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 l949, 1950, or in l951, 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.



It was toward the end of the rainy season of 1949 that my employers sent me to investigate some business in southern Brazil. I was commissioned by Hills Brothers, Folgers, and MJB to search out some new coffees that might suit their individual blends, and I was to arrange to have those coffees shipped to them. I was seeking many millions of dollars in beans.

A new coffee-producing area was coming into the world market from the Brazilian state of Parana, and according to all of our sources these new beans were of inexplicably fine quality. Clearly the trees had been planted and tended properly, and the beans had been harvested in a manner superior to that which we had come to expect from the Portugese Brazilians.

I flew out of São Paulo to Curitiba, in the state of Paraná, and ventured by horse and by jeep to the town of Londrina, and thence by horse and by mule and, sometimes, by jeep, to a new and wild town called Arapongas. This town of Arapongas was far from civilization and from law. Arapongas was a town of men, and the men carried guns and knives, except for the blacks and the half-breeds, who carried machetes.

Arapongas had dirt streets lined with tents. One stone building housed the bank. Several shacks were constructed of small logs and canvas, and a few rooms were available in these shacks. Each room had a hole in a corner of the floor, and chickens and pigs fought for whatever dropped through that hole. A small board and a stone covered the hole most of the time.

Sometimes a mule train arrived from Londrina, bearing supplies. Some of the local farms sold food in an outdoor market. Near the town was what was billed as the biggest tree in the world, and I went there and it was big, very big, and the mules rode around it slowly.

Farther from the town, nazis had constructed a formidable coffee plantation with large houses of logs and canvas, with stables and outbuildings for the storage of beans and the quartering of servants. These nazis were they whom I had been seeking, they who had done such a fine job of the beans.

Their current project was the cutting and the piling and the burning of miles and miles of heavy forest. They had large crews of peasants in camps, guarded as slaves must be guarded. The peasant workers were, I noticed, very heavily fed, for the labor was indeed arduous.

From the big houses to the nearest unsullied woods was about 500 yards. In these immediately adjacent woods was a great canyon that made it impractical to cut and to burn those woods, and numerous were the Indians who lived beyond the verge of that wooded canyon.

Commanded by the Germans, servants during the day would deploy baubles along the verge of the woods, baubles such as beads and the links of broken chains, shards of pottery and glass, shell casings. And in the early dusk the nazis would toss back their schnapps as they sat on their huge porches and used the incoming Indians for a target practice. The Indians didn’t ever quite understand what was occurring, for they wandered childlike and enchantedly among the precious baubles in the clearing.

There were several such forward camps of Germans, and the same sport was enjoyed in each camp I attended.

Once when I returned to our office in Londrina I was informed that one of these outposts had been discovered with its inhabitants brutally murdered, and that small arrows had been found fledging the unclean bodies, and spears. Those Europeans who told me of this atrocity were in deep sorrow among themselves, mournfully pondering the subhuman savagery among which our honorable white races must serve.

As I gazed from face to face in our offices, and as I realized the bitter outrage which was struggling to the surface in each personality, I must confess that I very nearly giggled. I was very young.




Sammy was about four hundred pounds of amiable blubber, tall as a windmill and clumsy as a colt, and Sammy always tried to do the right thing. When Paul and Marilyn were dating, and later when they were actually engaged to be married, and when their parents were so unsympathetic to the match because she was Catholic and he was Jewish and she was years older, Sammy tried in his feckless ineffectual manner so very hard to smooth everybody’s feelings and to placate everybody. Unfortunately, Sammy’s best attempts served only to anger everybody at his own expense, and to appease nobody.

Paul was my closest friend in high school and for a small while after, and though we were too young and too callow ever to explore our psyches together, yet we spent much thoughtless and innocent time together. We dated together many times, he with Marilyn and I with whomever happened to be my love interest at the moment. And sometimes just the three of us would go to the movies or to the beach, and we spent long evenings just watching the television together. After a while they had decided that it was pointless to subject themselves to their parents’ constant bickerings and howlings of remonstrance, so they’d moved into an apartment together and we three spent much time there.

Once upon a time a day appeared when they decided that marriage was the thing. Of course the news was anathema to each of their parents and to each of their siblings, but Paul and Marilyn had grown accustomed to a relentless disapproval and heeded none of the outcry. Announcements were made and mailed concerning a civil ceremony and on the day appointed we all converged inside the old courthouse in San Rafael.

The presiding judge was a pleasant Jewish fellow, which may have pleased Paul’s parents a bit, but which certainly did nothing to assuage the feelings of Marilyn’s parents. Her proud father, watching his baby being ripped from her family by Christ’s murderers and their accomplices, cried openly and inconsolably. Paul’s mother was a proud and indomitable martinet with a Medusa’s glare.

Paul’s family and friends lined one wall of the courthouse chamber, and glared at Marilyn’s family and friends who lined the opposing wall, exchanging glare for glare mercilessly. Of all of those sixty or so folks who were present, I noticed that only a few seemed to have been spared the disease of hatred, and only a few of those few noticed what the atmosphere meant, and portended.

I stood near the judge and the betrothed couple, and the ceremony was performed. Fortunately I hadn’t misplaced the ring and I was conscious enough to surrender it at the proper moment. Everywhere was a great gnashing of teeth and a wringing of hands, and everywhere tears and wailing. The ambience was excruciating, as if everybody were moving and speaking underwater or in flames.

Across town and across the street from that newish and New York Jewish delicatessen called so cleverly The Delicate Essence was a restaurant whose name has been changed so frequently that I cannot now recall what it was called then, and to this restaurant everybody repaired for the wedding reception and its early buffet. We carried our atmosphere with us and we were led into a set of large rooms with an open bar and buffet, and with a large set of tables in one unobtrusive comer.

Still the two tribes held themselves aloof and still they glared at each other, each remaining so intransigently in its allotted righteousness. Hatred was.

Sammy decided to be amiable, and Sammy discovered the cache of champagne and appropriated a bottle and a glass, and Sammy began his appointed rounds through the bitter groupings. To the closest person he strolled, and he stood immediately before that person until that person acknowledged him. Then he smiled at his target and he chatted calmly and he filled each of their glasses with champagne. He brought his glass up to his lips and he poured its contents into his throat, he smiled again, and he walked on to the next person. He repeated the performance continually, sometimes interrupting his progress to fetch another bottle, and then returning precisely to where he had left off.

Tensions held, despite Sammy’s ministrations with the bubbly, and still Paul’s mother held bitter court at the dining table, attended by her friends and by some very quiet husbands. She was attired like a matron-empress, in a low-cut gown from which her voluminous bosom protruded with a cleavage as ample as that more famous Grand Canyon, and her back leaned forward from her chair so the chair wouldn’t wrinkle her fine gown whose couturier’s name was known to every woman in the room. Her hair was newly styled into a rising mass. Her jewels had small names.

Marilyn’s father approached me as I stood apolitically on the rim of the crowd, and as he approached I could see that he was still crying, and I felt sorry for the man. Projecting myself into the future, I could imagine how I would feel had I an only daughter I had loved since birth, a daughter to whom I had said things I could never say to anybody else, and had she married whom I considered to be some Caliban who had been hatched of the earth’s sewage.

When he arrived at me he stopped and he focused and I could see that in his mind the whole world had disappeared and only he and I remained. His eyes swam out of their tears while he focused. "You miscegenist animal," he said, and he swung about and walked away without retreating. From across the room Paul’s mother glared at me malignantly, both for consorting with an enemy and in utter agreement with her enemy.

I could see that Sammy had finally achieved his way to her and that he was humbly, patiently, and smilingly waiting for her to acknowledge his presence, as he held his liquid gift toward her. She felt his presence beside her and she glared up into his half-lidded eyes. His knees sagged for just a moment and he slammed them up into a locking position, and he smiled down on her.

She said something cruel and sharp and he reacted as if he’d been soundly slapped, and again he smiled benignly. He leaned forward over her and his mouth opened and instantly he vomited magnificently onto her. Instantly she was drenched as if by a burning acidic lava and it rolled cascading down her back and it gushed and bubbled from the depths of her intimidating cleavage and along her lap and down her legs and onto her shoes. Her proud hair hung in rags or swung in ropes drippingly, and she was wiping at her eyes and her foamy mouth was sputtering as she lurched to her feet like an enraged and wounded mastodon.

Paul and I raced to Sammy and we carried, pushed, and urged him outside the restaurant to where my car was parked, where we tucked him snoring. When we returned his mother was gone and the emergency seemed almost forgotten. Tension was gone and animosities were gone and everybody was mingling nicely. I did not see Marilyn’s father


©David Castleman,1997



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