My visit with Dylan Thomas

I was visiting my friend Kenneth Rexroth when his phone rang. His voice became agitated and in a high pitch he said “Oooooh”. He was full of theatrical personalities, and I thought, “Who could this be? The second coming of Christ?” It was Dylan Thomas.

Someone had given him Rexroth’s name and said this is the center of literary life in San Francisco, and I just happened to be there when he called. So I said to Rexroth, who was very unimpressed by anyone–that was his manner—“Do you mind if I offer to show him the city?” He said “go ahead”.

I drove over to the Palace Hotel, and there was Dylan Thomas, looking exactly like he ought to, leaning against the hotel smoking a cigarette. I drove around the block just to catch that striking image again. I took him to various sites around the city, and then we went to my favorite Chinese bar. I was sure he would find it exotic, and indeed he did. After that I took him back to my house in north beach where I lived with my boyfriend, Bill Swan.

Since Thomas was perpetually short on cash, and The Palace Hotel was very expensive, he hoped to find someone to put him up in San Francisco while he visited the area. I didn’t think I had adequate quarters in my place, so Bill called his professor at San Francisco State College, Ruth Witt-Diamant. She had a beautiful large home and was delighted to play hostess to the poet celebrity.

We drove over to her house, and as she began to lead him up to the second floor room where he would stay, he suddenly became violently ill, vomiting over and over again along the staircase. This struck me as strange since I recalled him drinking very little that day.

The next day Thomas decided he wanted to say hello to Henry Miller, who he had met once in Paris. Everybody knew Miller lived in Big Sur, so Witt-Diamant drove us all down there: me, Bill and Thomas. On the way down, Thomas remembered he had promised that night he would go to a party given in his honor by the wife of the head of the English Department at Berkeley. We decided he could call immediately upon arrival in Big Sur and tossed about ideas for the best way to express apologies for his absence. Thomas decided to tell her he sadly could not attend because he was “revisiting paradise.” In the end, we forgot to call her.

Now, Henry Miller liked his privacy, so he deliberately did not have a telephone. But Witt-Diamant knew him casually, so we felt ok just showing up. Miller was given to young women, and when we pulled up the woman living with him came out and told us, in a rather hostile tone, that he is working, so he couldn’t meet us.

Witt-Diamant knew someone who wrote fiction who lived nearby, so we went to visit her. She greeted him as a celebrity, but what I found funny is that she only knew him for his short stories. She did not know that he also wrote poetry. She was a very gracious host, and served us lunch. After spending several hours there, we returned to the car, and there was a paper under the windshield wiper that read, “Henry says please come down to the house.”

So we went down there, but the mood was very chilly. Henry Miller was furious with the young woman who had turned us away because she did not know the name Dylan Thomas. But it was his fault since he was used to living with pretty young things and did not care that they had never read a book. We sat and they talked about having met in Paris, but there wasn’t much else to say, so we left.

That night we went to a very famous literary café located in Big Sur called Nepenthe. They closed for the winter and this was the day of their grand opening for the summer season. We arrived early, and they were overjoyed to have us. Thomas was greeted as a world famous celebrity and invited to sign their new guest book. After he signed I immediately went over to sign it, so I am the second signature right after Dylan Thomas. That night Bill and I camped out somewhere in the open air, while Thomas and Witt-Diamant got hotel rooms.

When we returned to San Francisco we went to a Chinese Café where a lot of poets hang out. Rexroth was at a table and his face lit up, “So he was with you!” The chair’s wife had phoned everyone looking for Thomas. Rexroth told us anyone who had ever read a poem was there to meet him. He didn’t show up, of course. Ruth heard this and was quite embarrassed, thinking she would be blamed.

There had been talk of hiring Thomas at Berkeley—not in the English Department since he had no degree but in the extension program. After this incident, I am sure the idea was dropped.

Some months after he returned to Wales, Dylan wrote a letter thanking Witt-Diamant for her hospitality. That letter is held in the New York Public Library and back in 1972 I left a note with the letter explaining how she was introduced to Thomas. In the letter Thomas also says he found a letter thanking me “in a pile of socks and poems unposted since last Christmas.” I never did receive this letter. Most likely it was never sent.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this page are those of Tram Combs and do not necessarily reflect the views of his transcriber, Paul Mason Fotsch.

Tram Combs Autobiography