Exploring Greenwich Village with Dylan Thomas
By Monique Burns
New York’s Greenwich Village has always attracted its share of characters. Offbeat, artistic and often highly intelligent, they still gather there to write and compose in brick townhouses and tenement apartments, gambol along leafy cobblestone streets, and frequent historic restaurants and watering holes.
The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated in 2014 with poetry readings, theater performances, walking tours and other special events throughout Wales, as well as in London, is also being remembered in Greenwich Village. There he cut an impressive, amusing and, finally, tragic figure while on four North American speaking tours between 1950 and 1953.
Armed with the new Dylan Thomas Greenwich Village Walking Tour app— downloaded on smart phones free from iTunes and Google Play—you can now trace the footsteps of Wales’ greatest poet through New York’s storied bohemian enclave. The self-guided 1 ½-2-hour tour includes 10 historic sights, many with connections to artists, writers and musicians who, like Dylan Thomas, would later became world-famous.
A new companion book, Dylan Thomas: Walking Tour of Greenwich Village, is out now, too. A collaboration between the late Aeronwy Thomas, the poet’s daughter, and Peter Thabit Jones, a popular Welsh poet, the paperback features an introduction by Hannah Ellis, the poet’s granddaughter, the Honorary Patron of the Dylan Thomas 100 Festival, and the spittin’ image of the poet with curly black hair, pale skin and dark expressive eyes.
If you begin at the beginning, you’ll find yourself at the corner of Grove and Hudson streets, standing before St. Luke in the Fields. Inside the 19th-century, Federal-style brick church, with its tall square tower, the ornamentation is spare: a black-and-white checkerboard floor, large round-arched windows, wooden pews, a simple altar and a pipe organ. Clement Clarke Moore, who was once a warden here, wrote “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” while Thomas contributed his own Welsh holiday reminiscence, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” more than a century later. Simple yet somber, St. Luke’s was a fitting place for the memorial service held for Thomas in November 1953. Two days after allegedly downing 18 whiskies at The White Horse Tavern, the poet was rushed to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. There he died, soon after his wife and muse, the irrepressible Caitlin Macnamara, arrived from Wales.
As a small boy in Swansea, the largest coastal town in South Wales, Thomas had haunted the study of his father, an English schoolmaster. There he discovered the finest poems in the English language and became a student of the most complex verse forms. Throughout his life, Thomas studied other poets. One was Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose 1928 poem, “Dirge Without Music,” inspired Thomas’ famous villanelle, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” published more than 20 years later in 1951.
Millay, a fixture of Greenwich Village’s 1920s artistic scene, lived upstairs at Chumley’s at 86 Bedford St. near Barrow Street. The tour’s second stop and a former Prohibition-era speakeasy, Chumley’s also attracted John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser and Ring Lardner. An on-site plaque notes Chumley’s role in fostering great 20th-century American literature. Placed on the American Library Association’s register of Literary Landmarks in 2000, Chumley’s also was featured on the hit TV series, Mad Men.
Closed at the time of this writing, Chumley’s is still undergoing reconstruction after a structural collapse, and its owner is still battling neighbors in an attempt to get a liquor license. Still, it’s fun to stand outside and imagine Scott Fitzgerald strolling into the bar with Ernest Hemingway, or Papa Hemingway trading tall tales with short-story maven and sportswriter Ring Lardner.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, along with Dylan Thomas, also figures prominently at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York’s longest continuously running theater. Millay founded the theater, at 38 Commerce St., in 1924. Today, it’s still going strong, offering works by acclaimed playwrights, master classes, and special programs to stage the works of women and black writers, and provide them with financial assistance.
Dylan Thomas’ connection to the Cherry Lane Theatre illustrates just what kind of man he was. Often criticized for being fiscally irresponsible, and sometimes surly when drunk, Thomas’ biographers, as well as his contemporaries, generally agree that the man had a heart of gold. Recognizing that many of Greenwich Village’s starving artists were indeed starving, or at least down at the heels, Thomas gave a special reading for them at $1 a head during his second North American speaking tour in 1952.
The Cherry Lane has many other artistic associations. Actress Kim Hunter lived above the theater with her husband TV writer and actor Robert Emmett. Barbra Streisand was once an usher. Folk musician Bob Dylan, who took the poet’s first name as his last, later performed there. As for literary associations, the works of two of the world’s greatest playwrights—Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett—premiered at the theater.
Steps from the theater lived actor Yul Brynner. From 1923 to 1924, Edna St. Vincent Millay lived around the corner at 75 ½ Bedford St., a narrow three-story brick house now marked with a brass commemorative plaque. Across the street, at no. 72, in the basement of what is now Casa Regional Brazilian Homecooking, Beatle John Lennon once recorded.
If you build up a thirst while strolling, you’ve picked the right tour. Thomas, who once boldly declared that he “liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet-brown walls of the glass,” frequented Greenwich Village bars as avidly as those in his native Swansea, or in Laugharne, where he often held court at Browns Hotel, still a fixture in the tiny waterside town.
In Greenwich Village, as at home, Thomas had several favorite haunts, including The Minetta Tavern, a former speakeasy at the corner of Macdougal Street and Minetta Lane. Once known as the Black Rabbit, it was a favorite of other literary lions like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and Eugene O’Neill. Thomas also frequented the San Remo Café, at 93 MacDougal St. and Bleeker Street, where he met Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Its clientele—described by Jack Kerouac as “hip without being slick, intelligent without being corny”—included W.H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, Miles Davis and Jackson Pollock.
Along with a cold, sudsy beer, Thomas enjoyed a good meal. He seems to have been absolutely delighted by American fare. Or maybe he just relished well-prepared sustenance. His wife Caitlin, for all her many physical and intellectual charms, was no great cook, often adding ingredients to a stew that bubbled on the range for days in Laugharne until, her Welsh biographer George Tremlett says, it finally turned algae-blue and had to be tossed.
At restaurants like the Grand Ticino, still at 228 Thompson St., between Bleeker and Third streets, but now known as The Dove, Thomas sampled—and enjoyed—milkshakes and fried shrimp. Huge American portions, the bane of every stateside dieter, were a revelation to Thomas, who wrote to his parents in Wales, crowing about the “T-bone steak the size of a month’s ration for an English family.”
Life for Dylan Thomas was often a matter of feast or famine. In New York, his heedless ways finally became a matter of life and death. Holed up in the Chelsea Hotel at W.23rd Street, the poet had labored on the final draft of “Under Milk Wood,” his famous play for voices, for its New York premiere in late October. On one early-November evening, he stepped out for a night of tippling and allegedly downed 18 straight shots of whisky. Though Thomas was an inveterate beer drinker, he often became so lonely for his wife while on tour that he drank whisky to dull the ache. Two nights later, after another drinking bout, Thomas was rushed unconscious from the Chelsea Hotel to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he later died. Closed in April 2010, the hospital is now being replaced by a luxury condominium complex.
Not far away, at 4 Patchin Place, a leafy lane between 6th Avenue and Greenwich Place, is the former home of poet e.e. cummings, a pale yellow-brick townhouse with a green door sporting a red commemorative plaque. On his first U.S. tour in 1950, Dylan Thomas asked to meet cummings, who attended Thomas’ first lecture on February 23, 1950 at the 92nd Street Y. cummings was so deeply moved that he walked the streets for hours afterward. At 5 Patchin Place, in a brick townhouse across from the former cummings home, lived another writer Thomas deeply admired: the reclusive Djuna Barnes, author of the 1936 novel, Nightwood, one of the first to discuss homosexuality openly.
The tour’s last stop is the White Horse Tavern at 567 Hudson St. at 11th Street, which Thomas lovingly referred to as “The Horse.” With little dark-wood tables and chairs, and wooden banquettes, the cozy bar still attracts Greenwich Village’s artistic crowd. Join friends at Thomas’ favorite banquette and order a pitcher of beer. Gaze at the framed photos of Thomas and the larger-than-life black-and-white mural of him standing at the bar. Don’t be surprised if you feel the ghost of his presence. In his life, as in his art, Dylan Marlais Thomas often drew inspiration from that shadowy realm somewhere between life and death. At the White Horse Tavern, and other Greenwich Village haunts, it’s easy to imagine that he still walks among us.
IF YOU GO
Dylan Thomas Greenwich Village Walking Tour – Download the app free from iTunes and Google Play. http://moil.in/dtnytour
Dylan Thomas: Walking Tour of Greenwich Village (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2014) – Created by Thomas’ daughter, Aeronwy Thomas, and noted Welsh poet Peter Thabit Jones. Available from amazon.com (www.amazon.com/Dylan-Thomas-Greenwich-Village/dp/0893049972. Also available from Small Press Distribution books at www.spdbooks.org/dylan-thomas-walking-tour-of-greenwich-village
Dylan 100 Festival – Celebrating the 100th birthday of Wales’ greatest poet, Dylan Thomas, with poetry readings, theater performances, festivals and other special events throughout 2014 in Wales, New York and London. www.dylanthomas100festival.org
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.