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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

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

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