Page last updated at 07:47 GMT, Saturday, 26 July 2008 08:47 UK

Take a bite of Dylan's Big Apple

By Carolyn Hitt

Aeronwy Thomas in New York
Carolyn Hitt [L] listens to Dylan Thomas's daughter Aeronwy

Dylan Thomas was New York's first poetic pop star, drawing 1,000-strong audiences to the hugely popular readings he made in venues across the city in the early 1950s.

Under Milk Wood was premiered here and Manhattan still cherishes the connection.

More than 50 years later I was privileged to be among a group of enthusiastic literary groupies taking a bite of the Big Apple Thomas would have known.

We were on the trial run of a new Dylan Thomas walking tour of New York, run by the Wales International Centre (WIC), which promotes all things Cymric on the other side of the Atlantic.

Her father gazed down at us from his portrait next to the bar. As we raised a pint to his memory, he looked as if he approved

Catrin Brace of the WIC had gathered a group of experts, including Thomas's American publisher and representatives from New York's cultural and tourist industries to test the route.

We also had the ultimate authority - Dylan's daughter Aeronwy, who had been touring America with Swansea poet Peter Thabit Jones giving talks and readings.

Like most tourists, we were familiar with the clichés of 18 straight whiskies and riotous nights at the Chelsea Hotel and White Horse Tavern. But the aim of this journey through Dylan's New York was to see beneath the stereotype.

Map of the tour route
A map shows the route people taking part in the tour can follow
Ethereal in appearance and slightly mischievous in manner, Aeronwy was compelling company, bringing her father - and mother Caitlin - to life through personal anecdotes.

Our first stop on the tour was one of the last places Thomas was connected with - the Church of St Luke's in the Field. This was the site of his memorial service on 13 November 1953.

Caitlin had taken her place in the front pew while the congregation included poet E E Cummings and sculptor David Slivka. Later that day, Caitlin accompanied the body of her husband back to Britain.

As the sound of a practising choir floated into its grounds, Aeronwy read a poem in the churchyard.

Pausing at a favourite Thomas watering hole - Chumley's speakeasy, where the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck and F Scott Fitzgerald also once supped - we headed for the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

The venue hosted several of Thomas's performances - and it was also where Barbra Streisand had her first job as an usherette.

The Dylan Thomas tour group
Members of the tour group, including Aeronwy Thomas (centre).

Here, Aeronwy read one of her own more humorous poems. In it, she ticked off Bob Dylan for never publicly admitting his debt to his namesake in changing his surname.

The tour took in three more intriguing drinking and dining haunts, the Minetta Tavern, the San Remo Café and The Dove - where Thomas struck his poetry recording deals - en route to the Washington Square Hotel.

In Thomas's time it was the Hotel Earle, his sanctuary after being chucked out of the grander Beekman hotel for excessive socialising.

When we reached St Vincent's Hospital where Dylan died on 9 November 1953, the mood turned poignant. Aeronwy dismissed the usual story of his demise from alcohol poisoning.

The 18 whiskies of legend were more likely to have numbered six while she believes an accidental morphine overdose was the real cause of his death.

Waiting in the White Horse Tavern to round off the tour was David Slivka, the sculptor and great friend of Dylan.

Now 94, he was born on the same day as the poet and was there on his last day, making the death mask that is now exhibited at Swansea's Dylan Thomas Centre. Charismatic and charming, he filled the room with stories about the times they shared.

Aeronwy held the tavern rapt with her reading of And Death Shall Have No Dominion. Her father gazed down at us from his portrait next to the bar. As we raised a pint to his memory, he looked as if he approved.



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