From Dylan Thomas' Widow, Caitlin, Comes a Portrait of the Poet as a (mad) Young Dog
Frail and weary of life at age 72, Caitlin Thomas rests on a chaise lounge at her country villa in Catania, Sicily. Three decades have passed since her husband, Dylan Thomas, died and she left the windswept coast of Wales to escape the painful memories of their life together. But gazing wistfully now toward nearby Mount Etna, a smoldering volcano with a volatile temperament much like her own in the past, she is still haunted by Dylan's words. Every day she senses his presence, and her blood often boils with the knowledge that he betrayed her love.
Having survived several suicide attempts, Caitlin has made one last vain effort to break Dylan's spell over her by telling all. Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas (Holt, $17.95) chronicles her tortured love for one of the greatest poets of our times. A matched pair of dipsomaniacs, Caitlin and Dylan led a depraved existence, roaring from pub to pub and brawling over countless infidelities. "You must understand that our lives were raw, red bleeding meat," Caitlin told writer George Tremlett, her collaborator on the book. She even makes the startling revelation that in 16 years of marriage she never had an orgasm with Dylan. Yet through it all Caitlin remained in awe of his poetic genius. "I wouldn't have bothered with him if he were an ordinary person," she says. "He had nothing else in his favor, no glamorous looks or money, and he got worse and worse."
Caitlin met Dylan in April 1936 in a London pub, where he promptly plopped his head in her lap and wooed her with endless and eloquent endearments. An Irish-born bohemian who grew up with the poet W.B. Yeats as a neighbor and was raped as a teen by the artist Augustus John, Caitlin, at age 22, was mesmerized by Dylan and took him to bed with her that first night. From the beginning Dylan, the penniless Welsh poet, was more elfin than macho. Barely 5'2", he shyly crawled into the sack wearing a long nightshirt to his knees. "In bed it was like embracing a child rather than a man," she has said. "He felt so young and tender, so soft and sweet."
Just 21 years old, Dylan was already a lush. When the pubs opened each day at 11 a.m., he'd methodically down several ales to cure his hangover from the night before. Then he'd travel from pub to pub, shouting offers of drinks all around on the rare occasions when he had a few shillings, but more often borrowing shamelessly from his friends. During their courtship, Caitlin happily tagged along. "At first I thought I was really getting into some interesting circles," she says. "But later it just turned into a drinking orgy."
After canceling two wedding dates because they drank up the registration money, Caitlin and Dylan were married in July 1937 and eventually moved to Laugharne, a seaside village in Wales. "The country was the only place where Dylan could really settle down," Caitlin explains, "because if he ever had just a bit of an audience, he had to perform for them." Away from London, Dylan stuck to a rigorous schedule. Mornings, he read newspapers and books, his tastes ranging from Shakespeare to trashy detective novels. Then, following a noon visit to the pub, he'd return home and work unceasingly until dinnertime. Though still playing the pub buffoon each evening with the locals, Dylan thrived on being a quiet homebody most of the day. "I liked him best," Caitlin says, "when he was just being his simple self."
Such moments were few and shortlived. When Caitlin gave birth in January 1939 to a son, Llewellyn, Dylan disappeared for days and later sullenly shunned his son. Not long after, Dylan panicked at the thought of military service in World War II. He drank himself senseless the night before his medical and was classified physically unfit for duty after he came down with delirium tremens and passed out cold during his examination.
Pressured by creditors, Dylan temporarily gave up his poetry during the war to write film scripts in London. There, during an air raid in March 1943, Caitlin gave birth to a daughter, Aeron. Again Dylan failed to show up at the hospital, and Caitlin returned to their dingy London flat to find empty beer bottles and cigarettes everywhere and a bed which apparently had been slept in by two people. Though plagued by growing suspicions that Dylan was sleeping around, Caitlin saw no options. "I would have left many times if I'd had money," she says. "But I had the children to look after."
After seven years of moving from one ramshackle house or flat to another, in May 1949 the Thomases finally regained a measure of tranquillity when a patron found them a seaside home in Laugharne. Caitlin gave birth two months later to their third child, Colm, a sweet-natured boy favored by his father. Meanwhile Dylan settled down to do some of the best work of his life. Every morning Caitlin lit a fire in a one-room shed behind the house to warm it for his afternoon writing sessions. In the early evening she prepared his bath, leaving sweets in the soap tray alongside a tall glass of fizzy lemonade. But alcohol continued to dominate their lives. Fat and flabby from years of beer drinking, Dylan still spent every night at the pub. And with increasing frequency Caitlin left the children alone at home to be with him. "I drank this beautiful concoction—a glass of milk mixed with a double whiskey—which gave me a great sense of warmth and courage," she has said. "After the pubs had closed, I used to throw myself off the harbor wall into the high tide."
In February 1950 Dylan made a triumphal tour of the United States and sent letter after letter to Caitlin professing his undying love. "I have no idea what I am doing here in the very loud, mad middle of the last mad Empire on Earth," he wrote, "except to think of you and love you and to work for us." But when he returned some four months later, Caitlin found his coat pockets filled with love letters from an American woman named Pearl. The discovery set off a series of vicious fights, with Caitlin wildly kicking and punching a whimpering Dylan and then invariably comforting him in bed. Soon Caitlin began retaliating against Dylan in kind, picking up men at the pub whenever he was away.
When an invitation came a year later for Dylan to travel to America, Caitlin was so paranoid about losing him to another woman that she aborted a child six months into the pregnancy in order to make the trip. Drinking their way across the U.S., they continued to fight, usually over women who approached him in raptures after a public reading. One morning they woke to discover their hotel room covered with green toothpaste; neither could recall the battle the night before.
In 1953 Dylan made two more trips alone to America, despite Caitlin's violent objections. By that time he had started considering what to her was unthinkable: divorce. Then, after Dylan had a heavy drinking session in New York in November, Caitlin received an urgent telegram saying he had been hospitalized. "Oddly enough I experienced a strange feeling of relief," she has said, "a feeling that the struggle was over." At Heathrow Airport her plane was held for her after she lingered over a drunken farewell lunch with friends. In New York she was met by a police motorcycle escort. "It was all very incongruous," she says.
Arriving drunk at St. Vincent's Hospital, she found Dylan in a fatal coma. After trying to climb into bed with him to warm his cold body, she ran amok in the hospital, tearing down a large crucifix from a wall and swinging along the rafters of a sick ward. Locked up in a mental institution, she banged her head against the whitewashed walls of the asylum when greeted the next morning with the news that Dylan was dead. A few days later, while returning to England by sea, Caitlin threw a drunken fit and was locked in the ship's hold. There she sat by amused as some seamen blithely played cards on Dylan's coffin. "I think Dylan would have liked that," she says.
Looking back now, Caitlin still feels the enormous pain of losing Dylan, as well as the anger of believing he had forsaken her in the end. She has had little contact for years with Llewellyn, Aeron and Colm and is reluctant to talk about them. Instead, for the past three decades she has been living with Sicilian movie director Giuseppe Fazio, a genial and loquacious man whom she punched out the first day they met.
At home in Catania with Giuseppe, 64, and their son, Francesco, 22, Caitlin seems oddly withdrawn. She speaks Italian haltingly and, while Giuseppe and Francesco entertain streams of houseguests, she remains quiet, her head slightly drooped. On the wagon for 10 years, she now drinks only diluted red wine. And after each meal a housekeeper deposits a pile of vitamin pills next to her plate and hovers as each one is swallowed.
Giuseppe is unfazed by following in the footsteps of Dylan Thomas. "Intimidated by Dylan Thomas? Me?" he says. "Not at all. I am intimidated by Sophocles, Homer, Virgil, Thucydides and the rest. Remember, there is nothing new under the sun."
"Except Dylan Thomas," replies Caitlin.