A personal life almost as tangled as his likeable rake’s
The Ginger Man was JP Donleavy’s only hit – but what a classic, writes Liam Collins
IN some ways, JP Donleavy was a one-hit wonder with his novel The Ginger Man — but what a hit it was.
The tragic/comic chronicle of the dissolute life of Sebastian Dangerfield in bohemian Dublin in the late 1940s, an era now bookended by the death of its author in Mullingar at the age of 91, has sold tens of millions of copies since its 1955 publication. He was something of a Renaissance man, a writer, artist, pugilist and advocate of ‘real tennis’.
Despite relatively humble beginnings in New York, he later affected an Anglo-Irish lifestyle in Levington Park, a rambling pile on the shores of Lough Owel outside Mullingar, where he came to live in the early 1970s, after returning to Ireland in 1969 to avail of Charlie Haughey’s tax exemption for writers and artists.
I first met him there in the 1970s, an erect, polite figure with neatly trimmed beard, impeccably dressed in a threepiece tweed suit, and very different from the figure I’d imagined propping up the bar of McDaid’s of Harry Street, Dublin, with Behan, Cronin, O’Nuallain and a raggle-taggle collection of writers, artists, chancers and IRA men. He showed us around his grey mansion and, if I remember correctly, it comprised four adjoining wings with a courtyard in the middle, converted into a swimming pool.
His typewriter was on a lectern in the middle of one of the rooms and it was there he worked, turning books like A Singular Man, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and what the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature calls “numerous increasingly facetious works”. His second book, A Fairy Tale of New York, later inspired Shane McGowan’s song.
Donleavy was also quite a distant figure in the community where he lived and was not particularly well liked.
But it was The Ginger Man (1955), based on the drinking, womanising and chaotic lifestyle of his fellow Trinity College student, Gainor Stephen Crist, re-cast as Sebastian Dangerfield, which enthralled generations of rebellious writers and musicians, and had the actor Johnny Depp calling to his Westmeath mansion with unfulfilled dreams of turning the story into a movie.
Despite the outward settled appearance as a country squire, his own personal life turned out to be almost as tangled as that of his outrageous anti-hero. This exotic twist came in 2011 when it was revealed that his second wife Mary, a beautiful woman who did the shopping in Mullingar in a blue Daimler, had conducted affairs with two Guinness brothers, who had fathered her two children 30 years before.
John Patrick Donleavy was born on April 23, 1926 when his parents lived in a period house in Brooklyn Heights, although the family soon moved to Woodlawn in the Bronx. His father, an Irish-born fireman, came to regard his son as far too ‘English’ in outlook – but his ‘faithful’ mother supported him financially well into his 30s, when he became a successful author. He had an elder sister, Rita, and a younger brother, Thomas, who died last year. He was expelled from Fordham School and later attended the Catholic Roosevelt High and Manhattan Preparatory schools before attending the US Naval Academy.
He later said he got his real education in the New York Athletic Club off 5th Avenue, where he became an accomplished boxer, as some Dublin ‘gurriers’ and others who challenged him would later find out.
He first came to Ireland to attend Trinity College Dublin in 1946 under the ‘GI Bill’, which allowed servicemen to resume their studies. Dublin and Paris, being cheap at the time, were favoured destinations with intellectual Americans. JP, or ‘Mike’ as he was known in Dublin by his boon companions, Gainor Crist, John Ryan, Brendan Behan, Eddie Connell, Des McNamara, Tony McInerney, Carlo Gebler, Edna O’Brien, among others, was an American Irishman, rather than Irish American.
Abandoning his studies and digs in Trinity, he embraced the bohemian life before marrying his first wife, Valerie Heron, a sister of his Trinity roommate, Michael Heron, who came originally from Ilkley, in Yorkshire. They set up home in a very basic cottage and adjoining ‘studio’ in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, where he painted exotic nudes and occasionally exhibited in London.
As his fellow ‘draft’ students began to scatter, having completed their studies, he reflected on their charmed lives in Dublin. “The first inklings of the notion of the book that was to become The Ginger Man brewed in Ireland following American Thanksgiving Day of 1949,” he later wrote. “I sensed that the ... benign, elegantly cloistered life within the sanctum of Trinity College which we had enjoyed and to which we had all originally come, were finally over.”
He wrote the book in Kilcoole and later The Isle of Man where he moved for a time, and eventually New York, to which he returned to avoid the temptations of literary Dublin. The manuscript fin said. ished, he considered various titles, including Sebastian Dangerfield, which was the working title, before settling on The Ginger Man.
To his dismay, the manuscript was rejected as too bawdy by a number of well-known publishers, particularly Scribner’s, which considered it seriously. Then his friend Behan advised him to try a less obvious route. The Ginger Man was first published in Paris in 1955 by the pornographer Maurice Girodias and his Olympic Press. It was No7 in The Traveller’s Companion series, which included such classics as School of Sin, White Thighs and Whip Angels. Litigation between himself and Girodias and his successors in the Olympic Press dragged on for the next 21 years “variously fought in London, Paris and New York”, he said. These ended in 1978 when Donleavy was awarded the publishing house or, as he put it, “became the owner of my enemy” to finally settle the case. “As I now sit looking at that same first edition published to my horror all those years ago and selling at its modest price in French francs, this selfsame copy resides now a treasure in my archives, having increased in value many a hundred times
over” he wrote in The History of The Ginger Man, published in 1994.
The book was first published in England in December 1956 by Neville Spearman Ltd to mixed reviews, “the best of the praising ones overwhelming the dissenters” he The writer Peter Shaffer wrote: “The Ginger Man does not sell out. He lives definitely without compromise – and without proceeding virtue either.”
After divorcing Valerie, with whom he had two children, Philip and Karen, he moved to a country house in Co Meath before marrying the actress Mary Wilson Price and moving to Levington Park. Mary Donleavy became Master of the Westmeath Hunt and, as he said many years later, “would organise these parties down by the lake with bonfires, dancing, music and a pig roasting on a spit” while he wrote and painted. The couple, who reared two children, divorced in 1988. DNA tests taken at the time revealed that Donleavy was not their father. Their parentage was kept secret for almost 30 years until the Daily Telegraph revealed in 2011 that the elder, Rebecca was a daughter of Mary and of Kieran Guinness, and Rory the son of Mary and of Kieran’s brother Finn who Mary later married.
“When we moved to England we became totally differ- ent people,” Rebecca, a fashion writer, said. “We changed our names, changed everything. Our parents are farmers.”
They all, however, maintained a cordial relationship with Donleavy and often visited him. Last year, while staying in Mullingar, I cycled out to Levington Park, opened the unlocked iron gates, which are flanked by derelict gatehouses, and went up the grassy drive to what, from the outside, looks like a slightly dishevelled mansion.
JP’s oldest son Philip was sitting in the sunshine, but said his father was unable to receive visitors.
As to his muse, Gainor Crist, who came originally from Dayton, Ohio, “he died as bizarrely as he lived”, according to Donleavy. “I may have been the only man on earth to know that he meant no harm to those close to him,” he said. These included his abandoned wife Constance, their two young daughters and his second wife Pamela.
After various adventures together in New York, Crist and Donleavy separated in London. Crist travelled to Spain and when walking down a street in Madrid met an old US army comrade. They went on a drinking spree before embarking on a cruise ship. Crist fell ill and was put ashore on the island of Tenerife where, “beloved of the nurses” he died three days later. Not even the silver medallion of Oliver Plunkett’s head, fashioned by sculptor Des McNamara, which he carried around in a match box, could save him. He was buried in a pauper’s grave and his wife only found out about his death when she got the undertaker’s bill three months later.
JP Donleavy’s sister Rita told the New York Times that her brother died of a stroke in Mullingar Hospital last September 11 at the age of 91.
‘It was first rejected as too bawdy by a number of publishers...’
WORTH ITS WEIGHT: A first edition copy of ‘The Ginger Man’, published in 1955 by the Olympia Press in Paris