On the anniversary of the iconic poet’s death, Tony De Sarzec examines Dylan Thomas the drinker, and weighs the myths and evidence, asking the question: what killed Dylan Thomas?
Dylan Thomas died in New York on 9th November 1953. What is the truth behind his claim that he drank eighteen straight whiskies before his subsequent demise?
Many hold the view that what killed Thomas was a “rock star” lifestyle. Most musicians live quietly writing, playing and recording. Living quite straightforwardly in fact. Only letting rip a bit when away from home touring etc. This is the reality of the situation. Hell, I’ve known enough of the blighters and indeed used to be one myself! So, in truth a lot like Dylan.
His very close friend, the composer Dr. Daniel Jones and many others who witnessed his drinking said Dylan usually drank half pints of bitter. He also used to exaggerate the amount he drank to impress others. Dan told me that he wasn’t really a big drinker but a steady one. He was very professional in his writing routine, not just in Wales but also when he was writing scripts in London. I know this doesn’t fit the image of the “roaring boy” but there we are.
According to former girlfriend Pamela Hansford Johnson, drinking to Dylan was “for him, one of the great romantic necessities of the poet’s image; he fantasticated his drinking. The other two necessities were to become tubercular and – extremely odd – to get fat”. She also tells of an incident where they’d had a couple of halves in a London pub one afternoon. They then left and Dylan saw some people he knew and became instantly “drunk”. She saw this phenomenon on more than one occasion. He greatly exaggerated his drinking for effect. Another close friend, the artist Alfred Janes once said that “Dan Jones could drink me under the bed” adding that “I could drink Dylan under the table”.
George Tremlett wrote in his book The Death of Dylan Thomas, “In all these stories about his earliest visits to London there is nothing to suggest alcoholism, and even those later stories of his excessive drinking refer to how he behaved after drinking, not the quantities consumed. Despite ‘The Legend of the Drunken Poet’, there is no firm evidence that he drank much more than anyone else, only that he consumed more than his body could process – which was not much at all. He liked to convey the impression of being ‘one of the lads’, whereas at least three of them – Fred Janes, Mervyn Levy and Dan Jones – have confirmed that Thomas had such a low threshold that he would invariably be the worse for wear by the time they were on their third or fourth drink.”
When Thomas was in hospital following the “eighteen straight whiskies”, Ruthven Todd and other friends tried to establish how much whiskey he had drunk the night before. The proprietor of the White Horse Tavern concluded, on the evidence of his stocks that he couldn’t have drunk more than six whiskies, or eight if two regulars who usually had Old Grandad as a nightcap had changed their brand. The “eighteen straights” is another one of his clear exaggerations. And interestingly, he got up the next day, went back to the White Horse and had a couple of beers before returning to the Hotel Chelsea. It was there that he started having severe breathing problems and Dr. Milton Feltenstein was called. He came to see Thomas three times that day, administering the steroid ACTH by injection and on his third visit, half a grain (32.4 milligrams) of morphine sulphate. This suppressed Dylan’s breathing and he went into a coma. From the hotel he went to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Milton Helpern, who carried out Thomas’ post mortem concluded that the immediate cause of Dylan’s death was oedema of the brain, but the primary cause was hypostatic bronchopneumonia. In other words he believed that the pneumonia developed while in hospital. But the Medical Summary he was working with failed to mention the fact that he had pneumonia on admission. The great Welsh forensic pathologist Bernard Knight examined the P.M. report and concluded that…
death was clearly due to a severe lung infection, with extensive advanced bronchopneumonia. This is often a terminal event to many other underlying causes, but here the pre-existing acute-on-chronic bronchitis could be quite sufficient to flare up into a full-blown pneumonitis… given that Dylan had a history of a cough and chest trouble, confirmed by the autopsy finding of some emphysema, he obviously had chronic bronchitis. This often flares up at intervals into acute-on-bronchitis, especially if he persisted in smoking. One would have to go on his history to a large extent, but the severity of the chest infection, with greyish consolidated areas of well-established pneumonia, suggests that it had started before admission to hospital.
During the period that Dylan made his last visit to New York, over two hundred people died as a direct result of the city’s air pollution and this certainly wouldn’t have helped a man with breathing problems!
So these are the facts of the case. Dylan would have loved to have been a heavy drinker to suit his image of a poet – but what killed him was that his body wouldn’t let him.
If you would like to read more on the life of Dylan Thomas and what killed him, I wholeheartedly recommend the book Fatal Neglect – Who Killed Dylan Thomas? by David N. Thomas, published by Seren Books.
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Peter Gaskell reviews A Pearl of Great Price, the collection of love letters from Dylan Thomas to Pearl Kazin during their affair in 1950.
This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.
Tony de Sarzec is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.