Dylan Thomas Tablecloth

The Rosenbach’s contribution to Philadelphia’s 215 Festival this year was a special tour called “What Would Dylan Thomas Do?” …if the joke of the title was ever funny (doubtful), it was funny back in the days of the What Would Jesus Do bracelet. But the people who came for the tours didn’t really care about the lame title, and we had a good time anyway.

I started the tour with a strange artifact from our collection–the “Dylan Thomas Tablecloth.” First, the tablecloth is not a tablecloth, but rather the photograph of a tablecloth. There are many doodles and sinister-looking stains on the photographed tablecloth, including an unmistakable doodle of Dylan Thomas. Other doodles in the photograph resemble ones that have been attributed to him elsewhere. The photograph was purchased in 1971 and last displayed at the Rosenbach in 1991. We believe that it is a tablecloth that Thomas used, sat at, and drew upon… though we don’t know exactly when. Doubtless, there is more information buried in our files, but until it is unearthed, the object provokes more questions than it answers.

The Rosenbach has a small, but choice collection of Thomas materials, including a manuscript of “Fern Hill,” many signed first editions, and a manuscript of “Under Milk Wood.” There’s a long story related to it that’s worth a full telling, but basically, Thomas lost the ms in London in the midst of a drinking binge, and later told a friend (who had rescued Thomas by providing another typed version of the play) that if he (the friend, Douglas Cleverdon) could find it, he could keep it.

But the final item on the tour was the copy of Thomas’s autopsy and related notes, compiled by a scholar working in the 1960’s. This article from the Manchester Guardian gives some sense of the controversies that have ranged about Thomas’s death–and the files at the Rosenbach speak to the exact controversies that are mentioned. And yes, Thomas had no alcohol nor morphine in his blood at the time of his death. And the phrase “alcoholic insult to the brain” appears nowhere…

Oh, and also–a recent post on Thomas at boingboing.net referred to this page at salon.com that takes you to free audio downloads of Thomas reading (provided you wade through some advertising). Boingboing (which is a great source for odd internet detritus) also mentions the 215!