Today, as I write this, I am 39 years old and thirteen days (Yes, I hear your loud gasp of, “Wow, doesn’t she look good for her age!” Come on indulge me.) and this may not seem significant to many of you. However, it is for me as, one or two of you might realise, I am now the exact age my grandfather was when he died on Monday 9th November 1953 in New York.
This fact has quite literally stopped me in my tracks because, although I knew my grandfather was tragically young when his life was cut short, I can honestly say that I did not truly appreciate what this represented. He left a wife, a mother and three young children and did not see them grow up into the quite extraordinary people they became and the indelible mark they left on everyone they met. He also lost the opportunity to finish his play-for-voices, Under Milk Wood, or see the powerful effect his work had on future generations.
When my grandfather famously quoted, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, he surely did not foresee the very unexpected consequences that would result from his premature death. Over the next few weeks I am going to explore these starting with how it became possible that concentrated periods of Dylan Thomas’s life could be used to characterise a whole person.
1) Instant Dylan
Yes, it’s true; it would appear that Dylan actually invented a persona to fit in at parties and social events. “Instant Dylan,” a friend called it. He acted in a way he thought was ‘expected’ of a poet and drinking heavily was part of that, as it seems was outrageous behaviour and scandalous comments. It was all intended to shock those in the literary ‘establishment’. Oh, and boy did it!
Yet it was not until after his death that the creation took on it’s full and ugly form.
2) Dylan’s ‘friends’
After November 1953, there seemed to be hundreds of people that claimed to know Dylan Thomas. They would regal audiences with stories of the Dylan they knew, even reporting on events where they were not in attendance, but there are two closer friends I would like to draw your attention to in particular.
John Malcolm Brinnin
“It is impossible to hit back at a man who does not know that he is hitting you, and who is far too cautious of the laws of libel to say plainly what can only be read between the lines. I want only to make clear that an intensive handful of months, at divided intervals, over a comparatively short number of years do not, however accurately recorded and with whatever honest intentions, do justice to the circumference of the subject.”
This is an extract of a statement from Dylan’s widow Caitlin that appears at the start of the book Dylan Thomas in America.
John Malcolm Brinnin was Dylan’s agent and friend but in 1955, less than two years after Dylan’s death, he published a salacious book about Dylan’s time in America. Since it’s release, numerous biographers have cast doubt on it.
But why did John Malcolm Brinnin write such a scandalous book? Good question because he seemed to adore Dylan and his poetry and encouraged him to make four touring trips of America. Well, apart from the obvious fact that stories about sex, drugs and general debauchery sell well, I wonder whether guilt played a part. He was barely in New York during Dylan’s final visit and maybe deep down he knew he could have done more to help prevent his death. Having said that, perhaps he was trying to cover up his negligence. As they say, the best form of defence is attack!
Liz was Brinnin’s assistant, and, a fact that has been widely reported, Dylan’s lover. As John had neglected his duties, she was responsible for Dylan. Remember, at this point, Dylan was already an ill man having arrived in New York experiencing regular black outs and uncontrollable coughing fits. Liz’s main role was to get Dylan on stage in front of packed audiences, as well as finding ways to make him finish Under Milk Wood so maybe, just maybe, her judgement was wrong. Was she trying to get the show on the road, whatever (or whoever) the cost? She did arrange regular check-ups with a private New York doctor but he failed to diagnose bronchitis and pneumonia, and they went untreated. Instead Dylan was repeatedly given cortisone to relieve his breathing problems, and then morphine, which ultimately led to him falling into a coma and being admitted to hospital.
In the same way I have questions about John, I’m curious about Liz’s involvement too. Did she feel guilt or, was she covering up her mistakes? The reason I wonder this in particular is that it was Liz that gave the account of Dylan’s exaggerated ‘eighteen straight whiskies’ boast which was then retold in Dylan Thomas in America and has been viewed as fact by many ever since.
3) St Vincent’s Hospital
Why has no biographer been allowed access to Dylan’s hospital data? Dr William B Murphy was given access in 1964 and wrote a memorandum, which summarised his findings but that is all. Were they trying to hide something? Well, we certainly know there were: delays with the ambulance, staffing issues, misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment. Not withstanding the fact that he was left on a general ward virtually on display to hundreds of people that came and went, plus the appalling treatment of Dylan’s wife. She was sectioned (apparently by the same private doctor who gave Dylan the morphine injections) in a New York mental institution and had little chance to spend time with her dying husband. If St Vincent’s Hospital had shown medical findings earlier perhaps the alcohol poisoning myth, and the resulting character assassination, could have potentially been avoided.
4) Press and Media
The drunken and lecherous image of Dylan Thomas on self-destruct was irresistible to the press and media and they have consistently enjoyed reinforcing it. Just check this recent article out – “…hit the bottle like a sailor on shore leave” instantly jumps out! To read the rest of the article click here.
Next week I plan to talk more about the difficulties Dylan Thomas’s family have had in getting their voice heard and the numerous battles that have ensued as a result.
Hannah Ellis – 7th August 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk