“I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies – I think that’s a record!” said Dylan Thomas to his young and attractive lover Liz Reitell just before collapsing into a fatal coma following a mammoth drinking session in his favourite New York bar. Sounds good doesn’t it? Just the way the first rock and roll poet should go. Dead before he’s forty – leaving the world wanting more.
You can see it now can’t you. The young man (prematurely aged and bloated) sitting in his ‘cosy corner’ of the White Horse Tavern gazing dreamily out at the River Hudson and being reminded of home. He is knocking back whisky after whisky and each drink sinks him further and further into oblivion.
But the truth, as with everything concerning my grandfather’s life, is much more complex. This week marks sixty-three years since his death on Monday 9th November 1953, (apparently while a nurse was giving him a bed bath and in the presence of poet John Berryman), so I’d like to briefly explore the grubby path of self neglect, medical negligence and missed opportunities that led to that fateful day.
Let’s start with the most popular myth then that Dylan died from alcohol poisoning. It’s highly likely that he did say, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s a record.” However, I’m sorry to disappoint, but it is very doubtful that it actually happened. His friend, Ruthven Todd, after being told about Dylan’s boastful claim, checked with the barman that had been on duty the night before. At the time, there was an Alcoholic Board of Control in New York that monitored exactly how many drinks have been used out of a bottle. It was discovered that in the case of Dylan, he had either six, or, allowing that two old men who always came in and had a Granddad’s nightcap had broken their habit, he might very well have had eight, but that is all he could have had. Ruthven later commented, “Six multiplied by three is eighteen – sounds better and I suppose Dylan, like a Welshman, was making a good story better.”
Yet, despite this slightly embellished story, it is still the case, that in the last year of Dylan’s life, he was drinking far more than usual and the thriving night life of New York’s trendy Greenwich Village was the perfect venue for him to indulge this habit. He was in no fit state (both physically and mentally) to go on another American tour – my Grandmother said as much. She knew they would eat him alive with their expectations for more and more extreme versions of his ‘dancing bear’ performances.
Dylan was vulnerable, depressed and lonely – he needed someone to look out for him. Alcohol, amongst other things, was one of the ways he was dealing with his anxieties. He was grieving the loss of his father, his marriage was in trouble and there were money issues too – it simply went out more rapidly than it came in. His financial irresponsibility was compounded by my grandmother’s spendthrift ways. He also had tax problems and at one point ninety percent of every pound he earned went to Inland Revenue. This high level of stress was making him physically sick and he had sleepless nights. He was certainly not taking care of himself because, as well as drinking too much; he was smoking, eating poorly and not resting. Furthermore, he was relying on injections of prescription drugs to keep him going.
All of this had a major impact on his health and he was suffering regular blackouts, which some believe was the result of diabetes. He was desperately unwell when he returned, for the fourth time in just three years, to America in October 1953. He was bloated, vomiting (often with blood) and was having difficulty waking from deep sleeps. To make matters worse there were record levels of smog in New York City, which was dangerous for anyone with breathing problems. Dylan suffered from asthma. The mental and physical factors combined allowed bronchitis and pneumonia to take hold and flourish.
In the weeks before my grandfather’s death he was in regular contact with a private New York doctor and this is where the story starts to get murkier and medical negligence has been suggested. Interestingly, no biographer of Dylan Thomas has been allowed access to his hospital data. Though Dr. William B Murphy was given access in 1964 and wrote a memorandum, which summarised his findings. David N Thomas and Dr. Simon Barton had access to this, as well as a medical summary completed on November 9th by Dr. McVeigh for the purposes of the post-mortem. Their findings were published in a book called Fatal Neglect that highlighted a series of mistakes in the medical treatment given to Dylan in his final few weeks.
In short, bronchitis and pneumonia went undiagnosed and untreated, despite regular checks by the private New York doctor. He was repeatedly given cortisone to relieve breathing problems, and then, on the day he went to hospital, morphine. Within half an hour of the third injection of morphine, Dylan stopped breathing properly and fell into a coma around midnight on November 4th/5th. A course of injections in one day can lead to a build up of morphine in the system. It can also cause respiratory depression, which can lead to hypoxia (insufficient oxygen in the blood stream), especially with someone with a pre existing lung disease, and cause permanent brain damage and death.
Following Dylan’s sudden deterioration, it was over an hour later that an ambulance was summoned and it did not arrive at the emergency room of St Vincent’s Hospital until 1.58 a.m., despite it being a very short journey. There were then issues with the reduced number of nighttime and weekend staff, having been admitted on Thursday until Monday.
The first specialist Dylan saw was on the afternoon of November 6th, thirty-seven hours after admission. Initially two-second year medicine residents saw him and they started treatment (incorrectly) for ‘acute alcoholic encephalopathy’ – assuming that his brain had been damaged directly from alcohol. They were working under the instruction of the private New York doctor that had administered the morphine injection instead of the chief medical resident who should have been on duty with them. They do not appear to have checked for alcohol in Dylan’s blood stream and it is unclear if he was given penicillin to treat the pneumonia.
Dylan was put into a large, general ward. He was virtually on display and hundreds of people came, all wanting to see him. The consequences of being famous I suppose. My grandmother described the scene, “…there were people gazing at me through the glass; I felt as though I were on stage.” This was not the most appropriate way to treat a woman that was trying to say goodbye to her dying husband. I’m not surprised her behaviour became erratic, though I am shocked that they placed her in a strait jacket and took her to the River-Crest Mental Institution in Astoria, Queens. I’ve been told that this was done under the instruction of the same doctor that had given my grandfather the morphine injection. That’s one way to keep the family quiet and to stop them asking too many questions!
As I say, much more complicated than we have been led to believe. In some ways I would prefer if the eighteen straight whiskies myth were correct, as this does not raise as many uncomfortable questions. If you want to find out more there have been many books and articles written about the death of Dylan Thomas but please be prepared for some distressing truths. I certainly came away with many more questions than answers.
Hannah Ellis – 7th November 2016.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com