On this day, English writer Malcolm Lowry dies at 47 from an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates. Was it accidental, as the inquest ruled? Or suicide, as his wife, Margerie Bonner, suggested? Or was it something more sinister?
Malcolm Lowry was one of the great drunks of literature, leaving behind a trail of broken promises, broken bottles and broken works. He wrote massive amounts of material during his lifetime, but published only two works, both novels: “Ultramarine,” written as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and “Under the Volcano“, considered one of the great novels of the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, it was the bottle that loomed largest in his life, and Lowry was violent when he was drunk. In Mexico, where he had set and written most of “Volcano,” his behavior led to the dissolution of his first marriage, numerous breakdowns and the threat of deportation. In the United States, he met and married Bonner, a former silent film actress, and settled in a squatter’s shack outside Vancouver. There, he found enough serenity to be able to finish his novel.
Published in 1947, “Under the Volcano” was a best-seller in the United States, but after that, Lowry’s life quickly unraveled. When the shack was demolished, he and Bonner were forced to move, first to Sicily, then back to England, to the village of Ripe in East Sussex. There were attempts at sobriety, using aversion therapy and hospitalization, but Bonner’s drinking — she could match him, glass for glass — encouraged him to revert to routine. He would be violent at times, and during a trip to Italy years before had tried to strangle Bonner twice. His health faltered and although he was working on a novel, the chaos made it difficult for him to create. Worse, Bonner seemed to have formed an attachment to a neighbor, Lord Peter Churchill.
This night, events came to a head. There was drinking, as usual, and an argument, as usual. Bonner later told police that, to stop him drinking, she smashed the gin bottle. He threatened her with the broken shards, and she fled, spending the night at a neighbor’s house. When she returned the next morning, she found Lowry on the bedroom floor, dead, amid the debris of broken glass, a splintered furniture and scattered food.
But as Bonner told her story to the police, to friends and to Lowry’s relatives, inconsistencies began to crop up. She wrote to friends that Malcolm had repeatedly threatened to commit suicide and that she had found a note, which she had promptly destroyed, a point she never mentioned to the police.
A bottle containing 20 sleeping pills was missing, yet she had taken one that night at her neighbor’s house. Two hours after the police had searched the room, she found the missing bottle, in a drawer in the spare bedroom. Lowry’s friends were suspicious. They’d seen him with the shakes. The prospect of a drunken, suicidal Lowry able to twist off the cap on a pill bottle, then replacing the cap and hiding the bottle in the next room, seemed too bizarre to be believed.
The truth behind Lowry’s death will probably never be known, except maybe to Lowry, who told a psychiatrist that either he was going to kill Bonner, or she was going to kill him.
Born: Bernard Berenson, art critic, Vilnius, Lithuania, Russian Empire, 1865; Sidney Howard, playwright, screenwriter, Oakland, Calif., 1891; Pearl S. Buck, novelist, short-story writer, Hillsboro, W.Va., 1892; Laurie Lee, poet, memoirist, novelist, Slad, Gloucestershire, 1914; Charlotte Zolotow, children’ s author, Norfolk, Va., 1915; Colin Wilson, novelist, author, Leicester, Leicestershire, 1931; Thomas Boyle, novelist, East Stroudsburgh, Penn., 1939.
Died: Peter Rosegger, poet, novelist, Krieglach, Syria, 1918; Ford Madox Ford (ps. Ford Hermann Hueffer), novelist, editor, critic, Deauville, France, 1939; Kenneth Fearing, novelist, poet, New York City, 1961.
Quote for the Day: “Dr. Miller says we are pessimistic because life seems like a very bad, very screwed-up film. If you ask ‘What the hell is wrong with the projector?’ and go up to the control room, you find it’s empty. You are the projectionist, and you should have been up there all the time.” — Colin Wilson, author, who was born today in 1931
Also from “Writers 365”:
- Howl’s Moving Telegram (1955)
- Lolita Breaks Out (1956)
- When Sylvia bit Ted (1956)
- Raymond Chandler and The Rise of the Zombie Novels (1958)
- The Battle Over Doctor Zhivago (1958)