for weeks — I suddenly put my violin down and began tearing up the first violinist's sheet music. I tore his score into small pieces as fast as I could, poured water into the large mouth of a tuba, pounded on the keys of the piano with my fists — only the black keys — and then sat on the floor, weeping. The audience watched all of this with open mouths until security guards rushed in and carried me off the stage.

A few weeks later, after I had calmed down enough to speak three or four sentences in a row that sounded sane, I was interrogated by the chief of the medical staff. The rest of his staff sat in chairs nearby, listening.

"Do you know your name?"

"Jeremy Spencer Webb," I answered.

"Good for you!" the chief doctor said.

"Please don't patronize me."

"I'm sorry," the doctor said quite humbly. "Are you married?"

"No, thank goodness."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I was married a few years ago and if you had been married to my wife you'd be in a straitjacket now, and I'd be asking you questions."

"Is that what caused your breakdown?"

"No, of course not — that's just a bad memory. We're divorced now."

"Do you like your work as a musician, Mr. Webb?"

"I love my work more than I love my life."

"Well then, why did you tear up the other violinist's musical score ... and pound the keys of a very expensive Steinway piano with your fist?"

"I don't know. I honestly have no idea." "Do you have any idea why you poured water into a tuba?"

"I remember thinking that it might be thirsty."

"Are you making a joke, Mr. Webb?"

"No, I'm not making a joke. I wish I were." The chief of staff stared at me for several seconds.

Two days later I was sent to a health resort in Badenweiler, Germany, which was in the Black Forest, close to the French and Swiss borders. Otto Gross, who was the artistic director of the Cleveland orchestra, wanted my written consent to have me taken there. I was reluctant to give it until he mentioned that the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who was suffering from consumption, was also at the Badenweiler resort at this time. I had seen a production of Chekhov's play, Uncle Vanya, which so intrigued me that I went to the public library in New York and read another play of his, The Seagull. I was moved by his insight and exquisite artistry. When Otto Gross also told me that my expenses would be paid by the orchestra, I signed the necessary papers. Just between us, I think they said that they would pay for everything because they were afraid of a possible lawsuit. Sending me from Cleveland, Ohio, to the Black Forest in Germany seemed crazy. Well, who was I to talk?


I WASN'T ALLOWED TO TRAVEL ALONE, OF COURSE; a young man named Patrick Dunne escorted me. He had a shock of red hair so bright that you could almost see it in the dark. His Irish brogue was very soft, as was his whole manner, but his muscles bulged so large that they showed through his jacket. I knew I would never want to get into a fight with this man.

Patrick traveled with me on the ship to Cherbourg, then by train to Freiburg, Germany, where a Mr. Kreiss was waiting to drive us to the health resort. Mr. Kreiss was Swiss and spoke German, French, Italian, and English, all fluently.

As we drove through the forest, I remember thinking that they probably chose the name "Black" because the trees were so thick at times that the world around us seemed shielded by darkness. When we reached the small village of Badenweiler the view was soft and peaceful and the muscles in my neck began to relax.

Patrick and I got out of the car and followed Mr. Kreiss, who led us to the Sommer Hotel, where most clients of the health spa stayed. It was a cozy-looking place, nestled in a plateau surrounded by purplish green hills. As we walked, the air was cool and pure and I became aware again of how pleasurable it was just to breathe. I could also understand why Anton Chekhov came here to rest, but I doubted if breathing the lovely air, taking warm baths, and walking among the sheep was going to help me understand why I poured water into a tuba, however thirsty it was.

A kind-looking man with a short white beard hurried up to me, calling out:

"Mr. Webb, Mr. Webb — I am Dr. Karl Gross, the manager of this lovely spa, and I'm so happy to meet you."

As we were shaking hands, I asked: "Are you by any chance related to Otto Gross, who runs an orchestra in Cleveland, Ohio?"

"Yes, of course — he is my brother," he said with a smile. "And Otto made me promise that I would take very good care of you."

The mystery of why I was sent to Germany from Cleveland, Ohio, finally made sense.


THAT FIRST NIGHT AT THE RESORT A FEW RAIN-drops were falling, so my guardian and strongman, Patrick Dunne, ate dinner with me in the simple dining room that held only eleven tables. I was told that since clients could eat their dinner as early as five o'clock and as late as nine, the room was never crowded.

The cheerful French waiter who served us explained that every client had his or her own schedule for each day, depending on their treatments, and that for the "late nighters," both food and drink — including whiskey and wine — were served in the bistro-style room next door if it was cold or raining, but that during these summer months there was also an outdoor café in the garden, and if the weather was good, a quartet would play soft music while the clients ate a late supper or had an after dinner drink, or perhaps — he said with a wink — flirted with the new arrivals.

Conversation with Patrick Dunne had not been unpleasant, but it was certainly sparse. I'm sure Patrick had been told exactly what not to talk about — such as giving tubas a drink of water and pounding the black keys of a piano — but he was a nice fellow and I liked him. He said that his father had a metal shop in Dublin and would advertise on the side of horse-drawn wagons, "If Dunne can't do it, it can't be done." I found myself wishing that Patrick were going to stay with me for a while.

THE NEXT morning, when Mr. Kreiss came to take him back to Freiburg to catch his train, I put my arm around Patrick's shoulder and thanked him for getting me to Badenweiler safely. To my great surprise, I had to keep from crying as his car drove away. I felt like a child who was being left alone in a strange place. I also wondered if I were there because I was crazy.

While I was waving good-bye, a tall, thin lady with very short hair, somewhere in her forties I guessed, stood nearby, watching me. When Mr. Kreiss's car was out of sight she walked up and introduced herself as "Gertie" and said she was one of the attendants who worked for Dr. Gross.

"Now we go to work, Mr. Webb, to make you strong and healthy."

Gertie said that she would guide me through my first days of rehabilitation. She escorted me to what looked like a small sport shop where I was fitted with a sweater, walking shoes, and socks, plus a warm jacket. Then we set off on one of "the shorter walks," which was only two miles. The path wound its way through the foothills and small vineyards that surround Badenweiler. Gertie explained that she wanted to start me out easy and that we would take some "real" walks in a few days.

I had a light supper that evening and went to bed early. I tried to sleep, but I couldn't stop the thoughts. A friend once told me, "Don't try to stop thoughts when you can't sleep — just try to stop words." But the thoughts kept leading to words, such as, "Will I ever be able to play in concerts again? ... And why in God's name did I pour water into a tuba?"

Early the next morning, Gertie took me on a three-mile walk. We climbed up a fairly steep hill, which felt like a mountain to me, and then we negotiated our way through twenty or thirty sheep on the way down. I kept slipping on the tall grass, which was still moist from the morning dew, but Gertie was always there to pick me up.

That afternoon, after I finished bathing for twenty-five minutes in a large hot bath with five other men, who were also naked, an attendant covered me with a big towel and rushed me into a very cold bath for one minute. Then the attendant wrapped me in a thick white robe and I was allowed to go back to my room, where I shaved, got dressed, and went to what they called the Garden café for tea and scones.

While I was sipping my Earl Grey tea, I heard several gentlemen buzzing like a swarm of bees who had just discovered a new rose. Curiosity urged me to lean in slightly and I learned that the "rose" they were gossiping about was a young woman who had just arrived from Belgium. One of the men — an Englishman — had seen her checking in at the resort and described her as "a cute Belgie," which at first I took offense to, and yet being the flirtatious jerk that I am, I was also intrigued. My wretched three-year marriage left a stain that I think will last for a lifetime. However, it certainly didn't put me off women — especially if they were young and cute.


MY SECOND DINNER ALONE WAS ON A BEAUTIFULLY warm night. I was sitting in the Garden café, sipping some of the local white wine as I waited to order my supper, when in walked a striking young woman. I guessed that she must be the "cute Belgie" that the horny Englishman was referring to. She was alone and, after giving the Garden café a cursory glance, she sat down at the table next to mine. I'm sure her choice of tables had nothing to do with how mature and handsome and eligible I looked, but rather because all the other tables were filled with people who were cheerful, laughing, and gabbing away, except for one table where a woman who looked very ill was trying to mask her face with a napkin so that the rest of us couldn't see she was crying.

Contrary to what the Englishman said to his fellow lechers, the "Belgie" wasn't what I would call cute in the way that a young girl is cute — this was a woman, and she was quite pretty. She was also delicately attractive. She wore a soft lavender dress which had splashes of pink and light blue. She was a little older than the gossipers had led me to believe; I'd say she was twenty-four or twenty-five, very thin, and she had beautiful clear skin. Her hair was a radiant auburn, the kind I had only seen in paintings. I assumed her hair was long because she had it up in a bun at the back of her head. Her mouth wasn't at all inviting. I don't mean that it looked unkind or stern — it was just without the least hint of a smile.

After she sat down at the table next to mine, I took a few more sips of wine, waiting for her to look in my direction, which I knew she would, so that I could give her one of my tender, heart-piercing smiles. But she never looked at me. Not even a glance. I decided to take the initiative.

"Excuse me ... You seem to be all alone. Would you like to join me at my table?"

"No, I wouldn't," she said.

"Well — Would you like me to join you at your table?" I said with a little laugh.

"No, I wouldn't," she said.

The quickness of her response shut off my spontaneity, so I went back to sipping wine. However, I'm not a quitter — not with women anyway. It's just a question of which button to push. After a minute or two, I turned back to her.

"Excuse me ... I was very rude just now, not to at least make an introduction. My name is Jeremy Webb. Would you care for a glass of what they call 'Gutedel,' which is the resort's house white wine, taken from the grapes that are grown locally? It's light and delicately scented and very cool and refreshing."

"No, I wouldn't," she answered.

I sat down and took another sip of wine, waited another minute, then turned to her again and pushed another button.

"I'm from America," I said. "I just arrived and I'm a little lonely. I hope I didn't offend you by talking too much."

She turned and stared at me for several seconds. Then she said: "My name is Clara Mulpas, I'm from Belgium, I'm here because I'm ill, and I don't much feel like talking."

And that was that. I ordered my supper of trout with boiled potatoes and ate slowly, trying not to glance at the attractive Belgian woman. I saw that Clara Mulpas didn't eat; she just drank some herbal tea and left. And she didn't give me so much as a "Good night" or a "Nice meeting you." Just got up and walked away.

LATER THAT night, as I was getting ready for bed, I found that I was slightly angry with Clara Mulpas; angry that my manly charms didn't even come close to piercing her protective armor, or piercing any other part of her for that matter. I found myself wishing that I had said, "Well, good-bye, Clara Mulpas. Nice not knowing you."

IN A way, I learned a great lesson that evening: How could I be stupid enough to continue flirting in my usual manner when I had just had a nervous breakdown? I told myself to forget about women and concentrate on curing whatever was wrong with my brain. "Get back to your violin and forget about women," I told myself. But when I turned out the lights and tried to sleep, I couldn't stop thinking about Clara Mulpas, who had turned me down without so much as a smile. As I was dropping off to sleep I pictured what she would look like with that large bun on the back of her head untied and her long auburn hair lying gently over her thin, naked body ... next to me.


THE NEXT DAY, GERTIE WENT EASY ON ME. I WAS ordered to get in with the boys for a hot bath, which was followed by a grapeseed heat pack and a relaxing grapeseed oil massage. I rested in the sun on a soft lounge for half an hour — Gertie timed me — then I was allowed to dress and go to the Garden café for my tea and scones, which I was eagerly looking forward to because I had only had some fruit juice for breakfast.

I was sitting alone at my table, sipping tea after eating three delicious scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, when I saw a gentleman staring at me from a table across the room. When he saw that I had spotted him, he got up and walked toward me. He was strikingly handsome, in his early forties I would guess, wearing an immaculate white suit, white shirt, and soft blue tie. He was also wearing a lorgnette, which I had only seen before when guest conductors came over from Europe. It had a thin black strap that dropped down to the side of his beautifully manicured mustache and goatee. When the gentleman arrived at my table, he smiled.

"Are you the musician Jeremy Webb?"

"Yes, I am."

"My name is Anton Chekhov."

A rush of excitement shot through me. I got up quickly and offered my hand.

"What a great pleasure. I heard that —"

"I can't shake your hand, Mr. Webb," he interrupted. "I'm sorry. I have consumption and I don't want to take even the slightest chance of giving it to you. May I join you?"

"Yes, of course."

After we both sat down, Chekhov said, "Please excuse my bad manners — staring at you from across the room — but I didn't want to disturb you while you were still eating. Dr. Gross told me a little about you and I wanted to meet you and say hello."

"It's a great honor to meet you, Mr. Chekhov."


"Well ... I saw a production of Uncle Vanya in New York and was very moved ... and I read your beautiful play, The Sea Gull. But to tell you the truth, when I arrived in Badenweiler, I was a little afraid of meeting you."

"For heaven's sake, why?"

"I get very nervous when I meet people I really respect."


"Well — I hope this doesn't offend you, but —"

"Mr. Webb, I don't offend easily."

"Well, almost all of the people I've idolized from afar — composers and conductors from other countries, mostly — turned out to be very disappointing when I actually met them."

"We're off to a good start. I feel exactly the same way. I hope I don't disappoint you if we have something to drink together. Would you care for a little white wine with me, or would you prefer something stronger?"

"Some white wine would be fine. Thank you."

Chekhov waved to the waiter.

"Two glasses of Gutedel — nice and cold," he said to the waiter. "By the way, have you read any of my short stories, Mr. Webb?"


Excerpted from The Women Who Wouldn't by Gene Wilder. Copyright © 2008 Gene Wilder. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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