Although he is generally considered to have drunk himself to death, the popular Welsh poet is now believed by some experts to have died due to over-medication by a doctor. Thomas was in New York in November 1953 on a public reading tour, when after a night of heavy drinking, during which he boasted to have drunk 18 whiskies, he awoke feeling unwell in his room in the Chelsea Hotel.
He complained of shortness of breath as well as his chronic gastric and gout problems, and a doctor was called who gave him painkillers. Thomas was still in pain and experiencing delirium when the doctor was called back, and after the patient asked for something to make him sleep, he was administered with an injection of morphine.
Hospital records reveal the dosage to have been abnormally high, and hazardous given the difficulties Thomas was having with breathing. After the injection he drifted into a coma, from which he did not emerge, watched over in his hospital bed by his lover Elizabeth Reitell, and fellow poet John Berryman. He died a few days later, on 9 November, the official cause of death cited as pneumonia.
The 39 year old Thomas was one of the best known poets in the English-speaking world at the time, famed for the beauty of his imagery, and a heady lyricism acquired from the Welsh language in works such as his play for voices Under Milk Wood. He was also renowned for his poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, an angry rejection of mortality, written after the death of his father.
He was born in Swansea, and started writing during childhood. He entered journalism and moved to London where his collections of poems in the mid 1930s gained attention. He became a well-known voice on BBC radio during the 1940s, and continued publishing poems, with his Collected Poems appearing in 1952.
With his turbulent marriage to his wife Caitlin under pressure, to find income for them and their two children he started doing lecture tours of the east coast of the United States. He also contemplated the ephemeral riches of the movies in Hollywood, and like many authors watched his film plans turn to vapour in his fingers. The reading tours proved popular though, and he continued them for several years up to his death. He also came to appreciate the attentions of Elizabeth Reitell, who it was summoned the doctor to his bedside on 4 November 1953.
Despite his reputation as a successful poet, the items recovered from their room in the Chelsea Hotel, and rediscovered decades later in an old filing cabinet in Wales, reveal a life of struggle. Amid racing tips on scraps of paper, and bottles of antacids, was his publishing contract for Under Milk Wood, specifying an advance of 250 pounds, and the standard six free author copies, the document stipulating that any further copies could be purchased at “25 per cent less than the published price”.
His widow was later informed that his estate comprised the sum of eight pounds.
Although Thomas attended an early reading of Under Milk Wood, it was not produced until the year after his death. The atmospheric, comic-dramatic piece became his most famous single work, recorded with Richard Burton reading, and was later made into a feature film. Sadly, Dylan Thomas was not there to see his work on the big screen at last.
“Here's to alcohol, the cause of — and solution to — all life's problems.”
- Homer Simpson
From my book Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths.