Dear Senor Rebollo:
I am happy to send you a copy (attached) of my article about the last days of Malcolm Lowry from the TLS.
I think the reason that Lowry is not better know and respected in England is that a lot of people think he was a Canadian or even an American writer, and his output was relatively limited. I also suspect that Mexicans have better literary taste than the British.
I know of no celebration for the 60th anniversary of 'The Volcano' in this country. More's the pity.
Please give my regards to all my friends in Mexico City - and, of course, to yourself.
Foul play at White Cottage
Recent reports throw fresh light on the death of Malcolm Lowry.
Mystery has always surrounded the death in 1957 of Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano and a clutch of strangely inspired novels and short stories. He has been variously said to have committed suicide or died of alcoholism. Rumour and suspicion have only deepened the mystery, and it has even been alleged that foul play could have been involved, suspicion falling on Lowry's widow, Margerie. Now, newly released police and coroner's reports throw fresh light on the death of one of England's least acknowledged literary geniuses.
In July 1955, just short of his forty-sixth birthday, Lowry came back to England after living abroad for twenty years, mostly in North America. He had vowed never to return, but, faced with his illness and lack of funds, Margerie had brought him back to benefit from treatment on the National Health Service (still a relative novelty, having been founded in 1948). By August 1956, after hospital therapy, Lowry seemed to be cured of the alcohol-induced psychosis from which he was suffering on arrival, but less than a year later, he was found dead in the strangest of circumstances in a small Sussex village.
Lowry, who had been an alcoholic at least since his undergraduate days at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, published his first novel, Ultramarine, in 1933.
The following year he eloped with an American, Jan Gabrial, and two years later landed up in the psychiatric ward of New York's Bellevue Hospital - the experience which inspired his brilliant surrealist novella, Lunar Caustic. Two years in Mexico with Jan, where he began Under the Volcano, led to more drinking, breakdown and imprisonment, and ended with the collapse of his marriage. Finally, under threat of deportation, he returned to the United States.
In Hollywood, he met Margerie Bonner, a former silent film actress. They married in Canada at the end of 1940, following Lowry's divorce from Jan. In a squatter's shack on the edge of the forest on Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, for Lowry a paradisal setting, he completed Under the Volcano. In February 1947 it was published in New York to great critical acclaim, being greeted as a work of genius and becoming a best-seller. (By contrast, when it appeared that September in England it received a lukewarm reception and was soon remaindered.) In 1950, a grandiose plan (with the working title "The Voyage that Never Ends") to incorporate all Lowry's work in a single edition was commissioned by Harcourt Brace, but after two years the project stalled, and Lowry became entangled in the novel October Ferry to Gabriola, which his publisher rejected. With his contract terminated and the Lowrys' shack scheduled for demolition, Margerie decided, much against Malcolm's wishes, to uproot him and move to Sicily.
On several occasions, away from his Canadian paradise (in Mexico, Haiti and Europe), he had taken to the bottle and become violent. On an earlier trip to Italy he had twice attempted to strangle Margerie and she had tried, unsuccessfully, to have him committed to a Swiss asylum. Now he again became unbalanced and menacing.
The first doctor they saw in London was horrified when Margerie suggested a lobotomy. Malcolm was then given aversion therapy for alcoholism at Wimbledon's Atkinson Morley Clinic, where he told the consultant psychiatrist, Michael Raymond, that either he would murder Margerie or she would murder him.
Raymond concluded that Lowry's problem was the folie a deux in which the couple were trapped, but Margerie refused to leave him, even temporarily, and, after his discharge, they moved into the White Cottage at Ripe in Sussex. There, Malcolm began writing again, seemingly happy in this remote English village, though locals considered him weird - especially after he became violent in the local pub and was barred.
Margerie had taken a fancy to the recently-widowed Lord Peter Churchill. On one occasion, she and Churchill sat drinking gin at the cottage, assuring Malcolm that he was doing the right thing in abstaining. Sickened by their hypocrisy, he promptly fell off the wagon and was soon back with Dr Raymond, having more aversion therapy to which again he seemed to respond. But Raymond was appalled when he broke down after Margerie told him that if he did not recover soon she would abandon him.
Eventually, he was discharged and returned to Ripe, only occasionally attending Raymond's out-patient's clinic in Knightsbridge over the ensuing months. He had published very little for ten years and was still bogged down in October Ferry, a novel that seemed to be stifling his creativity. There was some good news, however - the film rights of Under the Volcano sold and a paperback was due in America. Then, on June 26, 1957, after a two-week holiday in the Lake District, the couple spent the evening at a pub in nearby Chalvington, returning to their cottage to listen to a concert on the radio. According to Margerie, Lowry, despite her protests, came away with a bottle of gin.
In the past, we have had only her inconsistent and sometimes contradictory accounts of what happened next. The official papers now reveal even more inconsistencies in Margerie's versions of events. The story as she told it to Lowry's closest friend went as follows:
Up in their bedroom they drank gin and orange while listening to the concert.
Afterwards she went downstairs to make supper and when she returned Malcolm, still swigging gin, had the radio on full-blast.
Out of consideration for their elderly neighbour, Winnie Mason, Margerie turned down the volume. Malcolm promptly turned it back up again, so she snatched the gin bottle, dashing it against the bedroom fireplace. He then picked up the broken bottle and attacked her. At this, she fled, taking shelter with Mrs Mason next door. From time to time, she told Lowry's first biographer, Douglas Day (Malcolm Lowry: A biography, 1973), she had gone to see if the light was on in the bedroom. It was, and she assumed that Malcolm was working late. Finally, she had taken a sodium amytal pill and slept on Mrs Mason's couch.
Returning to the cottage next morning, she found Lowry dead on the bedroom floor and immediately summoned Mrs Mason. This being a mysterious death, the police were called. An empty bottle of barbiturate tablets prescribed for Margerie was found hidden in a drawer full of her clothes in a spare bedroom.
What now emerges is that she was detained on suspicion but released after questioning. (It may be, as Lowry's friends James Stern and Arthur Calder Marshall thought, that the Sussex police were nervous about pursuing the matter just two months after the failure of their case against Dr Bodkin Adams, the Eastbourne General Practitioner accused of murdering an elderly patient for gain - foreshadowing by forty-five years the Harold Shipman case.) According to the papers released by the East Sussex coroner, the police, who arrived at 10.30am on June 27, found Lowry lying on his back alongside the bed. A broken wooden tray and glass dish lay under his right arm. Food was on the floor, splinters of glass were on his chest, one chair in the room was upturned and another, completely smashed, lay close to the fireplace. A broken gin bottle and broken orange squash bottle were found at the foot of the bed. On a bedside table there was an array of bottles containing tablets.
Margerie told the police that one bottle, containing around twenty of her sodium amytal sleeping pills, was missing, but after a search no bottle was found. In her statement, she said she knew that Lowry had been an alcoholic long before she married him, and although he had been treated for the condition, he had been discharged the previous year as "incurable". After leaving the pub in Chalvington they had arrived home at 8pm and gone straight to the bedroom to listen to the BBC concert. He had, she said, begun to drink the gin in spite of her protests. (There is no mention of her having drunk along with him.) At some point during the evening, she had gone downstairs to prepare a meal and then taken it upstairs on a tray. As they listened to the radio, he continued drinking.
"I asked him not to but he got drunk. To try to stop him, I smashed the bottle on the floor and he got up and hit me. I was afraid and told him I was going next door and (I would) stop the night . . . . The time I left my husband was 10.30pm. I did not return until 9am this morning. I . . . then went upstairs and found my husband lying on the floor. He had not eaten any of the meal I left him." (The post-mortem states otherwise.) She knew nothing of the broken chair, she added, but had smashed the squash bottle herself the previous night, along with the gin bottle. (She did not report to the police, as she did to Douglas Day, that she had taken one of her sleeping pills at Mrs Mason's, which prompts the question, How did she happen to have one with her?) From a second statement made to police later that day, it emerges that it was she who found the empty pill bottle, almost two hours after she had first been interrogated and after the police had searched the premises. She had, she said, discovered this bottle, which had contained her twenty sleeping tablets, hidden in a drawer in the spare bedroom. "My husband", she now told the police, "had on previous occasions said I should be better off without him and threatened to take his life . . . . The times he threatened suicide were when he was depressed through alcoholism."
Mrs Mason, in her statement, said that Margerie had knocked on her door looking "poorly and worked up" at about 10.15pm. She told her, "Malcolm and I have had a quarrel, a very bad one. Can I sleep in here for the night?". A camp bed was made up for her to sleep on.
Around midnight, she looked out and saw that all the lights were on in the White Cottage. However, she was not aware that Margerie had left the house at all after her arrival that night, she being a light sleeper and having a dog on the premises. She put Margerie's return to the cottage at 8.30am.
"She came running back shortly afterward, saying, 'Malcolm's gone . . . I think he's dead'." That same day Margerie telephoned Lowry's friend David Markson in New York to break the news. She also spoke to other friends of Lowry's; James Stern found her "incoherent", while John Davenport immediately volunteered to go down to Ripe from London to help arrange the funeral. In a call to her sister, Priscilla, in Hollywood, she said, as she had to the police, that Malcolm had committed suicide, probably for her.
In a series of letters written over the following three weeks to Markson, she again reiterated the suicide story, casting herself in a suitably dramatic role.
"What did he think, feel, when he did it?" she wrote. "That he'd let me down, I'd be better without him? What mad folly! Why, why, why did he do it? Do you know, against every belief I've ever held." Then, as if aware of others' suspicions regarding her - if not that she wanted Malcolm dead, at least that she failed to take care of him - she added, "If I'd gone back at 1am he'd have been alive now. Never, never forgive me as I shall never never forgive myself. But please don't hate me too much, though I'll understand if you do." However, she was already simultaneously offering a different version of events and hinting darkly at a hidden reality. "Only Jimmy Stern and John Davenport here and my sister in America know the truth and none of them knows it all or knows really. The official version is that he died suddenly in his sleep, which is all too true."
For many of Lowry's friends, though, neither "suicide" nor "died in his sleep" rang true.
They detected Margerie's hand in Malcolm's untimely death. Harvey and Dorothy Burt, neighbours from Dollarton, had turned up and were struck by her bizarre and hysterical behaviour. As they arrived, she was very agitated. "They think I murdered him!" she told them, then claimed to have found a suicide note, which she had promptly destroyed. "He must have done it for me", she said. In her statement to the police, however, no note was mentioned.
According to the Burts, for their benefit Margerie put on theatrical displays of grief, vowing to starve herself, but Dorothy surprised her in the kitchen late at night guzzling a chicken. The now-suspicious Burts were also sceptical about Malcolm having taken the barbiturates himself - he was so stricken with the shakes when they had last seen him they thought him incapable of twisting the top off a pill-bottle. In fact, the police report now reveals that not only was the bottle empty but the top had been screwed back on again and the bottle then hidden. Why on earth, asked his friends, would a drunken man intent on suicide first swallow a bottle of pills, carefully screw back the top, and then go to the trouble of hiding the bottle in a drawer in a spare bedroom? All this only went to confirm the Burts' misgivings. They remembered Margerie saying that as a writer Malcolm was finished, and found that she had been phoning Peter Churchill non-stop since Malcolm's death.
David Markson was also sceptical of Margerie's version of events. Once, at his New York flat, he had caught her feeding large numbers of pills to a submissive Lowry. Asked what she was doing, she said they were vitamin tablets that helped him to survive his hangovers. He was, therefore, used to standing obediently, mouth open, swallowing pills fed to him by Margerie.
Had she wanted to feed him sleeping pills he would have gulped them down without a murmur.
To Lowry's more suspicious friends, therefore, Margerie had the motive (hankering after Churchill), the means (the pill-feeding ritual) and the opportunity (the cottage after dark) to dispose of him. The pills were prescribed to Margerie, and the empty bottle was hidden in a drawer full of her clothes. They were convinced in their own minds that foul play had occurred.
At the inquest, Margerie and Mrs Mason were chief witnesses, confirming the account of events given in their statements to the police. The coroner's verdict was "Death by Misadventure", and the causes of death given as inhalation of stomach contents, barbiturate poisoning, and excessive consumption of alcohol. The devout Mrs Mason had dearly hoped for this verdict; it meant that Malcolm could be buried in consecrated ground.
Interestingly enough, Margerie's suggestion of suicide was dismissed. Clearly, she was not regarded by either the police or the court as a particularly credible witness. As the police reports make evident, her exact whereabouts on the night of June 26/27 were the main focus of their investigation. The investigating officer also noted that the very large number of drugs in the bedroom were all prescribed to her. To the police and coroner, Mrs Mason supported Margerie's account of events; in later interviews she did not. In a BBC television interview in 1966, she did not mention Margerie spending the night with her, saying instead that she had remained in the White Cottage, sleeping in the spare bedroom.
The inconsistency of her evidence does suggest that for the benefit of the police and coroner she had agreed a version of events to suit her distraught neighbour.
(Writing to Lowry's French translator on August 9, Margerie also says she was in the cottage that night but sleeping apart from her husband.) After the inquest, Margerie changed her story, reacting angrily to the very suggestion of suicide, especially after it had been hinted at in Malcolm's New York Times obituary. What no one in England knew was that her first husband, the son of a Californian automobile tycoon, had also been an alcoholic, and had killed himself just six years into their marriage.
It is now clear from the police reports that neither they nor the coroner knew anything of the wider circumstances surrounding Lowry's death. Dr Raymond was not called as a witness, so they knew nothing of Lowry's saying that either he would kill Margerie, or vice versa; they knew nothing of her wanting to have him committed, or that (according to him) she had destroyed some of his work; they knew nothing of the suspicions of Lowry's friends that he was incapable of unscrewing a pill bottle-top or, when drunk, of screwing it back on again, and nothing of Margerie's habit of feeding him pills. If Dr Raymond's clinical notes are to be relied on, Margerie also lied to the court about Lowry having been discharged from the Atkinson Morley hospital as "incurable". The doctor judged otherwise.
A further anomaly that remains unexplained is to be found in her statement to Markson that, had she returned to the cottage at 1am, she could have saved him. In her letter she underlined the sentence. But the autopsy quoted at the inquest shows that the pathologist was unable to establish an exact time of death. She also told the police that Lowry had been drinking gin from 7.15pm until 10.30pm; she told Markson that within fifteen minutes of starting on the gin Malcolm was raving.
Although Margerie had not informed the Lowry family, John Davenport had, and Malcolm's eldest brother, Stuart, flew from France to attend the funeral on July 3. He also went away with dark misgivings. As a result, the Lowrys launched a legal action to prevent Margerie ever receiving the capital left in trust for Malcolm by his father. The Burts remained convinced that Lowry had been murdered and that the police had swallowed Margerie's and Mrs Mason's version of that evening's events too readily.
If Lowry was, as his Canadian friends believed and others strongly suspected, the victim of foul play, it would make him one of a select group of English authors to have met his end in this way, the most notable apart from himself being one of Lowry's favorite playwrights, Christopher Marlowe.
Times Literary Supplement: 20 February 2004