The best of enemies... letters tell the tale of JP's Ginger classic
A treasure trove of letters reveal deep rifts between the iconoclasts who inspired 'The Ginger Man', writes Liam Collins
While it has not yet lived up to Brendan Behan's prophesy that it would "beat the bejasus out of the Bible", The Ginger Man has sold millions of copies around the world and spawned an industry once presided over by its author, JP Donleavy, and continued by his literary heirs, his adult children Philip and Karen.
Last Tuesday night, exactly a year after his death on September 11, 2017, friends gathered in Dublin for the publication of The Ginger Man Letters, a correspondence between Donleavy, Gainor Crist, the model for Sebastian Dangerfield his feckless fictional anti-hero, and fellow American, Arthur Kenneth (AK) Donoghue, their Trinity College companion.
Edited by Bill Dunn, it spans the relatively short and chaotic life of Crist and the longer lives of Donleavy and Donoghue, who, in later life, fell out over the making of a loaf of brown bread and never spoke again.
Through these letters roam a cast of characters from bohemian Dublin, flitting between the watering holes of McDaids, The Bailey, Grogan's and The Catacombs. Gainor Crist, Brendan Behan, Desmond McNamara, Tony McInerney and various others were immortalised in Donleavy's book. And, after publication, they were replaced by a new cast, including Robert Redford, Richard Harris and Johnny Depp who wanted to play the part of the rascally ''Dangerfield'', whose odyssey through late 1940s Dublin fired the imagination of a generation.
"Dear Sebastian," writes Donleavy to Crist from his then home in Kilcoole in August 1951: "The place is sold and I am now packing. Things were never as good but there is a certain contemporary feeling that is gone - the days of Trinity's wide floorboards, high ceilings and urinic smells are in Glasnevin. The roaring trams are silent on some beach north of Dublin - 1 Newtown Ave (Blackrock) is now a posh shop dealing in ladies' bras, but they say it is haunted by some strange ghost which scratches at the back door and cackles every night at 10 o'clock in the winter and 10.30 in the summer" (a reference to pub closing times).
Crist, living in London, tells Donleavy that his wife Petra has visited him, that his girlfriend Pamela O'Malley, the daughter of a wealthy Limerick wine merchant, has left to go back to her studies in UCD and he plans to return to Trinity to finish his exams. "The only reason I am trying to get a degree is because Sean O'Sullivan told me that Trinity graduates received preferential treatment in Grangegorman (psychiatric hospital)."
Meanwhile, AK Donoghue, writing in 1953 as ''Lord Killorglin'', encourages Donleavy to continue with plans to publish The Ginger Man, which at the time was in manuscript form and known as ''Sebastian Dangerfield''.
"How am I to crawl out of the abyss?" he asks. "You and Gainor have escaped, I'm still here, broke, neurotic on the edge... Could I get one of those pensions for distressed members of the aristocracy? There is a Lord Kilbracken, who has an estate in the West of Ireland, and he writes stories for The New Yorker about it and helps make the expenses of keeping up his manorial estate."
Gainor Crist had two daughters, Marina and Jane, with his first wife, the daughter of an English vicar, Constance Petra Hillis. But with his drinking, singing Raggle Taggle Gypsy and womanising, the marriage didn't last, although Marina later spent time with her father in Spain.
"I've been told Brendan Behan babysat me," she writes in an afterword to this book. "Some years ago my husband Gustavo and I were visiting Dublin. And, at the behest of both my mother and Pamela, we went to Grogan's pub in search of barman Paddy O'Brien. The white-haired, blue-eyed Paddy came striding the length of the bar towards us, and said, just like that 'you don't have to tell me who you are!' He was quite overcome. He told us that I, at perhaps not even three, was sometimes left in the charge of Brendan Behan, perhaps because my parents had classes or something."
In September 1955, Crist, writing to My Dear Michael (Donleavy), pleads: "MIKE STOP SCREWING AROUND & SEND US A COPY OF THE BOOK." They met briefly in Paris the following month and the editor comments: "Their reunion did not go smoothly," and no further correspondence between them exists. Crist died in Tenerife in 1964 at the age of 42 - the bond between the two men shattered.
"What charisma was his who never even attempted to do anything, let alone complete it, said nothing memorable, yet whose memory is so much cherished," pondered John Ryan, Donleavy's first publisher, on the life of Crist/Dangerfield.
The international success of The Ginger Man, first published by a Parisian pornographer, Maurice Girodias, in 1955, changed Donleavy's life dramatically and in 1972 he moved to Levington Park, a stately home on the shores of Lough Owel outside Mullingar, Co Westmeath, with his second wife Mary Wilson Price, known as 'MW'.
"Donoghue's current accommodations are less commodious," writes the editor of this book, Bill Dunn. "While Donleavy settles in and will stay put in 'The Lev', Donoghue continues being Donoghue with more changes of address and even more astonishing jobs and surprises ahead."
Writing to him as 'My Dear General' from his stately home where guests included Mick Jagger, Donleavy tells his old college friend: "Just the other night at Duke Street - MW and I thought of popping from the Hibernia (hotel) where we were taking champagne and draft stout over to the Bailey and we jumped back at the door like scalded cats - it was crowded - and I even saw John Ryan seated there among which I would suppose might be his cronies - O the bitterness, the gall. I should have accused him between the poets. But so many of them are unsympathetic to me way of life and me to theirs that I got out of the pub fast and across the road to Davy Byrnes..." A further letter concludes: "I am not favoured as you may know in Dublin literary circles."
Then there was THE ''bread incident'' in 1986, when Donoghue was living in one of the two gate lodges which guard the entrance to Donleavy's mansion.
"MW recalls how Donleavy wanted Donoghue to bake some bread... Donleavy began offering baking tips to Donoghue who didn't need any or want the help and finally told his host to bake his own bread."
When his wife returned from riding, Donleavy told her he wanted Donoghue out of the gate house and gone. "The bread incident was not the true cause of the breach with Donleavy, but the breaking point. No doubt the major cause of the rift was the foundering Donleavy marriage. Donoghue remained on good terms with MW, or Mary as he called her. She called him AK. In Donleavy's view, Donoghue had chosen sides - against him."
The college friends and correspondents of a lifetime never spoke again and Donoghue's last letters to Donleavy, whom he addressed as ''Guts'', went unanswered.
In March 1989, the now-divorced 'MW' married Finn Guinness who, along with his brother Kieran, were sons of the 2nd Baron Moyne. In 2011 a journalist "stumbled" onto the fact that 'MW's' two children, presumed to be fathered by her first husband JP Donleavy, were the children of the Guinness brothers; Kieran being the father of her daughter Rebecca, and Finn the father of her son Rory.
"All I will say is that all the men in the children's lives have been very good to them," 'MW' told Bill Dunn in an interview for the book.
AK Donoghue died in Donegal in 2009 at the age of 87.
At the reception to launch the book, the former film censor Sheamus Smith told me he had originally wanted to make The Ginger Man into a film with Robert Redford in the lead role.
"I proposed writing to Robert Redford, but 'JP' told me 'don't bother, he's a friend of mine, I'll ask him'."
But in the years that followed, Donleavy was so insistent on maintaining complete control of any film production that efforts by prospective directors from Richard Harris to Sam Spiegel failed to sway him.
Donleavy kept what Bill Dunn calls "voluminous records" of his complex literary, social and legal life. Further books, including his last novel, are expected - and even the much vaunted film of The Ginger Man is now more likely to happen than it was in the author's lifetime.
'The Ginger Man Letters', edited by Bill Dunn, is published by Lilliput