Friday 23 February 2018

Roguish Dangerfield, an author's great creation

JP Donleavy could not be more different from his iconic creation, the feckless Sebastian Dangerfield

JP Donleavy
JP Donleavy
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

When I walked through the hallways of Levington Park outside Mullingar and met a tall, stiff, tweed-suited JP Donleavy, who spoke with a soft American drawl, I thought how different he seemed to his feckless, sex-crazed character Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield.

Although modelled on Gainor Stephen Crist, another American ex-pat in Dublin of the late 1940s with money in his pocket and none of the stultifying Jansenism of De Valera's idealised Ireland, this great comic character was really the creation of Donleavy's imagination.

Now, 60 years later, The Ginger Man is still as fresh as it was back when it was first published in July, 1955. Now an Irish citizen, Donleavy still lives in Levington Park where I met him and his second wife Mary in the early 1970s.

While he was friendly but slightly aloof, his wife radiated the beauty and sexiness you expected to surround such a notorious author. It came as something of a shock years later, when it emerged that their two children were fathered by Kieran Guinness and his elder brother Finn, both of whom had affairs with Mary Donleavy. But that is another story.

This one is about The Ginger Man, the book, first published by a Parisian pornographer, that changed many of our lives as we tried to emulate the exploits of the feckless Dangerfield who lived in Blackrock, Co Dublin, with his put-upon wife and child. They were frequently abandoned (just as Crist did in real life), as Dangerfield made sorties to Jack O'Rourke's pub in Blackrock or McDaid's of Harry Street, getting drink on credit and singing his version of The Raggle Taggle Gypsy.

JP Donleavy and Gainor Crist were in Dublin on the GI Bill. They first met in the Pearl Bar in Fleet Street, Dublin, sometime in 1946. Bizarrely, Crist was wearing a yellow jumper belonging to Donleavy, who had lent it to his brother-in-law Randall Hillis, who was living in Howth with another ex-pat Trinity student, George Roy Hill, who went on to make such Hollywood classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.

"The first inkling of the notion of the book that was to become The Ginger Man brewed in Ireland following American Thanksgiving Day of 1949," says Donleavy, who at that point was an artist. "It was upon an afternoon of turkey, sweet potatoes, spices and Beaujolais, feasted over within a tiny house consisting of two cramped rooms, front and back on two floors, at number 1, Newtown Avenue, Blackrock, Co Dublin."

Donleavy was living precariously with his first wife Valerie, firstly in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow. When he ran out of money, he returned to the family home in Woodlawn, New York, and continued writing The Ginger Man there, in Boston and thence back to Kilcoole, the Isle of Man and London.

He submitted an early draft of the book, then called Sebastian Dangerfield or SD, to Charles Scribner and Sons, getting a reply on June 5, 1952, from their senior editor which alluded to the "vigorous and fresh writing talent", but told Donleavy "such a book, for all its talent, would not be publishable".

It was passages such as, "Lilly, I never get tired of your white thirty-four-year-old bubas, buns or beauties. Or will I ever get over how much I like to imagine them under that green pyjama top" that frightened them, sentences that seem tame in a world of Fifty Shades of Grey.

By now, Crist had abandoned his long-suffering wife, Constance, and their two daughters, and left for places unknown with another lover, Pamela, the daughter of a well-to-do family from Limerick.

In the month of August 1954, Donleavy started a second novel A Fairy Tale of New York, at the same time sending a copy of the SD manuscript to the Olympia Press in Paris. He got a letter in reply from the owner/publisher Maurice Girodias saying "we would be glad to consider your manuscript for publication".

It was to be the beginning of a 21-year torturous odyssey for the author and the book.

Negotiations about the book continued until early 1955, concluding with an agreement that Olympia Press would published it for a fee of 250,000 francs (£250 sterling). In a letter dated January 17, 1955, Donleavy proposed The Ginger Man as an alternative title - as it is the very last line in the manuscript

Donleavy's suspicions about his publisher should have been aroused when he received a letter posing the question: "I would like to know whether you want the book to be published under your own name or under a pseudonym? Please think it over. Of course, my firm has a rather scandalous reputation, and it might harm you in some way to publicly admit any connection with us."

Donleavy, remembering the bombastic words of Brendan Behan, who had made the first editorial changes to the manuscript when staying in Kilcoole - "Mike, I'll make a prediction. This book of yours is going to go around the world and beat the bejesus out of the Bible" - did not have second thoughts.

To Donleavy's dismay, The Ginger Man was published by Olympia Press in July 1955 as No 7 in The Travellers Companion series - the rest of which were pornography with titles such as The Enormous Bed, School for Sin and Tender was my Flesh.

That year also marked the last time he saw Gainor Crist. Both were in Paris, but did not meet, and, "sadly, I never saw nor communicated with this strangely aristocratic Midwesterner from Dayton, Ohio, USA again".

Crist had moved to Barcelona on his nomadic wanderings. "But one would envy his death. For he, Crist, would die just as bizarrely as he had lived" wrote Donleavy of the man who inspired one of the great fictional creations of our time.

Diagnosed with TB, he was put into a sanatorium in Spain, but tiring of the confines and the lack of alcohol, signed himself out with just the clothes he was wearing.

Walking along a street in Madrid, he met an old army buddy from 17 years earlier, and in a nearby bar he was offered a position on a ship sailing for South America.

For good luck, the wayward Ginger Man always carried with him at matchbox which contained a small replica of Blessed Oliver Plunkett's head.

For once, the talisman didn't work its magic, a magic that got him out of scrapes over lovers, money and almost everything else. He fell ill on board the ship and was put ashore in Tenerife where he died three days later. Pamela, who had married him in the meantime, and expecting her errant husband home at some point in the future, learned of his death when a bill arrived from the funeral director

"And both George Roy Hill and I, as we once were together out in the midlands of Ireland reminiscing about Crist and recalling some of Gainor's communications, we, for nearly three days round the clock, were holding our stomachs in laughter. Till finally we concluded that the only thing Gainor could have been was a saint," wrote Donleavy.

In the years that followed, The Ginger Man was published in Britain and the United States. The much-rejected manuscript went on to sell 55 million copies, although it was banned in Ireland until 1968.

As various sets of legal proceedings between Donleavy and Olympia Press over the original publication grew more bitter and expensive, the publisher Maurice Girodias put the company into liquidation, intending to buy it back debt and litigation-free. But he hadn't reckoned with the pugnacious Irish-American. On the day of the sale, Donleavy dispatched Mary Wilson Price - who would become his second wife - and his secretary Phyllis MacArdle, "both stunningly beautiful women" to Paris to bid for the company at a public auction.

Every time Girodias bid for, they topped it, and after half an hour, they won.

"And so, with my enemy finally becoming mine, I ended up in the Paris courts actually in litigation with myself. Which I soon and wisely decided to settle," wrote Donleavy. It was a bizarre event which was "atoning for some of my own long-suffered life-and-death struggle in litigation and at last avenging a young author's dream for his work, into which he had put his heart and soul."

The legal case did not finally conclude until 1978.

It is 25 years since I last traversed those old roads on the shores of Lough Owel, past Ballyglass and St Brighid's Well, the smell of new mown hay perfuming the summer air.

Turning left last Monday I came to twin down-at-heel gate lodges, covered in ivy, elder blossom and wild pink roses standing sentry on either side of an old iron gate.

I lifted the latch and proceeded up the rutted driveway, just as it was when the Levinge family built this pile hundreds of years ago. Two stone lions face each other in front of the portico to Levington Park. The doorway stands open.

Philip Donleavy, a can of beer in his hand, comes from the side of the house. Tall, with a shock of white hair, he greets another intruder with exemplary politeness. He explains that he, at almost 90, cannot greet any random visitors. Even Johnny Depp probably makes an appointment. So I cycle away down the boreen slightly relieved. In my youth I may have wanted to be Sebastian Dangerfield, but now I realise that really I had a lucky escape.

The Lilliput Press will publish a new edition of 'The Ginger Man' to mark the 60th anniversary of its publication. All Donleavy quotes taken from 'The History of The Ginger Man' by JP Donleavy published by Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1994

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