In last week’s blog, I explored the chain reaction of events that led to Dylan Thomas developing the one-sided and superficial image of being a randy letch and outrageous drunk. I would like to follow on from that and consider other fallouts that resulted from him dying young and being famous. In particular, how his family have had to endure years of trying to get their voice heard amongst a quagmire of opinion, judgement and ‘ownership’, and the numerous battles that have ensued as a result.
From as early as a few weeks after Dylan died, discussions were being held about how to resolve the problems he had left. The outcome of a decision made by a small group of men (reportedly at Dylan’s funeral) would result in control and power being taken away from those that knew and understood Dylan the most…his family.
Establishment of a literary trust
This is complex. The Thomas family were in deep shock and grieving terribly after Dylan died. His mother had lost her husband, daughter and son in less than a year. His wife Caitlin was ill and mentally unstable, apparently attempting suicide on a number of occasions. Clearly the family were in no fit state to take charge …yet someone needed to. Dylan had died intestate, penniless and with debts. There was also a literary estate to consider. In December 1953, a trust was set up, of which Caitlin was a beneficiary but not a participant. In effect she had no power over Dylan’s legacy while Dylan’s mother was excluded entirely.
- Court case 1 – Caitlin versus Douglas Cleverdon for ownership of the original Under Milk Wood script
Dylan lost his original manuscript of Under Milk Wood just before his last tour to the States in October 1953. Douglas Cleverdon, the radio producer, delivered duplicate copies of the play to Dylan at the air terminal. Cleverdon said that Dylan then asked him to look for the original manuscript while he was away in America and he found it behind the bar of the Helvetia pub.
After Dylan’s death, Cleverdon argued that the script was his because Dylan had told him that if he found it he could keep it. Caitlin disputed this story and laid claim to the manuscript taking Cleverdon to court in 1966. She lost the case and at least £13,000. Douglas Cleverdon went on to sell the manuscript to the Times Book Co. Ltd; which in turn sold it on again.
- Court case 2 – Caitlin versus the trustees of the Dylan Thomas Literary Trust
Caitlin’s health improved and she moved to Italy where she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and became sober. She had a fourth child, a son, at the age of forty-nine. From that point on, she tried repeatedly to gain control of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate, including taking the trustees to court. She believed it was being run poorly and had concerns that secrets were being kept from her and money was being misused. She was unsuccessful on each occasion and it remained in the hands of a group of men.
- Court case 3 – Caitlin’s son versus the trustees of the Dylan Thomas Literary Trust
The situation with the Dylan Thomas Literary Trust then took an uglier turn after Caitlin died in 1994. Her son (not Dylan’s child) was to receive his mother’s 50% share of the trust but, unfortunately, he wanted more…He asserted that he needed back payment from when he was born in 1962.
As you might imagine, such a request would involve a large payout that would most likely bankrupt the literary estate. To me, this seemed a ludicrous demand but legally the case was ambiguous. On the initial trust papers (completed before he was born) it said the words, ‘Caitlin and her children.’ This vague wording led to a long and expensive court case that he lost in the end. However it had a terrible effect on all involved, including my mum who suffered from a rare blood disorder. She nearly died following a massive internal bleed, which was no doubt caused by the stress of the situation. Sadly, there is now an unresolvable divide in the family.
The current situation
You may be interested to know that we are still living with the consequences of that 1953 decision. Yes, the trust was set up for the right reasons and by people that were acquainted with Dylan but they have since died. They have passed the reins of the trust on to their friends and family as if it were an inheritance and there is certainly a debate to be had about the fairness and morality of that, especially as those that the trust was put in place for are no longer alive.
As always with my grandfather I am left with more nagging questions.
“Should the trustees have given Caitlin a voice?”
“Should the trustees have guided the family rather than controlled them?”
“Did the trustees always do what was best for Dylan Thomas’s legacy?”
“Does the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate still need to be protected from the family?”
Next week, I will be looking at the lasting legacy of Dylan Thomas’s writing, in particular focusing on Under Milk Wood and the influence it has had on poets, authors, artists and musicians.
Hannah Ellis – 14th August 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk