Perhaps the most controversial moment of Jimmy Carter’s otherwise triumphant tour of England last month came when he spoke out passionately on behalf of a man dead for 24 years. Standing in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, where many of Britain’s late, great literati repose, the President expressed the hope that his favorite poet, Welsh bard Dylan Thomas, might someday be memorialized there.
The British were aghast. The teetotaling American President, after all, could not have picked a less likely hero than the roistering, wenching, boozing Welshman who died in New York in 1953 of “a massive alcoholic insult to the brain.” One Westminster archdeacon observed that Thomas might someday be honored, “whatever his morals.” When Carter offered to “pray for his soul,” the eventual answer from the Dean of Westminster was a tight-lipped, “That isn’t quite the way things work here.” And Carter’s request to visit Laugharne, the poet’s burial place in south Wales, was rebuffed, reportedly because of fears of encouraging Welsh separatists.
If Carter startled the English, he also “surprised” and heartened Thomas’ staunchest defender—his widow, Caitlin Macnamara Thomas. From her three-bedroom apartment in Rome, Caitlin, now 62, gratefully wrote a letter of thanks to the White House. “I would like to see my husband buried in Westminster,” she says. “What had his way of life to do with the merit of his writing? Are we all judged by our way of life in our claim to immortality?”
To be sure, Caitlin’s life was hardly less bibulous than Dylan’s. For 16 years she was a willing partner in the dissipation of perhaps the century’s greatest lyric poet. The bohemian daughter of an Irish nobleman, she was a dancer and the ward of painter Augustus John when she met Thomas, the son of a schoolmaster. Married in 1937, they made pubs their home in their stormy life together, during which she gave as good as she got in crockery-throwing and philandering.
“It was all highlights or rock bottoms,” she remembers. “It still rankles me that he obtained both fame and escape in one fell swoop, leaving me holding three babies. But they were, in fact, the best things he gave me. They are a constant reminder, with their funny looks and big brains, of their father. Never mind the poetry, which I am not clever enough to read.”
Today Dylan and Caitlin’s sons Llewellyn and Colm, 38 and 27, live in Australia. Their daughter, Aeron, 34, is married to a Welshman she met while reading her father’s poetry. Caitlin, meanwhile, has lived in Italy for the past 20 years. There, at 48, she had an out-of-wedlock son, Francesco, by a Sicilian movie extra named Giuseppe Fazio. The three of them share the apartment across the Tiber from St. Paul’s that she bought with the first royalties after Dylan’s death. Her three decades of drinking finally ended six years ago when she joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
Caitlin’s main worry now is money. “Were it not for help from my sons I would not be able to manage at all,” she admits. Giuseppe, she says, “does not contribute much to support us. Sicilian men have been brought up to expect that women should serve them.” Though she keeps a country villa, she’s traded in her Aston-Martin for a Renault. Several years ago she sold the seaside boathouse she and Dylan once owned in Laugharne. Then in 1975 she tried to auction off his love letters to her—but withdrew them in the face of low bids. Eventually she sold them privately to a university, but will not identify it. Caitlin blames her troubles on a trusteeship for Thomas’ royalties that she agreed to when she was “so far gone from alcohol that I didn’t even read the document.”
Outside of her lover and family, Caitlin is lonely in Rome. “I don’t have many friends because I no longer go to drinking parties,” she says. “I sometimes think I’d like to live in England again, but when I visit London I sit in parks because I don’t dare to see my friends in pubs.” Now at least she has one consolation: the President of the United States, to paraphrase her husband, has made sure that Dylan Thomas will not go gentle into his goodnight.