In the tiny beatniky hamlet of Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, in the very late forties and in the early fifties was a popular coffeehouse called The Indrawn Breath. Oftentimes, after a tedious day of labor as a truck driver for a local lumberyard, I’d cajole my wife and we’d go spend a gentle evening at the coffeehouse by listening to the poetry-ridden songs of some passing minstrel, or by listening to the fresh and vital apostasies of some local or wandering poet. Being young, these people wanted history to begin with themselves, and urged for everything to be changed.
My wife, Dulcinea, had been asked to accompany the famous painter Salvador Dali in his visit to the area, because she was an accomplished translator and because she was marvelously well informed concerning the histories of our local arts and our local artists. Mr. Dali’s English was lousy and yet he was a curious fellow, and among his myriad requests was to be given a tour of recitals of underclass literatures. Being a generous man, he permitted me to tag along.
He laughed heartily to learn that everybody called my wife Dolly, and in his crippled English he joked that now there were two Dollies at our table. Drollery is an honorable, kind humor, and we laughed merrily along with him, knowing that a great man was performing his duty of putting lesser people at their ease.
Scheduled to recite his poetry that evening was a youngish though middle-aged man named Dylan Thomas, and, being mildly familiar with his florid exuberant work, I considered that witnessing Dylan Thomas while my wife and I sat with Dali, was a double treat. Now I consider that it was a triple treat.
Scheduled to read at eight, Mr. Thomas arrived a bit late and, I thought, a bit inebriated, but almost immediately upon beginning his act in that deliciously masculine and utterly magnificent voice he seemed to sober remarkably. While performing he drank about two full pitchers of cold icy water, and I wondered just where he was putting it. Mr. Dali made the ancient and venerable joke about his having a hollow leg, but made it in a whisper.
I remember that he recited many poems I hadn’t heard before, and I remember that he recited his October poem, which I so loved, and which was done so intensely and so stirringly my skin horripilated, goose bumps all over and hairs bristling and a cold shuddering in the nerves.
When he was finished reading he came over to our table, Mr. Dali’s presence having made quite a stir among these glitterati. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Dali tried hard to communicate but were mostly unable, since Mr. Thomas knew no Spanish. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I was delighted that my wife and I were available to their incapacity, and I was delighted that our table was too small to accommodate more than four chairs.
Mostly these two great artists talked of women and of horses, and a little of boxing. Dali wanted to talk about women, and when Thomas asked him where his wife was, he said that he kept her in the hotel room, and then tried to talk about famous movie actresses. Thomas wanted to talk about horses, and Dali was often polite enough to listen, somewhat. Both men were fervent fans of the brawny bomber, Joe Louis, and both men dismissed Tunney’s long count as being irrelevant.
I remember Thomas said he loved George Gascoigne, and Dali said he’d never heard of him. Dali said he loved Cervantes and Thomas said he loved Don Quixote also, but hadn’t read anything else by Shakespeare’s perfect contemporary. Thomas seemed to pretend to being more intellectual than was quite natural for him, and Dali seemed to enjoy being a showman, barking to his contemporaries. Thomas was embarrassed that he was more artist than intellectual, and Dali was proud of it. Thomas was imploding while Dali was exploding and gracefully. If Thomas was a saint a-bleeding, Dali was the holy pope of the surreal.
Mr. Thomas looked like an alcoholic cherub, and seemed to be suffering spasms of pain in his eccentric and central nervous system. Several times I noticed that his blubbery lips tightened across his mouth and I almost expected them to snap like a rubber band. His forehead glowed with oil and a sweat hovered upon his entire face. Disappointment and disgust were writ large upon his features, as in Rembrandt’s old self-portrait. The coffee that we drank did him no good, and gave him no help, no relief. He drank apple juice, and mentioned that he was pretending it was the boozy cider from home.
I was mostly interested in Mr. Dali, since I knew more about him than I did about Mr. Thomas, and since he was the occasion of the evening. Dali was a remarkable specimen. He was a skinny guy and naturally, I thought, a solitary. He wore a black suit of typically Latin tailoring with very very wide padded shoulders and with wide lapels. He wore a black string tie neatly tied on a soiled white shirt which had a collar far too large for his scrawny little neck.
His hair was black as black could be, black as black shoe polish, and was drowned in grease. His mustache was a revelation and was exceptionally long and thin and tightly twisted at the ends into a flamboyant tight circle. His eyebrows were thin and black and, and I was awed by this, they moved independently of each other, like weird black spiders, and skittered all over the upper third of his face as if they were the scarves of ballerinas, waving and floating and whipping. These active eyebrows would dart up to his hairline or skitter alongside an ear or zip down and plunge over an eyeball.
Toward the evening’s end both men were wearied from a conversation that required intermediaries, and for a spell they dispensed with us, and in a mix of non-verbal language and pidgin each confessed quietly that he had peripheral moments of consciousness when he expected the whole world to recognize him for being the charlatan that he was, to denounce him with sneers of derision and then to consider him never again. I didn’t understand how genius could appreciate itself so scantily, and yet I knew enough to pretend I missed the significance of their confessions completely, and I knew enough not to comment with feigned inaccuracy.
While we spoke and while we listened, Mr. Dali doodled on the house’s paper napkins with a soft pencil. When we left, presumably the napkins were tossed out with our cigarette butts, into the general trash. My wife and I drove Mr. Dali to his hotel in San Francisco, to his wife and Pernod, said a smiling goodbye and returned home to Mill Valley, to a tumble-down shanty in a redwood grove and to three improbably conceited cats. I don’t know where Mr. Thomas went, except that he retreated further into unhappiness.
This memorable evening was in 1949, 1950, or in 1951, I believe. I do remember that it was on the eleventh of July, since that was my birthday. It was cool and foggy for July, welcomely cool. My wife always liked the cool.