by Patricia Deevy
JP DONLEAY has never heard of Feargal Quinn. He concentrate hard when I talk about Darina Allen: I think she is new to him too. Asked about his social life in Mullingar, he delivers this reply:
"There's a girl called Marina Guinness do you know her? I've known Marina for many many years and she came down here on a couple of occasions out of the blue. Finally she came down and said: 'Mike [his friends call him Mike], you can't go on the way you're going down here. You've got to meet people. Do you know that people have moved to Westmeath now? It's no longer socially taboo. I'm going to introduce you.'
"Sure enough, as soon as she says something she does it. She came down here and she said: 'I'm taking you out now, today. We're going off.' "
And so, with no preliminaries, Donleavy found himself landed into various drawing rooms around the county so he could make friends with other mansion-dwellers.
What is exasperating about Donleavy is also quaintly charming: a lack of engagement with everyday Ireland, a vague sense that things were better in the old days (his references to the new houses creeping towards the boundaries of his estate, Levington Park, are not warm; later he'll talk about the vulgarity of modern Irish life), and a lack of self-consciousness about being correct about women or natives.
His origins lie in the fields of rural Longford and Galway. His father, Patrick Donleavy, was a student priest who left Maynooth to sort out some crisis on the family farm, never returned to the seminary, emigrated and ended up working for the New York fire department and cultivating exotic gardens in his spare time. He was an orchid and dahlia fancier.
At 15, Margaret Walsh was picked out by a rich uncle to travel with him to America. She described it to her son: "One day barefoot in an Irish field; living on Park Avenue the next." Margaret did well in America, being employed as a companion to a wealthy woman and storing riches of her own before marrying Patrick Donleavy.
Their son was a proper New Englander, full of Whartonesque verbal propriety without the accompanying sexual constraint. That combination made him infamous. When The Ginger Man appeared in 1955, it was described as filth fine filth depending on your disposition. It was dirty and funny, and was propelled by the force of Sebastian Dangerfield's outrageous personality. Yet the man who produced it had elaborate good manners, a posh-sounding Anglo-American drawl and dressed like a country gentleman.
Twenty years and many novels later he was still at it: his 1975 volume, The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners, was banned in British Public Libraries. (Its index includes such entries as: 'Living in Your Own Little Enclosed World of Privilege and Liking it a Whole Bunch', 'Upon Placing the Blame for Venereal Infection' and 'When Some Supercilious Cunt Asks is There Anything Wrong'. Later yet, in the late Nineties, two of the short novels from what is to be a New York trilogy, The Lady Who Like Clean Rest Rooms and Wrong Information is Being Given Out at Princeton, have had mixed reviews but fans praise Donleavy's use of crude language, crazy syntax, misogyny and sexual comedy.
James Patrick Donleavy was born in a Brooklyn hospital in April 1926 and brought up in the north Bronx, from the age of seven in Woodlawn near the cemetery and the wilderness of Van Cordlandt Park. He had a brother, TJ, and a sister, Rita. In his memoir, The History of The Ginger Man, he writes that as he grew up, the predominantly middle-class Wasp nature of Woodlawn was being "imperceptibly eroded the more Irish of the Catholics were seeing in. The mostly pleasant days of one's growing up were now ominously shrouded as more baneful human tragedies were revealed."
In his household there was little talk about Ireland. Once he was taken to an uncle's wake in a downtown slum of Manhattan. "Ghetto" Ireland was a revelation to him. He was out of America when he heard that a young Irish-American politician was going for the presidency. "I thought: 'My God, they're not going to let some awful person get in to be President.' " It seems to have been part of his reflexive suspicion of the ghetto Irish because he admits he didn't know much about John F Kennedy. As he saw how Kennedy charmed his own country and Europe, he became a fan.
At 18 Donleavy joined the Naval air corps. In 1946 he left the Navy and got into Trinity under the GI Bill of Rights. His subject was bacteriology (with a view to becoming a doctor); his preoccupation was bohemian Dublin. He had money a US government allowance and an income from his mother so he was able to lock into the drink-sodden literary world of McDaids, the Catacombs and Envoy magazine.
Gainor Crist was another GI Bill American at Trinity and one who lived life past its limits. He was a charismatic, hard-drinking man from Ohio who was something of a personally around Dublin in his years in Trinity. He loosely inspired the character of Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man. Yet he read the manuscript and never made any sign of thinking it had anything to do with him. Crist died and was buried in Tenerife in the early Sixties. (But Donleavy notes that no one ever saw him die, or saw him dead.)
The first Dangerfield to appear on stage was Richard Harris in a production which lasted three nights [the world premiere, also with Harris in the lead role was in Sept., 1959 at the Fortune Theatre in London; the Dublin production was the 2nd. production] at the Gaiety before pulled under pressure from the Archbishop's palace. Donleavy thinks David Murray in the current Dublin Theatre Company production is another great Dangerfield. In fact, he radiates contentment with a production Which has received good reviews. Already a brass engraving of the programme cover is sitting on a sideboard.
It was towards the end of his years at Trinity, when he realised he wasn't going to do medicine (he never finished his degree) and his gang were breaking up, that he began what became The Ginger Man. In 1955 it was published in Paris, on the Olympia Press's pornographic list. Writers like VS Naipaul, Joseph Heller and Dorothy Parker gave it glowing reviews but Donleavy had little time to bask in the glow of praise. He was immediately plunged into a legal battle with his publisher, Maurice Girodias, over the book's ownership, a battle which ended over 20 years later when Donleavy bought the bankrupt publishing house. (Amazingly, he says he has not looked looked into details of the Olympia backlist which includes writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Laurence Durrell, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet.) The Ginger Man has sold over five million copies [over 30 million copies in 20 languages] worldwide and, as far as Donleavy can make out, everyone in this country has read it.
Whatever about the seedy glamour of the world he describes in that novel, with romance in the tension between freedom and repression, Donleavy agrees that Dublin in the late Forties and Fifties was also a place of desperation. "It was despair and death and horror. It was always on the edge of poverty: Dublin was a fearsome city."
And yet it could be magical. "And my life in Dublin at that time wasn't poverty-stricken, it was very affluent. So it was a strange thing. I might be found sitting in the Shelbourne, reading a book, having a glass of champagne in the evening. Or going to Bewleys. Or going to the Grafton Street Cinema.
In the late Forties Donleavy married a beautiful Englishwoman, Valerie Heron, and bought a cottage in Kilcoole. (Her brother, Michael was the assistant editor on John Ryan's Envoy magazine.) After he left college he proposed setting up there as a painter; he had some exhibitions in the early Fifties. Valerie has two children, Philip and Karen, and she was with him right through the early years of The Ginger Man traumas. In the mid-Sixties they parted. She trained in Switzerland a Jungian psychoanalyst, remarried and now lives in Venezuela. It was an amicable break-up but they are not in touch with each other. He spoke to her once when he answered the phone in their son's New York apartment: she sounded magnificent.
His second divorce was not so amicable. From the way he always refers to Mary Wilson Price as "the second wife", it's clear that no warmth remains. Wilson Price was an American actress and she produced two children, Rebecca and Rory, now in their late teens. After she and Donleavy parted she married the Honorable Finn Guinness, Lord Moyne's brother.
Looking back, he says, on the face of it he was no great catch for the severely beautiful young actress: being a struggling author where she had great opportunities. Then he catches himself and chuckles that he would have appeared to be struggling since he only told her about one of his homes: the one in then-unfashionable Fulham. He didn't mention that he had another place he wrote in, a base with his then 'ladyfriend' Tessa Sayle, the literary agent, and homes in the Isle of Man and Switzerland.
Donleavy says he didn't asked his wives to marry him. They had the idea first. "I think I've asked somebody recently to marry but they can't get married because they're already married."
"Alas, one can't say."
Is he in love?
"Well, I certainly have had someone for some time. I think the closest we get to anything is I think she might have in her will that we'll be buried together." Later, looking at a picture of a beautiful woman with flowing dark hair, he says: "That's the woman that I might be buried with, or maybe not. Things are too complicated." He sounds either weary or sad.
His marriage to Mary Wilson Price seems to have been fated by incompatibility: she liked parties, he doesn't; she was unpunctual, he is a stickler; she said she did everything in the house, he would produce the list of employees. It was, he agrees, a battle of wills.
Of course there have been other women, and children of theirs he regards as step-children. The children's pictures are sprinkled around the place. One 'step-son' a 15-year-old called Alain, is visiting from France and his sister is due next week. In the mid-Nineties, twenty-something Rachel Murray and her young daughter, Galena. were in residence. (In an interview after she left Levington Park she said that her three-year relation shop with Donleavy was non-sexual.) "My associations with the children still go on: they all come here and they're always here to visit."
The Queen Anne house is huge and rambling and the formal ensuite bedrooms at the front give way to smaller, more lived-in rooms in the two back wings. (The house is big enough to include an indoor swimming pool, sauna and gym facilities: he is a big fitness fan, who can kick well above his own head. Each day he does boxing exercises.) Some of the bedrooms are as the most recent child-in-residence left them. In one a drawing by Galena is framed. A large reception room awaiting redecoration is empty but for piles of toys in the brash and fondant colours of child-friendly plastic.
I think it much be lonely when they come and then leave again.
"Oh yes, this house becomes a terrible place for its loneliness and isolation. It's very bad because if you're spending time as writers do so much on your own anyway, it tends to compound it with the fact that you don't have relationships when you're interfacing with someone else. It's pretty bad. You should not allow it to happen but I get back to the fact one's trapped here. It's a farm."
It's a dull day and outside the grimy windows (the antique glass it too fragile to let cleaners loose on it) there are acres of grey midlands gloom. It is a place where you'd need company. But women, he says, have so many choices now. They don't want to live in the country and they don't have to marry. "Marriages which last often are marriages where the woman's life depends upon the man's life. That's ceased in modern society now."
On a console table on the landing there are pictures of his women, all of them long-boned, lean, dark and intense-looking. I suggest that he goes for the same types of women and he sounds surprised. "I wonder, I wonder," he mutters to himself.
As for the farm, it seems a source of duty rather than joy, so what about selling up?
"Yes, I've thought of that but my God when you go into the outside world you suddenly think 'Heavens!' and you take it for granted that you can look out the window and see some green foliage and then you look back on that side of the house and it dawns on you that you look for five miles of privacy because it looks out on the lough. But that again impinges on you, the isolation and loneliness of this place."
Having lived in Ireland on and off since 1946, particularly since he bought this house in 1972, Donleavy has observed our modernisation. He talks about revolutions: the first one of permissiveness, the second of prosperity. It's not clear that he likes either.
"Now it's become a kind of brash place, obsessed with cars and everything. I was amazed when someone said the date of this car that's parked in the front there, that it's an old car. I was taken aback. There's a strange degree of vulgarity which was never acceptable in Ireland. Yet now it is thought necessary to be brash. [people think it is] necessary to show their liberalism and get slightly shocking."
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.