Ac­claimed au­thor of ‘comic song of sex’

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - JP Don­leavy

Hav­ing served in the United States Navy dur­ing the sec­ond World War, he ar­rived in Dublin in 1946 to study science at Trin­ity

JP Don­leavy, who has died at the age of 91, was best known as the au­thor of The Gin­ger Man, the crit­i­cally ac­claimed comic mas­ter­piece. It is es­ti­mated that it sold over 50 mil­lion copies in more than 20 lan­guages, and it has never been out of print. Banned in Ire­land for 20 years, it was nev­er­the­less hugely pop­u­lar among Ir­ish read­ers.

The book tells the story of the booz­ing, wom­an­is­ing, Se­bas­tian Danger­field and his pur­suit of the chaste Miss Lilly Frost. It was first pub­lished in 1955 by the Olympia Press, Paris, as part of the Trav­ellers’ Com­pan­ion se­ries along with such ti­tles as Char­i­ots of Flesh, Rogue Women and School for Sin. Don­leavy was pub­licly ou­traged that his book was mar­keted as pornog­ra­phy, but pri­vately ac­knowl­edged that the re­sul­tant no­to­ri­ety boosted sales.

He sued the pub­lisher, Mau­rice Giro­dias, over the rights to the book, en­ter­ing into lit­i­ga­tion that was con­ducted in courts in Lon­don, Paris and New York and which con­tin­ued for 21 years. Don­leavy not only emerged vic­to­ri­ous but also bought the Olympia Press.

James Pa­trick Don­leavy was born on April 23rd, 1926 in Brook­lyn, New York, one of the three chil­dren of an Ir­ish im­mi­grant fam­ily. When he was seven, the fam­ily moved to Wood­lawn in the Bronx. His par­ents were com­fort­ably off and he spent his teenage years “in a cu­ri­ous fairy­land of priv­i­lege”. Not ev­ery­thing in the gar­den was rosy, how­ever, and he was ex­pelled from sev­eral high schools for bad be­hav­iour.

He was more at home at the New York Ath­letic Club, where box­ing was his cho­sen sport. Although he never fought com­pet­i­tively, in later life he liked it to be known that he could use his fists and boasted of his “vi­o­lent rep­u­ta­tion”.

Hav­ing served in the United States navy dur­ing the sec­ond World War, he ar­rived in Dublin in 1946 to study science at Trin­ity Col­lege. He was not short of money. “My GI Bill of Rights plus an al­lowance sent by my faith­ful mother gave me a con­sid­er­able in­come,” he said.

Don­leavy aban­doned his stud­ies to pur­sue a ca­reer in paint­ing and set up a stu­dio in Kil­coole, Co Wick­low. Spe­cial­is­ing in “risqué fe­male nudes”, he held three solo ex­hi­bi­tions at the Dublin Pain­ters’ Gallery on St Stephen’s Green. Ag­grieved by some press re­views, no­tably in The Ir­ish Times, he felt that his work would be bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ated in Lon­don. He ap­proached the Red­fern Gallery there, but was told that he was not suf­fi­ciently well known for his work to be ex­hib­ited. Fu­ri­ous, he re­solved to write a book that would make him known “in ev­ery nook and cranny all over the world”. In the sum­mer of 1951 he be­gan work on The Gin­ger Man.

Don­leavy had been pub­lished in John Ryan’s En­voy .He was part of the co­terie of artists, writ­ers and erst­while repub­li­cans that gath­ered in McDaid’s of Harry Street and fre­quented the Cat­a­combs, the Fitzwilliam Square base­ment that hosted af­ter-hours drink­ing. The com­pany in­cluded Bren­dan Be­han, An­thony Cronin, Des­mond MacNa­mara and a fel­low-stu­dent and com­pa­triot of Don­leavy’s, Gainor Crist, who was the in­spi­ra­tion for Se­bas­tian Danger­field.

‘Li­bel and ob­scen­ity’

Hav­ing com­pleted the book on his re­turn to the US in 1952, Don­leavy sub­mit­ted it to the Bos­ton pub­lish­ing house, Lit­tle, Brown and Co. It was re­jected. “There’s li­bel and there’s ob­scen­ity in that book!” he was told.

The edi­tor-in-chief of Scrib­ner’s, John Paul Miller, was more pos­i­tive, quot­ing col­leagues who de­scribed it as the “best man­u­script” ever sub­mit­ted to the com­pany. He greatly re­gret­ted, there­fore, that it was “un­pub­lish­able”. Don­leavy moved to Lon­don. “My life lit­er­ally de­pended on get­ting this book into print, and when I couldn’t, it just drove me out of Amer­ica.”

It was Bren­dan Be­han who rec­om­mended the Olympia Press, telling him: “This book of yours will go round the world and beat the be­jay­sus out of the Bi­ble.” Le­gal prob­lems aside, The Gin­ger Man was a great suc­cess. The Manch­ester Guardian praised an “out­ra­geous and fan­tas­tic com­edy” while, on the other side of the At­lantic, Dorothy Parker de­scribed it as “a rigadoon of ras­cal­ity, a bawled-out comic song of sex”.

A tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion was broad­cast by the BBC and in Septem­ber 1959 a stage ver­sion, with Richard Har­ris in the lead role, was pro­duced at the For­tune Theatre, Lon­don. The play re­ceived a hos­tile re­cep­tion from the press when it trans­ferred to the Gai­ety Theatre, Dublin. Fol­low­ing an ap­proach to the Gai­ety man­age­ment by a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Arch­bishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, the play was taken off af­ter three nights.

The Gin­ger Man prompted crit­ics to com­pare Don­leavy favourably to Joyce and Flann O’Brien, a com­par­i­son that failed the test of time. In his sub­se­quent work he re­tained the trade­mark stac­cato style, the pen­chant for ex­ple­tives and al­lit­er­a­tions as well as the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sex. His nov­els were de­scribed as Oedi­pal fairy tales. He was ac­cused of mis­an­thropy, misog­yny and anti-Semitism. And he was ac­cused of re­peat­ing him­self. None of which cut much ice with him. A bad review, he in­sisted, is al­ways writ­ten by a bad writer.

Blink­ered view

He wrote two te­dious “en­ter­tain­ments”, The Un­ex­pur­gated Code: A Com­plete Man­ual of Sur­vival and Man­ners (1975) and De Al­fonce Ten­nis: The Su­perla­tive Game of Ec­cen­tric Cham­pi­ons, Its His­tory, Ac­cou­trements, Rules, Con­duct, and Reg­i­men (1984). In a dif­fer­ent vein, A Sin­gu­lar Coun­try (1989) presents a blink­ered view of Ire­land in a text pep­pered with “be­dads” and “be­gor­rahs”.

In 1967 Don­leavy be­came an Ir­ish cit­i­zen. In the early 1970s he pur­chased Lev­ing­ton Park, a 180-acre es­tate on the shores of Lough Owel near Mullingar. There, in the 20-room house he lived the life of an Ir­ish gentle­man, dressed in tweeds and speak­ing in the mea­sured drawl of the van­ish­ing gen­try. Mick and Bianca Jag­ger were guests and Billy Con­nolly sent Christ­mas cards. He rode with the West­meath Hunt and fur­ther amused him­self by set­ting the dogs on vis­i­tors.

His writ­ing won many awards in the US. His paint­ings were in­ter­mit­tently ex­hib­ited in the US and Europe, most re­cently in Dublin in Fe­bru­ary 2006. He reg­u­larly con­trib­uted to pub­li­ca­tions in­clud­ing the Times, the New York Times and Pent­house. The stage ver­sion of The Gin­ger Man was re­vived in Dublin in 1999.

Don­leavy had no sen­ti­men­tal at­tach­ment to his adopted coun­try; rather he was drawn to Ire­land by the tax-free scheme for artists. In 2005 he dis­posed of his ex­ten­sive lit­er­ary ar­chive, in­clud­ing the orig­i­nal man­u­script of The Gin­ger Man. His ex­pressed pref­er­ence was for the pa­pers to re­main in Ire­land, but he wanted “ap­pro­pri­ate re­mu­ner­a­tion”. An Amer­i­can univer­sity ac­quired the ar­chive for a seven-fig­ure sum that no Ir­ish li­brary could match.

He mar­ried, firstly, Va­lerie Heron and, se­condly, Mary Wil­son Price; both mar­riages were dis­solved. His chil­dren Philip, Karen, Re­becca Wal­lis and Rory sur­vive him.

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