Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?
David Thomas has written Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?, which reveals why and how the Welsh poet died, drawing on Dylan’s hospital notes and post-mortem report, as well as the intimate letters and journal of his tour agent, John Brinnin.
· He died a needless death. Not surprisingly, a cover-up was put in place to protect those responsible. Even one of his American biographers agreed to conceal the truth. It’s a tragic tale of how a sick poet was exploited for financial gain and academic prestige.
Dylan was already ill when he arrived in New York to take part in Under Milk Wood at the city’s prestigious Poetry Center. He had a history of blackouts and chest problems, and was using an inhaler to help his breathing.
The director of the Center was John Brinnin. He was also Dylan’s tour agent, taking a hefty twenty-five percent fee. He was a neurotic, self-absorbed poet who got through the week on whisky, phenobarbitone and a bagful of other prescription drugs. He was also addicted to a playboy lifestyle that was well beyond his means. His life was driven by a constant search for money, begging and borrowing wherever he could.
Despite his duty of care, Brinnin stayed away from New York. Being Dylan’s agent had become boring and interfered with his other work. Getting rid of Dylan, as he put it with chilling ambiguity, had become an obsession which he acknowledged he was never able to curb.
Brinnin described his attitude as self-protective, declaring that he had come to pay little attention to Dylan’s habits or movements. This was a critical moment in a chain of neglect that would prove fatal.
Brinnin had also decided to resign from the Poetry Center to take up a university job. He was demob happy, and looking after Dylan was low on his list of priorities.
He remained at home in Boston and handed responsibility to his ambitious assistant, Liz Reitell, whose job was to produce Under Milk Wood. She met Dylan at Idlewild airport on October 20 and quickly realised he was a sick man. But determined to make the play a success, she worked him to death, as he struggled through four rehearsals and two performances of the play in just five days.
Brinnin eventually turned up to watch the final rehearsal and was shocked by Dylan’s appearance. He saw immediately there was something seriously wrong with him. Reitell also warned him that Dylan had collapsed at a previous rehearsal. This should have been Brinnin’s wake-up call to seek medical advice about cancelling the play’s performances.
But he desperately needed his cut of Dylan’s earnings. He was in serious financial trouble, facing a drop in salary, up to his ears in debt and being taken to court for not paying his income tax. Brinnin had also misappropriated $300 given to him by a friend for safekeeping. If he had cancelled Dylan’s engagements, he would have had no means of replacing the money.
So Brinnin ignored Dylan’s illness and returned to Boston. He didn’t see him again until he was lying in coma in hospital. Dylan battled on as best he could, a victim of Brinnin’s financial problems and extravagant habits.
Reitell was left alone to cope. But neither she nor Dylan could afford to pay for proper medical care, and the Poetry Center hadn’t provided any insurance for him. What was needed was a doctor who could get Dylan through his engagements, preferably one who adjusted his fees to suit the patient. She knew just the man.
Milton Feltenstein was Reitell’s family physician. She would later describe him as a wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything. He went quickly to work with his needle, and Dylan made it through the two performances of Under Milk Wood, but collapsed straight afterwards.
October 27 was Dylan’s thirty-ninth birthday. In the evening, he went to a party in his honour but was so unwell that he returned to his hotel, where Reitell put him to bed. That was the lowest that she had ever seen him; his birthday party, she recalled, marked the beginning of the end.
Brinnin phoned from Boston to wish him happy birthday but Dylan barely responded. Brinnin sensed that he was either ill or had had too much to drink. He could have talked to Reitell to find out which was the case, but he chose not to, even though it was barely three days since he had seen for himself the seriousness of Dylan’s condition.
Here was the first opportunity lost for Brinnin to return to New York, take control of the situation and press for a second, or specialist, medical opinion. And he could so easily have returned; the next day, he finished his teaching at 2pm and could then have travelled to see Dylan, who was just some two hours drive away.
On October 29, Brinnin travelled to New York to work at the Poetry Center, and was in the city for eight hours. This should have been yet another opportunity to assess the deteriorating health of his charge but he didn’t bother to contact either Dylan or Reitell.
Dylan had now become dangerously debilitated and vulnerable to infection. A turning point came on November 2, when air pollution rose to levels that were a threat to those with chest problems. By the end of the month, over two hundred New Yorkers had died from the smog.
Reitell later recalled that in these last few days Dylan was “enormously ill”. In the early hours of November 4, he jumped out of bed, complaining that he needed fresh air. He went to the White Horse bar, had eight double whiskies, and returned to the hotel, boasting he had drunk eighteen.
He woke up at mid-day, and told Reitell he was suffocating. His voice was so low and hoarse that he sounded, said a friend, like Louis Armstrong. Dylan was now in the grip of a serious respiratory infection, which had started in his windpipe and spread down through the main airways into the lungs.
Feltenstein came to see him twice during the day, but failed to detect the chest disease. He also started a dangerous course of morphine injections. Reitell anxiously rang Brinnin, who yet again chose not to return to New York, just an hour away by plane. His inaction throughout the crisis seems astonishing, given that the most celebrated poet of the time was in his care.
That evening, Feltenstein came to see Dylan for a third time and decided, wrongly, that he had delirium tremens. Instead of sending him to hospital, Feltenstein injected 30mg of morphine, three times the normal dose for pain relief. He confided that Dylan might go into coma. This should have been yet another reason to send him to hospital but the good doctor left the hotel, merely advising Reitell that she needed help in looking after him.
Dylan was in serious trouble. His chest disease was already affecting his breathing, and now the morphine began to depress it even further. At midnight on November 4/5, he went into coma. His life could possibly have been saved if Reitell had called an ambulance. But she panicked and wasted valuable time trying to get hold of Feltenstein.
Two hours went by before Dylan reached nearby St Vincent’s, by which time he was profoundly comatose and brain damaged. The two junior doctors on duty tested for various causes of coma - meningitis, brain haemorrhage, diabetes and drugs – but the results were negative.
They listened to his chest and found bronchitis in all parts of the bronchial tree, both left and right sides. An X-ray showed pneumonia, and a raised white cell count confirmed the presence of an infection.
But Feltenstein, intent on covering his tracks, insisted that Dylan was in coma because of alcoholic brain damage. Amidst rumours of medical negligence, Ellen Borden Stevenson, ex-wife of Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, offered to pay for the best independent specialists to be brought in.
But her generous offer was turned own, prompting the British Embassy to phone Brinnin to complain that Dylan was being denied proper medical care. The hospital let the pneumonia run its course, and he died four days later on November 9.
Within hours of his death, the drink stories had started. Dylan’s American publisher, James Laughlin, wrote to his literary agent in London, telling him, even before the post-mortem had been done, that the cause of death was alcoholic poisoning of the brain. Such were the early beginnings of the story that Dylan Thomas had drunk himself into the grave.
Laughlin tossed a coin with Brinnin to see who would identify the body. Laughlin lost and went off to the morgue, whilst Brinnin busied himself with setting up a Memorial Fund. It was a noble inspiration but tainted with self-interest. He had already paid for some of Dylan’s hospital care; in doing so, he had fallen behind with his rent and the repayments on the loan for his car. He had also misappropriated even more of his friend’s money, but was hopeful of claiming it all back from the Fund.
At the post-mortem, the pathologist found no evidence that Dylan’s brain had been poisoned, damaged or changed in any way by alcohol. He issued a Notice of Death in which he said he was unable to confirm any diagnosis of alcoholic brain damage. Nor did he find any signs of alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis in the liver. The immediate cause of death was swelling of the brain, caused by the pneumonia reducing the supply of oxygen.
Brinnin and Feltenstein were now vulnerable to legal action for failure in their duty of care. Brinnin’s reputation, and that of the Poetry Center, was also on the line.
He and Reitell were not just colleagues, but close friends. Reitell was Dylan’s producer, but they were lovers, too, and she had been in bed with him on the night he collapsed. A letter left by Brinnin suggested that he and Dylan had also had sex together. It was all too incestuous, threatening a very juicy scandal in the prim-and-proper America of the early 1950s.
Any investigation into Dylan’s death could also expose Brinnin’s varied and hectic love life. He was in a long-term relationship with a fellow English scholar, Bill Read, but he had affairs with a number of other gay writers. He also enjoyed cruising downtown bars for young men, and even had a few romantic interludes with women, including Dylan’s close friend, the photographer Rollie McKenna.
Brinnin had a good deal to lose. A scandal would threaten the university post he was about to be offered, and possibly ruin the academic career he so badly wanted. Amidst growing concern that Dylan’s American friends had been responsible for his death, Brinnin launched his part of the cover-up strategy: Dylan had killed himself by drinking too much.
Just days after the post-mortem, he met with Caitlin and then with a group of Dylan’s friends who happened to be in New York, including Edith Sitwell and Wynford Vaughan Thomas. He reassured them all that Dylan had received the best possible care, and that alcohol had done for him.
Then Brinnin spent a weekend dispatching letters to several of his influential contacts, including T. S. Eliot. He told them that the only person to be blamed for the death was Dylan himself. The post-mortem, wrote Brinnin falsely, had confirmed that alcohol had damaged his brain. Everyone knew that the Welsh boyo liked his pint, so it wasn’t long before the alcohol story was doing the rounds of literary London, and rippling out thereafter.
Reitell was also doing her bit. She helped write a twelve-page letter to Louis MacNeice. It praised both Brinnin and Feltenstein, and assured MacNeice that morphine had played no part in Dylan’s death. The letter had the desired effect. MacNeice wrote immediately to warn Dylan’s Swansea solicitor that any rumours that Dylan had not been properly looked after should be spiked.
As usual, Brinnin was thinking about money. Just three days after the death, he went to a meeting at Mademoiselle magazine to put the finishing touches to a lucrative article about Dylan. The New York memorial service was held the very next day. Unwilling to lose any money, Brinnin declined to attend because it clashed with one of his teaching engagements.
He also wanted to write a book about Dylan, and he asked Edith Sitwell for advice. She suggested he write two accounts, the one discreet for immediate publication and the other truthful, to be issued after everyone was safely dead and buried. Brinnin duly obliged. Sustained by whisky and benzedrine, he hastily pounded out Dylan Thomas in America.
Published in 1955, it gave the discreet version of how Dylan had died. Brinnin candidly admitted he had placed himself in the best possible light. He made no criticisms of Feltenstein or Reitell, and lied about the two-hour delay in getting Dylan to hospital, claiming that he had been taken there quickly.
Brinnin repeated his falsehood that Dylan had died from alcoholic brain damage. He also made much of Dylan’s boast that he had drunk eighteen whiskies, though he later acknowledged that he knew this was untrue. No wonder one of his colleagues said the book had the scent of fraudulence.
But it was an instant bestseller, and the story that Dylan had drunk himself to death became firmly lodged in the public imagination. Every saloon bar in Britain soon boasted somebody who knew somebody else who had been with Dylan on the night he had drunk himself dead.
Brinnin’s book brought him money, though the writing of it took him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. He was overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, drinking himself into a stupor and falling into fits of uncontrollable weeping. He ended up on an analyst’s couch and then in a hospital, from which he emerged with what he described as a new appreciation and care for people. Unfortunately, it was just a little too late for Dylan.
Eight years later, in 1963, the cover-up looked as if it might fall apart. Constantine FitzGibbon was invited to write Dylan’s authorised biography. He was a former American intelligence officer, with a reputation for winkling out the truth.
A friendly doctor sent him a four-page summary of Dylan’s hospital notes, with details of his chest disease and an account of Feltenstein’s incompetence. This should have been a golden opportunity to dish the alcohol stories but FitzGibbon was persuaded not to write anything that might damage Feltenstein or the hospital.
FitzGibbon buried the doctor’s summary deep in his archive in the university of Texas, and it remained uncited by all of Dylan’s later biographers. By 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the death, the vital information that Dylan had pneumonia and bronchitis before entering hospital, and that Feltenstein had failed to diagnose this, had still not become public.
Nor was it ever revealed, until now, that Brinnin’s desperate need for money, and his demob-happy attitude, had played a crucial part in the neglect that had led to Dylan’s death. So the story of the eighteen whiskies lived on, nurtured by a romantic fantasy that this was a sexy way for a poet to die.
Ironically, just two years after Dylan’s death, Brinnin received the Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Poetry, and on the twenty-fifth anniversary he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He retired to Florida, whiling away his time playing poker on the beach with Leonard Bernstein. He died in 1998, leaving his own epitaph: “I think I am as well-known as I deserve to be.”
John Brinnin was well-known for many things. Yet somehow, he managed never to be known as the man who helped send a famous poet to an early and avoidable death, and made a lot of money from doing so.