The late, great JP Donleavy can never, ever be replaced
There was always magic and mischief to discover with the late author, JP Donleavy, writes Victoria Mary Clarke
‘ISHOULD warn you, he does have a shotgun. And he doesn’t like trespassers.” Marina Guinness spoke these words to me while we were already trespassing at Levington Park, the Mullingar estate of the late JP Donleavy.
The year was 2001 and Marina was on a mission to get me writing for the Sunday Independent. She had drawn up a list of potential interviewees and Donleavy was at the top. Reportedly reclusive, rumoured to be a misogynist, and undoubtedly a literary genius, I was thrilled to be meeting the creator of The Ginger Man. The living legend was not at home — but we found him in a pub in Mullingar.
A slender, sprightly figure, elegantly attired in tailored tweeds, with a beatnik beard, he spoke very softly with an old-money American accent, and had piano player’s fingers to match the elongated vowels.
I was later told that his Irish-born father had trained for the priesthood at Maynooth before deciding instead to grow orchids in Brooklyn — while his mother had left Galway as a teenager to work as a paid companion to a rich lady, whereupon she got to develop expensive tastes and went on to amass enough money to be able to lend some to De Valera.
It was arranged that I should visit Levington the following weekend.
That first evening, he opened the door in a tracksuit, and by way of a welcome drink, I was offered well water. He never drank while working, he explained. Not what I was expecting from a friend of Brendan Behan.
He was, it seemed quite a health freak. He had studied microbiology and was fascinated by optimum nutrition long before probiotics became a thing. He explained that all the vegetables were organic and home grown, back in The Bronx, where he grew up. He rarely ate anything for dinner except fish and chopped garlic, although for guests he roasted organic beef from his own farm, which would be served in the magnificent red dining room with paint peeling off the walls and a roaring fire in a fossilised Kilkenny marble fireplace, with the smell of burning orange peel which he dried especially for that purpose.
My bedroom was so quiet that I overslept, and when I came downstairs, he was nowhere to be seen. But he had left freshly squeezed orange juice for me, accompanied by wheatgerm and molasses (for the iron and the B vitamins.)
I later discovered that he would only breakfast with you on Sundays when you could expect to find him excitedly checking the Sunday Independent for titbits about people he knew. Newspapers would never be thrown out, in case there was something he had missed.
After breakfast, Donleavy appeared with a photographer for whom he was demonstrating his lightning-fast punches. “Seven punches a second, so fast you can’t see them.”
He had been a keen boxer while at Trinity, partly he said because of his beard.
“There was no such thing as a beard in Ireland in 1946. I couldn’t walk into a bar without getting into a fight. So I train every morning. Four hundred punches with six-pound weights.”
Donleavy did not consider modesty to be a virtue. He dressed like landed gentry, but he never adopted their self-pity or self-doubt. He was eternally enraptured with himself and his surroundings.
On the Sunday morning that my interview with him was published I waited to see whether he would be offended. He told me that it was the best interview that had ever been written. He would big up friends so much that their heads exploded. When I gave him my book Angel In Disguise? to read, he wrote, “This book will beat the bejaysus out of the Bible”. If he thought you were pretty, you became the most exquisite creature that ever lived.
The kitchen at Levington was, he said “the work of the second wife”. I was fascinated by his love life, and often pressed him on the subject of MWP — the second wife. He kept a photo of her in the hall, strikingly beautiful in riding clothes. He was infuriatingly reticent about women.
“But what did you really FEEL about them?” I would demand to know — to which he would reply tantalisingly that they were lovely people.
It was only when I came across a collection of autobiographical pieces called An Author and his Image, that some real juice emerged.
“Young, beautiful women leave old, charming men,” he wrote. “And all you have ever tried to do is make womenfolk content. And they will either kill you or leave you for that.”
Reading the rest of that book taught me that while he relished the telling of a great story in person, he was more revealing of his soul in print. He never spoke to me about loneliness, but he wrote that “Now the last of the ladies had left, I was teetering over my abyss of solitude so deep that it dries up the soul”. And later in the same piece: “In aloneness you cry out in anguished pain, where do any of us go to find love. When no one wants anyone who wants to be wanted.”
For the 50th anniversary of The Ginger Man ,we went to New York for a celebration. That night, Donleavy was to meet Johnny Depp for the first time. Johnny was interested in making a film of the book.
“I’m terrified of meeting him,” he told me. “He seems to have an electrifying effect on people.”
Donleavy was childlike in his enthusiasm for the glamour of Hollywood and movie stars. Whenever the phone rang, whether for you or for him, he would say “That’s Hollywood!”
But I got the impression that it was a game which he never took very seriously — certainly never as seriously as making sure to eat raw garlic. And he was not comfortable with crowds.
“People like Johnny and Shane are used to it,” he said. “But I like to observe, I don’t want to be observed.”
When the two magnificent men did meet, they formed an immediate bond. “He is a practical man,” Donleavy told me afterwards. “You could put him out there castrating cattle. And he has a tremendous interest in chemistry, and chemical matters, as have I.”
Shane had also been nervous about meeting Donleavy, whom he revered as a writer — but again the connection was immediate and unconditional, indeed it was devotional. He decided that Shane must play Brendan Behan in the film of The Ginger Man, and took great pleasure in showing him the original manuscript — with Brendan Behan’s notes all over the pages.
Any time you visited Mike (as he was always known to friends), you were offered an American-style tour, which was likely to include the manuscript and all the other books. You would be given a carefully chosen blackthorn stick for walking the muddy lane to the lake, past the field of bulls (quite terrifying) and the dry-stone walls which he would pause to admire, and which were, he would remind you, made with his own bare hands.
You might visit the algae-covered swimming pool, the musty sauna, and the rusty old Daimler — all of which, in the light of his appreciation for them, you could picture restored to their former grandeur. If you were really lucky, the shotguns might come out and you could be shooting bottles off a wall together.
But Mike was essentially an introvert, and would suddenly retreat to an upstairs room with a door marked ‘Danger, keep out’. Which reminded you that you were only getting the tour that he wanted you to get.
I arrived at Levington that first day excited to be in the company of a writer so brilliant, so glamorous, so important in the world. But what I discovered was someone much more impressive. Someone who could make everyone feel magnificent, important, and enchanting. Someone who could make you feel that whether you were in Claridge’s, in Hollywood or in Ireland — “a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic” — there was always magic and mischief to be discovered.
I do not exaggerate when I say that such a marvellous man has never before existed nor can ever be replaced.
‘He was eternally enraptured with himself’
FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK: Author JP Donleavy, Victoria Mary Clarke and Shane MacGowan in The Shelter on Vicar Street, Dublin in 2007. Photo: Tony Gavin
TAKE AIM: Victoria and ‘Mike’ (JP) get out the guns at Levington. Photo: Kyran O’Brien