At about 3:30 A.M. on November 4, 1953, Dylan Thomas staggered from the White Horse Tavern to his hotel room in the Chelsea section of New York and announced to his girl friend, Liz Reitell, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys. I think that’s the record.”
That, at any rate, became the legend. Today students, writers, aspiring poets, and idly curious tourists visit the quaint White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, Thomas’s favorite haunt in New York, with its old wood floors and lanterns, its gleaming oak and mahogany bar with a brass rail and mirrors behind, reminiscent of an English pub. “This is where Dylan Thomas hung out,” they muse. “He drank eighteen whiskeys straight and fell off that stool there, dead.”
Thomas was a man of violent emotions and sometimes outrageous behavior, a man whose reputation easily lends itself to a dramatic, even romantic end. Perhaps this is why the actual sequence of events preceding his death has been distorted, and a myth has grown up about both the poet and the old tavern.
According to his biographer Paul Ferris, Thomas did not die in the White Horse, nor upon reaching his room in Chelsea. He died at St. Vincent’s, a private Roman Catholic hospital, after lying in a coma for five days following the fateful night. The cause: alcoholism and pneumonia with pial edema, or pressure on the brain. What has never been conclusively shown, however, is what effect a rather large dose of morphine, administered on November 4 by Dr. Milton D. Feltenstein, had on Thomas. In the past, this doctor had not been reluctant to treat Thomas with injections of ACTH and the poet had referred wryly to his “winking needles.”
Since 1946 Thomas had been plagued by debts and, above all, a devastating inability to work. Between 1946 and 1952, he produced only six poems and commented at the time, “It seems as if my faculties for self-criticism have grown more than my talent.” Increasingly Thomas turned to alcohol. He suffered from gout, gastritis, shortness of breath, and frequent bouts of flu and bronchitis. In the early 1950s his father was dying, his wife Caitlin was again pregnant, his children were ill, and his debts were huge. He needed money but could not stand to undertake the means to get it. His outward life became as turbulent and chaotic as his inward life: John Davenport described him as in “a state of terror.”
In a letter to Oscar Williams, Caitlin remarked that Thomas had left off writing in favor of acting. She referred to Thomas’s frequent trips to America, where he read his work, sometimes in a very drunken state, made some records, vowed he would return to Wales with riches, and played a part that he himself feared he could not sustain. Perhaps he wanted to escape from himself and, as Caitlin later said, “from the worst side of life. (He) deliberately wanted to do away with himself before he was forty.”
Severe bouts of drinking preceded that of November 4. One time Liz Reitell found Thomas at New York’s Algonquin Hotel temporarily deranged and ranting about war. Another time he drank whiskey and beer till the morning hours, then took Benzedrine.
On November 3 he kept two drinking appointments, returned to his room, then suddenly went out again at 2 A.M. The owner of the White Horse later reported after a study of his inventory that Thomas could have drunk only six, at most eight, shots of whiskey. Thomas managed to get up on November 4, an unlikely feat had he really consumed 18 drinks, and went out to the White Horse again around midday for a few beers.
On returning to his room he became wretchedly ill with gastritis and vomiting. Reitell attended him and called Dr. Feltenstein. He first gave Thomas an injection of ACTH, and the patient began seeing geometrical abstractions, circles, squares, and triangles. His situation worsened. Thomas’s friend John Malcolm Brinnin reported, “As Dylan, raving now, begged to be put out, the doctor gave him a sedative.” A half grain of morphine sulphate was given, hardly standard treatment for gastritis. If Thomas was suffering the breathlessness that he was prone to, the drug might have further cut off oxygen to the brain, which in turn induced the coma.
At the time no one pointed the finger at Feltenstein. The doctor would not answer questions on the subject, and in 1974 he himself died, leaving the mystery unsolved.