A Writer Walks Out of a Bar…Without His Manuscript

This week marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Welsh writer Dylan Thomas, who was born October 27, 1914. Thomas was a gifted writer, but not so good at remembering where he put things (a problem tied in with his famous love of drink). The Rosenbach owns the manuscript of Under Milk Wood, which Thomas quite literally lost in a pub.

Under Milk Wood was a radio play commissioned by the BBC in the mid 1940s, but it was not until October 15, 1953 that Thomas delivered the final manuscript to Douglas Cleverdon, who was in charge of the project. It was a combination of handwritten fair-copy pages and typescript pages with manuscript annotations and corrections. Thomas was leaving for the United States on October 19th and he wanted to take the manuscript with him for readings, so Cleverdon’s secretary made a copy and returned the manuscript on October 17th. But then Thomas lost it.

Dylan Thomas, Under milk wood:manuscript. EL4 .T455u 954 MS. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of the Philadelphia.

It was not the first time that Thomas had lost Under Milk Wood.  On a trip to Cardiff in March 1953 Thomas had left it in his hotel, frantically writing a friend:

I left the briefcase somewhere. I think it must be in the Park Hotel.
I’ve written to the manager but could you possibly, when and if passing
by, drop in and see if it is there? It’s very urgent to me: the only copy in the world of that kind-of-a-play of mine, from which I read bits, is in that battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string. If this thing isn’t there, do you think you could find out where the hell I left it?
(Collected Letters, p 878)

The manuscript was found and returned from Cardiff. In October, with the manuscript lost again  and Thomas slated to fly out,  Cleverdon had copies made and delivered them to Thomas at the airport. Thomas was very grateful. Here’s how Cleverdon described what happened next:

The only words I can recall him actually saying were that I had saved his life. I said it seemed an awful pity that the original had been lost , and that it meant an awful lot to me. I had been working on it very closely over six or seven years, and it was the culmination of one of he most interesting this I had produced. He said if I could find it I could keep it. He told me the names of  half a dozen pubs, and said if he had not left it there he might have left it in a taxi. (Account of an action to recover the manuscript, 11)

Cleverdon looked for the manuscript and did in fact find it at the Helvetia or Old Swiss pub in Soho. He asked the barmaid and “she looked under the counter, said ‘Here it is’ and gave [him] the manuscript in its rather tattered folder.”(Account of an action to recover the manuscript, 6)

But that’s not the end of the saga. In 1961 Cleverdon sold the manuscript to the Times Book Company for £2000. Thomas’s widow brought suit, claiming that the manuscript belonged to her since she had inherited all Thomas’s physical possessions.

Judgment in an action by Mrs. Caitlin Thomas to recover from the Times Book Co. Ltd. the manuscript of Under Milk Wood. Toucan Press, 1967. EL4 .T455u Ephermera 2. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of the Philadelphia.

The legal question centered on whether Thomas had in fact made a gift of the manuscript to Cleverdon. Mrs. Thomas’s lawyer claimed that it was improbable that Thomas would have given away the manuscript, since he was always short of cash and would have known the manuscript to have financial value. He also claimed that even if Thomas had intended to give the manuscript to Cleverdon,  “he did not succeed in giving effect to that intention because there was no delivery of the subject matter to it to Mr. Cleverdon by Dylan Thomas.”

The judge (who had the wonderful name of Mr. Justice Plowman) ultimately ruled that a gift had in fact been made and that the Times Book Company was the rightful owner of the book. The judge pointed out that it was not improbable that Thomas would have given away the manuscript (especially noting that the manuscript was lost at the time and that the high value of the manuscript only came after Thomas’s death) and that retrieving the manuscript from the pub where Thomas left it was sufficient to effect the gift.

So that is the tale of Dylan Thoma’s Under Milk Wood. The Rosenbach purchased it from the Phoenix Book Shop in 1968 and it has not been lost since.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog.