At the start of Dylan’s first tour to America, in February 1950, he briefly stayed at this hotel. His room was at least twenty floors up and looked over the whole of the city. His American agent, John Malcolm Brinnin said that he found his room “powerful and oppressive” and after some ‘spectacular’ behaviour, he was asked to leave.
Dylan stayed at this hotel during his first reading tour of America in spring 1950. It was close to many of his favourite bars and restaurants, and suited Dylan well as it was a somewhat well-worn hotel and the staff had an easy-going attitude. He also spent time there with his wife Caitlin in 1952.
I am writing this in bed, at about seven in the morning, in my hotel bedroom, which is right in Washington Square, a beautiful Square, which is right in the middle of Greenwich Village, the artists’ quarter of New York. (Letter to Dylan’s parents, May 22nd 1950)
At the end of February 1950, during his first tour of America, Dylan stayed at Midston House.
I am staying right in the middle of Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers infinitely taller and stranger than one has ever known in pictures. I am staying in a room, a hotel room as the promised flat did not come off, on the 30th floor: and the noise all day and night: without some drug, I couldn’t sleep at all. The hugest, heaviest lorries, police cars, fire brigades, ambulances, all with their banshee sirens wailing and screaming, seem never to stop (Letter to Caitlin, Saturday February 25th 1950)
The building has had a number of guises. It became Midston House in the 1930s, Hotel Lancaster in the 1960s, then Madison Towers, and is currently the Jolly Madison Towers.
The Hotel Chelsea became Dylan’s ‘home’ during his American tours. In 1952, Dylan and Caitlin stayed here and had a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette. It was at the Chelsea that Dylan worked on the final version of Under Milk Wood, prior to its New York premiere. It was from here that he was taken, unconscious, to St Vincent’s Hospital, where he died on November 9th, having failed to come out of a coma.
Little Shrimp a restaurant attached to the Hotel Chelsea was where a significant recording deal was struck. Barbara Cohen (later Holdridge) and Marianne Roney (later Mantell) convinced Dylan to be recorded reading some of his poetry and prose. This was to lead to the foundation of Caedmon Records. A plaque on the front of the hotel reads: “Dylan Thomas lived and wrote at the Chelsea Hotel and from here he sailed out to die”. The plaque was a gift from Caedmon Records, erected on October 27th 1964.
Other famous literary and cultural figures that have stayed or lived at the Hotel Chelsea include: Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Sid Vicious, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.
On the 22nd February 1952 Steinway Hall was the venue for a recording session that was to lead to the founding of Caedmon Records and the beginning of the spoken word recording industry. Dylan recorded a number of his poems and his short story A Child’s Christmas in Wales. A long-playing record was released on 2nd April 1952. The recording was the launch of Caedmon, a company formed by two enterprising women and funded with their own money. It became one of the leading spoken-word recording labels and is now part of HarperCollins.
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You can read and hear more about the founding of Caedmon here.
The Minetta Tavern was a much-loved bar of Dylan’s. It had been a ‘speakeasy’ during Prohibition and was known as the Black Rabbit until 1929. Its relaxed atmosphere not only appealed to Dylan Thomas but also Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill and E.E Cummings. At the Minetta, Dylan became a good friend of Joe Gould, who was known as Professor Seagull. Gould was a Harvard graduate who claimed to understand the language of sea gulls and wrote several hundred thousand pages of his imaginary great work, An Oral History of Our Time. It’s claimed that Reader’s Digest originated in the basement in 1923. Minetta was featured in the film ‘Jimmy Blue Eyes’.
This was one of Dylan’s preferred bars in New York. It was a hangout for writers, artists, musicians, and photographers, including Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and W H Auden, to name a few. Dylan met Allen Ginsberg in the Café. The Beat poet invited Dylan to visit his house but his invite was turned down after a friend reminded Dylan that Caitlin was waiting for him. Ginsberg left, sticking out his tongue and later regretted that he had not made more of the encounter.
This was Dylan’s favourite New York bar. Dylan lovingly called it “The Horse”. It is one of New York’s oldest bars, dating back to 1880. Dylan had a view of the Hudson, which perhaps reminded him of the dockside area in his hometown of Swansea. He would chat with fellow writers as well as the seamen and dockworkers that frequented the White Horse.
After drinking at the White Horse Tavern in the early hours of 4th November 1953, Dylan reportedly made the claim, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s a record”. Though this story fits with the popular image of Dylan as a ‘rock and roll poet’, the statement was a bit of an exaggeration. His friend, Ruthven Todd, questioned the proprietor the following day. “ I checked all the facts about Dylan having drunk the eighteen straight whiskies, which is always believed…this eighteen whiskies is completely untrue…I checked the next day after Liz Reitell told me about Dylan’s remark…owing to the ABC, the Alcoholic Board of Control in New York, a man can tell exactly how many drinks have been used out of a bottle in the previous evening. 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 broke their habit, he might very well have had eight, but that is all he could have had. Six multiplied by three is eighteen – sounds better and I suppose Dylan, like a Welshman, was making a good story better”.
There is an area dedicated to Dylan in a ‘cosy corner’ of the bar with paintings, posters and other memorabilia on the walls. Other White Horse regulars included: Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, the Clancy Brothers, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.
This was a regular haunt of Dylan’s in New York. Chumley’s was a speakeasy in the Prohibition era and it still keeps its mysterious quality. It has no sign, and as well as its main entrance, it offers a ‘secret entrance’ on 58 Barrow Street through the backyard called Pamela’s Court. Dylan’s portrait now hangs on the wall and is joined by other famous clientele including: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald.
During Dylan’s time, The Grand Ticino was one of the finest Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village. On his second day in America in February 1950 he had a meal there with John Malcolm Brinnin before being taken on a whistle-stop tour of the city. He also spent time in the restaurant with his friends, the poets, Ruthven Todd and Allen Curnow.
A memorial service was held for Dylan at St Luke’ Episcopal Chapel, the third oldest church in New York, on Friday 13th November 1953, four days after he died. His widow, Caitlin, along with other chief mourners, was at the front of the church. The gathering included the poet E E Cummings and the sculptor David Slivka who made Dylan’s death mask, which is now in an upstairs bedroom at the boathouse in Laugharne. It had once belonged to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor but was sold after Richard’s death. The last bust cast of the mask can be found in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. On the same day, a grieving Caitlin accompanied the coffined body of her husband, aboard the SS United States, on the long and lonely journey back to Britain.
One of the founding wardens of St. Luke’s was Clement Clarke Moore, the author of the world-renowned poem ‘Twas the night before Christmas.’ He donated the land on which the church was built.
Dylan was admitted into St Vincent’s Hospital in a coma at 1:58 am on Thursday 5th November 1953. He never regained consciousness and died at about midday, four days later, on Monday 9th November, while a nurse was giving him a bed bath. Poet John Berryman was the only other person present.
The legend goes that Dylan died as a result of a drinking bout in the White Horse Tavern, but the truth is much more complex. When he arrived in New York on Monday, 19th October 1953, his fourth tour, he was already desperately ill and suffering from regular blackouts. Yet, despite this, he did not look after himself. He continued to drink too much, smoke, eat poorly and not rest. Furthermore, he was relying on injections of prescription drugs to keep him going, while there were also record levels of smog in the city, which was dangerous for anyone with breathing problems. Dylan suffered from asthma. All of this contributed to Dylan’s general debilitation, which allowed bronchitis and pneumonia to take hold and flourish. Unfortunately these went undiagnosed and untreated in the days before he was admitted to hospital. On the night he fell into a coma, he was given a very high dose of morphine and there was an unexplained, significant delay in getting him to hospital where he was not examined by a specialist or consultant until thirty-seven hours after his admission. All these factors led to the early death of Dylan Thomas.
Dylan’s distraught wife Caitlin arrived in New York on the morning of Sunday 8th November and her behaviour was extremely erratic. This resulted in her being placed in a strait jacket and taken to the River-Crest Mental Institution in Astoria, Queens.
Demolition of St Vincent’s Hospital began at the end of 2012 and was completed in early 2013. Other hospital buildings are being converted into luxury condos and a new luxury building, Greenwich Lane, will replace the St. Vincent’s building.
John Malcolm Brinnin was a poet and critic who in 1949 became director of the Poetry Center at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association. He sent Dylan an invitation on 14th April 1949 to ask him to come and read at the Center and told him he would also arrange other readings.
…accept with great pleasure the invitation of the Poetry Center of your institution to come to the United States to give a reading of my poems…I feel extremely honoured to be the first poet to be invited from abroad, who was not already a visitor, and delighted too. I’ve wanted, for some time, to come to the States, and there couldn’t be a pleasanter way of coming than this…I should be only too glad to accept your sponsorship and to read in other places, including California. ” (Letter to John Malcolm Brinnin, May 28th 1949)
Though in typical Dylan fashion he nearly didn’t make the flight.
I deserve to be hung up by my feet and flogged with bottles. I didn’t remember till I was in the bloody train that I’d left both my chequebook (with only one cheque in it) in the desk, and my passport in the hut. Here is the hut key. The passport is, I believe on top of the bookshelves on the right of the hut as you enter. Please, darling, send it at once… (Letter to Caitlin February 1950)
Dylan read at the Kaufmann Auditorium twelve times during his four tours, including directing and performing in the premiere of Under Milk Wood on May 14th 1953. Five performers and Dylan took forty-four parts making up the entire cast. There were no scenes, no sets, no acting except for voices and gestures and the actors sat on high stools against a plain dark background, their scripts on lecterns in front of them. The Under Milk Wood actresses Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire commented that as a director Dylan asked just one thing. “He just wanted us to love the words”.
In 1952, on his second visit to America, Dylan did a special reading for the artistic community at Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. Tickets were sold at $1 a head. According to Dylan’s friend Oscar Williams it was the only reading he ever gave in New York City where he read only his own poems.
Cherry Lane Theatre is New York’s oldest theatre outside of Broadway. It was founded by the poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, in 1924 and has showcased early plays of Edward Albee and premiered Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Its list of renowned performers include Gene Hackman, Bob Dylan, and, of course, Dylan Thomas. Barbra Streisand was once an usher there.
The poet E E Cummings and his third wife, Marion Morehouse, the photographer and model, lived at 4 Patchin Place. Cummings lived there from 1923 until his death in 1962.
On Dylan’s first trip to America he made a special request to meet EE Cummings. In fact, Cummings had already seen Dylan. He had been in the audience for his reading at the 92Y on 23rd February 1950, and was so overwhelmed he walked the streets for hours afterwards. Dylan went to Patchin Place and Marion Morehouse attempted to take his photo describing him as Groucho Marx on a bad day. After Dylan’s death Cummings was part of a committee that raised emergency funds for Dylan’s family.
On Wednesday October 28th 1953, Dylan took part, with Arthur Miller and others, in a symposium on ‘Poetry and the Film’ arranged by a group known as Cinema 16. A recording was made of the discussion involving Dylan and this is his last known recording, he was admitted to hospital in a coma eight days later and never recovered. The recording can be found of youtube; Dylan’s contributions start at around 28 minutes.
Parties were held here for Dylan during his first reading tour in 1950, and a reception was held in his honour on May 1 1952 during his second reading tour; Dylan signed copies of his books and vinyl recordings.
In January 1952, Dylan and Caitlin spent a weekend at photographer Rollie McKenna’s house in the country. It was an exceptionally cold few days and the ground was covered in snow. They arrived with John Malcolm Brinnin and Caitlin could hardly see, so swathed was she in a fur hat, coat and boots. Dylan wore a brown parka. Rollie took many iconic photos that weekend including Dylan amongst the branches of a wisteria tree, reclining on a mound of straw and standing tall in his heavy tweeds.
The University at Buffalo holds an important archive of Dylan Thomas material as part of its poetry collection. The collection includes four poetry notebooks, a prose notebook of ten short stories, holograph and typed manuscripts, and corrected or fragmentary versions of individual poems. Also correspondence including Dylan’s letters to Henry Treece, Trevor Hughes, Donald Taylor, and Pamela Hansford Johnson; three diaries of Pamela Hansford Johnson; and two 1953 portraits of Dylan painted by Gordon Stuart.
A walking tour of Greenwich Village and the places associated with Dylan Thomas has been created by poet Peter Thabit Jones and Dylan’s late daughter, Aeronwy Thomas. There is a PDF, book and app available.