You are here

Of Historical Note: Physics, Poetry, and Partying with Dylan Thomas

Published 2009

Institute for Advanced Study

In 1946, then Institute Director Frank Aydelotte purchased eleven structures formerly used as World War II barracks to serve as the first Member housing at the Institute. In the late 1950s, Institute Director J. Robert Oppenheimer replaced these buildings with the current Member housing, designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. This view of the Barracks was painted in 1953 by Patricia Clearly Berlin, whose husband Theodore Berlin was then a Member in the School of Mathematics.

An anecdote from spring 1950 as recalled by the late Raoul Bott, Member in the School of Mathematics, to George Dyson, former Director’s Visitor and son of Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus in the School of Natural Sciences:

And we had tremendous wild parties. It was a high point in my life. . . . My wife was interested in poetry and Dylan Thomas came into town and did some readings. And we all went, with my friend Specker too, and it was my wife’s birthday. At about 10:30 in the evening, or maybe 11, we were having a great party in one of those shacks there, and I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to bring Dylan Thomas here now.” So I called the hotel—I was a brash young man—and got Dylan Thomas, and he had been in bed. And he said, “Oh, I’d love to be woken up, by all means,” you know, and he was ready for partying. And so I drove there—we had this 1935 convertible Buick—with my wife, she of course all excited, and right away when he got in the car I could see that there would be a little bit of a problem because obviously she was going to be his girl for the night. So I brought him to the party, which had, in the meantime, cooled a bit, and he opened the door and started in, and there was Mrs. ____ sitting, just like you’re sitting there, near the door. And he said, “My, aren’t you big!” And there was silence in the room, and he later claimed that he loved big women, but somehow the whole party turned into a bit of a nightmare. So, for instance, my friend Specker, who could not speak English too well, he told him, “Well, we liked your reading, but I think you spoke down to the audience a bit, didn’t you?” and Dylan Thomas let loose, swear words of an order that we didn’t use, that were no-nos. So it was quite a fiasco. In the end actually I took him home, and the next day I took him to Princeton Junction to make up for this, and he said, “Well, it was just that you people are all cooped up together all this time, and I was sort of a catalyst . . .”

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2009