An Evening with Salvador Dali and Dylan Thomas

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.

Gabriel Mon­telone Neruda lives in retire­ment in Day­ton, Wash­ing­ton. His poetry and prose have appeared in Arch­i­pel­ago, The New For­mal­ist, Pud­ding Mag­a­zine, River King Poetry Sup­ple­ment and scores of other journals.