The Donleavy Years
Copyright © 2008 Bill Dunn
Born April 23 at Holy Family Hospital, Brooklyn, New York. Christened James Patrick, son of Irish immigrant parents. Called Pat by family and friends. Father: Patrick, from Longford, the orchid grower for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park and later fire inspector for the FDNY. Mother: Margaret, from Galway, who before marriage was a social secretary to a world-traveling American heiress. The Donleavy family home, at 8 Willow Place in the well-to-do neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, is a Federal Style red brick terraced house circa 1850 (now listed on the historic registry).
Family moves from 8 Willow Place to East 232nd Street, the top of a hill, the Wakefield section of the Bronx.
Family moves again into a bigger house upon another hill on 238th Street in the small isolated community of Woodlawn, also the Bronx, and near the famed Woodlawn Cemetery where Herman Melville is buried.
Attends St. Barnabas Elementary School, Woodlawn. Briefly delivers The Bronx News in 7th grade. Writes “editorials” on the front page of the papers of customers behind in payments: “How does it feel to cheat a child?” Fired by the circulation manager but the experience will be material for a scene in a future novel. Graduates Class of 1940. Enrolls that fall as a frosh at Fordham Preparatory School.
Invited to the New York Athletic Club by Woodlawn friend Thomas Gill. Enjoys the workouts and the buffets, joins as a junior member. Takes up amateur boxing – welterweight class – under the tutelage of the legendary referee and coach Arthur Donovan, who refereed the 1936 and 1938 heavyweight title fights between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. (Schmeling won the first fight; Louis the second).
Founds fraternity at Fordham Prep sophomore year, making himself Supreme Brother Master. Takes fraternal brothers to a nearby saloon for first and last meeting, which was reported to the Prefect of Discipline. Expelled from Fordham.
Transfers to Roosevelt High School, although public, then very much a co-educational country club, Yonkers, Westchester County (attends one year). Classmates call the boy from Woodlawn “Preppie”. Teachers call him “Sunshine Boy” because he often sits at the window and looks at the surrounding countryside.
Transfers for senior year to Manhattan Preparatory School, Riverdale, the Bronx. Graduates, Class of ’44. Enlists in the U.S. Navy, assigned to the Amphibious Corps, Little Creek, Virginia. Receives Fleet Appointment to Annapolis, assigned to Naval Academy Preparatory School, Port Deposit, Maryland. Discovers James Joyce in the Naval Academy Prep library, ghost-writes essays for classmates, teacher detects an anonymous writer of talent.
Honorably discharged as Seaman Second Class. Asks mother if there are any universities in Ireland. “Yes,” she says, “Trinity College Dublin.” Enters Trinity for the Michaelmas Term on the G.I. Bill of Rights. Strikes up friendships with Gainor Stephen Crist, Arthur Kenneth Donoghue and Brendan Behan. To avoid confusion with the many fellow students named Jim and Pat, newfound friends decide to refer to Pat Donleavy as “Mike” – his Confirmation name being Michael. The nickname sticks and by which his closest friends know him. Mike attends a Jack B. Yeats exhibition, where the painting prices are impressively high. Encouraged by Phyllis Hayward (member of the White Stag Group) and John Ryan to take up painting. Decides to try painting in his college rooms at No. 38.
First art show, Exhibition of Paintings by J.P. Donleavy, No. 7, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, December 6-13, including still-wet paintings executed at Trinity the day of the opening to fill up the gallery. Some exhibition attendees test for suspected wetness, leaving fingerprints on canvases. Ernest Gébler’s then lady partner acquires two Donleavy paintings. Ernest uses them on his farm to plug holes in a fence to keep neighbor’s sheep out. Only after the show does the upstart painter learn that the master who inspired him, Jack Yeats, was there. Generous in his support for and indulgent of young artists, Yeats would visit Donleavy’s next three Dublin exhibitions. Marries Valerie Heron, moving to a Wicklow cottage near the sea at Kilcoole. Drives back to classes in a small red farming van. A junior dean advises the commuting student to leave his farm equipment back in the countryside.
Leaves Trinity College without a degree.
Second Dublin exhibition, No. 7, St. Stephen’s Green, March 15-26. Sees his first short story published, “Party On Saturday Night”, appearing in the April issue of John Ryan’s Envoy: A Review of Literature & Art. Third Dublin exhibition, No. 7, St. Stephen’s Green, June 8-22. That show’s catalogue contains one of the earliest Donleavy essays, which is hopeful in tone. While the byline beneath the short story reads “J.P. Donleavy”, the covers of the exhibition catalogues for this year and next proclaim the paintings are simply “by Donleavy”.
Fourth Dublin exhibition, No. 7, St. Stephen’s Green, January 11-25. Artist’s essay in the catalogue explores “art and artiface … lie and compromise”. Irish scholar and critic Arland Ussher responds to harsh reviews in the press, praising Donleavy paintings as reminiscent of Paul Klee in a letter to the editor published in The Irish Times. The struggling artist, with a lot to say to spread to a wider audience, begins writing a novel, eventually giving it the working title S.D. for its hero, Sebastian Dangerfield. Brendan Behan, the first ever to read the manuscript, says: “This book is going to go around the world and beat the bejasus out of the Bible.”
Visits America with wife, Valerie, staying briefly with his family in Woodlawn, the Bronx, submits early part of manuscript to Charles Scribner’s Sons. Then off to a cabin in the Connecticut woods. Turns down an invitation to ocean cruise on a private yacht in order to continue writing S.D. in Boston’s West End, a poor Europeanized, multi-ethnic enclave. On a final submission of the manuscript, Scribner’s John Hall Wheelock acknowledges the work’s quality. But Scribner’s rejects the work on grounds of its inviting prosecution for obscenity.
Leaves America in February discouraged, returning initially to the Isle of Man. He then buys a house containing two flats in working-class Fulham section of London. And as Fulham’s first middle-class settler, continues to paint and make the rounds of the galleries without success.
Brendan Behan, who’s wandering London in the company of “Lead Pipe Daniel The Dangerous”, suggests contacting The Olympia Press, Paris. The author sends a query letter dated September 7. Receives a response from publisher Maurice Girodias, expressing interest in S.D. Chosen by John Rosselli, Donleavy’s short pieces have been published in the eminent Manchester Guardian. And another piece in Punch.
The author submits the manuscript. Upon the urging of Girodias, he renames his novel The Ginger Man. Asked if he wants to use a pseudonym, the writer says no, choosing to be identified on the cover and title page as J.P. Donleavy, the name by which tens of millions would eventually know him. The Olympia Press publishes The Ginger Man in June as No. 7 in its pornographic Traveller’s Companion Series, the work’s literary merit being ignored. The author strenuously objects to the inappropriate inclusion in this series. He expected publication in The Olympia Press’ belletristic Collection Merlin which published Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett.
Seeks publication by mainstream publishers in U.K. and U.S. in order to establish the novel as serious writing and be so read and reviewed. Directed by Derek Standford and Muriel Spark to Neville Spearman Limited. The London publishing house agrees to publish a revised edition with Arland Ussher’s introduction vouching for The Ginger Man as “a book of quality”. Girodias threatens suit to block publication, claiming that, according to his correspondence with the author, The Olympia Press holds U.K. rights. But the author is by counsel advised that he is the copyright owner. Spearman publishes The Ginger Man in December.
Neville Spearman’s solicitors warn of impending Girodias suit. Writ of Summons issued by the High Court of Justice: “Witness, David Viscount Kilmuir Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, the 21st day of June in the year of Our Lord … This Writ is to be served … ” Thus begins the 21-year-long, unforgiving literary battle of all time, whose preamble is outlined by the author in the 517 pages of The History of The Ginger Man. Starts writing a novel set in New York City, initially titled Helen, which is soon put aside but later revived as the play Fairy Tales of New York.
Despite threats from Paris by The Olympia Press, New York publisher McDowell, Obolensky publishes the Spearman edition of The Ginger Man in the U.S. in May.
First American exhibition, Bronxville Public Library, Bronxville, New York, February 2-28. In this exhibition catalogue and subsequent catalogues, the painter now identifies himself as J.P. Donleavy. That autumn, Richard Harris stars as Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man stage production. Boffo smash in London, winning raves and praise – “the wind of genius”. A disaster in Dublin, where members of the audience shout protest, theater owner wants cuts, the director and playwright refuse, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid orders the play to be stopped and the play closes after the third performance. Harris tells the press he wants to fly to Rome with the script to show the Pope.
Most Promising Playwright, Evening Standard Drama Award, for the play Fairy Tales of New York, starring Barry Foster as Cornelius Christian, with Susan Hampshire, Robert Ayres and Harry Taub in supporting roles.
Seeking a quiet place to write in peace, the author buys an apartment, decorated in “dentist’s modern” on the fifteenth floor of a central London high-rise he calls “Tax Dodger’s Towers”.
A Singular Man, set in an unnamed city that is New York, published by Atlantic-Little, Brown. At the direction of editor Seymour Lawrence, an artist does a drawing for the dust jacket that recreates the covers of the manuscript the writer submitted: card boards with the title and author name in uneven stick-on letters, all bound together with discolored tape and nuts and screws. Lawrence eventually loses his job over the book that top brass feared might provoke prosecution for obscenity. It doesn’t. Meanwhile The Ginger Man play, after standing room only at 10 previews, opens in New York City at the Orpheum Theater, 2nd Avenue, November 21, the day before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In coming days, audience attendance dwindles in a city in mourning. Production forced to close after 52 performances.
First collection of short pieces published, Meet My Maker The Mad Molecule. Gainor Stephen Crist, inspiration for The Ginger Man, dies July 5, and is buried in Tenerife, the Canary Islands, according to the U.S. Embassy. But the author is unconvinced, having fleetingly caught sight of Crist alive. And noting the grave’s headstone has a cross, he maintains Crist the arch non-believer, although long a champion of The Blessed Oliver Plunkett, would not have countenanced such at his final resting place.
Following difficulties over A Singular Man, the author urges Seymour Lawrence not to work for publishers but to become his own publisher. “All it takes is one desk, one phone, one author. I’ll be your author.” Lawrence launches Seymour Lawrence Books with the publication of the first unexpurgated U.S. edition of The Ginger Man, co-published with Delacorte Press.
The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, a novella inspired by Trinity College pal Arthur Kenneth Donoghue, published. Back in New York for the book’s launch, the author visits the New York Athletic Club to go a few rounds in the ring. The boxing coach invites him to join the club team as its welterweight for an upcoming match. The opponents: cadets of West Point. The 40-year-old author declines the opportunity.
Lord Chamberlain’s Office reviews stage script of The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, objects to more than 40 “disallowed” words, including: farting, balls and arse. Without a rewrite particularly of Act II, the Lord Chamberlain will not issue the required license for the planned London production. The playwright refuses. The show does not go on.
First marriage ends in amicable divorce.
Learns from his London wine adviser, Mr. White, at Fortnum & Mason, of a new law in Ireland exempting artists and writers from taxation on income from their work. He becomes an Irish citizen. Sells his London apartment high up in “Tax Dodger’s Towers”. He moves back to Ireland with second wife, Mary, buying Balsoon House, County Meath, site of the Ussher family castle ruins. Sends wife to purchase bullocks to graze the land, she buys heifers and J.P. has to buy bull.
The author’s wife is sent with his secretary Phyliss McArdle, both beautiful women, to Paris, to buy The Olympia Press at the company bankruptcy auction. Girodias attends, hoping to reacquire his company. But outbid, he fails, then writing to Mary Wilson Price (Mrs. Donleavy) May 18, jokingly asking if she would like to publish his autobiography. He then suggests they talk about her purchase of the company, which he believes was on behalf of another author. But soon enough Girodias discovers to his horror that J.P. Donleavy is now the owner.
Sees The Ginger Man return to the Dublin stage – this time without controversy, in a September run at the Eblana Theatre Club. Sets designed by John Ryan. Elected a Knight of Mark Twain by Cyril Clemens, of The Mark Twain Journal, for “your outstanding contribution to Modern Literature”.
Sells Balsoon House. Buys Levington Park, built by Sir Charles Levinge in 1742, in Mullingar, County Westmeath. Once visited by James Joyce, who describes his arrival at the house in Stephen Hero. Original herd brought from Balsoon continues to graze the 170 acres on the shores of Lough Owel. Country life now provides the background of the Darcy Dancer novels.
The unpublished novel Helen that evolved into the play Fairy Tales of New York is published as the novel A Fairy Tale of New York by Delacorte Press / Seymour Lawrence. While the author has long lived abroad, he clearly remembers and vividly presents his hometown in his latest work of fiction.
The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners published. Among the guests at the publication party at Levington Park are Mick Jagger and then-wife Bianca. Work proscribed and banned in some quarters, and kept out of print. Book removed from woman reading it on an airplane because she kept falling into the aisle laughing. Upon landing she quits her job, divorces her husband and ends up “enjoying my life”. First Donleavy book illustrated by the author, contains 36 drawings. First London exhibition of paintings and illustrations from The Unexpurgated Code at The Langton Gallery, September 30-October 14. Award for creative work in literature, National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Wins the final victory over Maurice Girodias, whose appeal is turned down by the French court. Word comes from the author’s French attorney, who writes March 20: “J’ai le plaisir de vous faire savoir que j’ai obtenu le rejet du pourvoi de l’adversaire.” (English translation: “I have the pleasure of telling you that I have obtained the throwing out of the adversary’s appeal.”) Thus ended one of the longest legal battles in literary history. Girodias writes the author one last letter August 2, asking a favor – that The Olympia Press be given back to him free of charge. The author does not respond.
Comedian Billy Connolly mid-year joins the cast of The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, starring Patrick Ryecart and running at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End since September 30, 1981.
De Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions published. Second book illustrated by the author, containing 25 drawings. Game actually played internationally by a devoted group of athletically elitist adherents.
Bob Precious, a transplanted New Yorker running a bar in Houston, renames it after his favorite novel, The Ginger Man, by his favorite author, J.P.D., whom he will later visit at Levington Park where they and others compete against each other throwing javelin and discus about the parklands.
Le tennis De Alfonce, match de démonstration entre J.P. Donleavy v. Pillippe Sollers, Gymnase de l’Eglise américaine, Paris, 27 Mai. J. P. wins headline in Paris newspaper: “J.P. Is Better Than John McEnroe”. J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland: In All Her Sins And in Some of Her Graces published in July, containing photos and an account of the first Dublin exhibition of his still-wet paintings. Sixth exhibition, Godolphin Gallery, 5 Molesworth Place, Dublin, November.
Exhibition, Tom Caldwell Galleries, Belfast, November 3-21.
Accepts challenge to play De Alfonce Tennis match at the Pentagon, losing to John Lehman, then U.S. Secretary of the Navy who had become an outstanding player.
Exhibition, Anna-Mei Chadwick Gallery, London, February 22-March 11.
Joint exhibition with daughter Karen Donleavy of her pottery, now produced in Caldwell, Idaho, and her father’s paintings, Anna-Mei Chadwick Gallery, London, March 5-16. Divorce from second wife finalized.
Exhibition, The Alba Gallery, Kew, Surrey, England, July 16-28.
Writes and narrates the script of J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland: In All of Her Sins and Graces, which is broadcast on the Discovery Channel and Ireland’s RTE. Wins the Worldfest Houston Gold Award for the program, now in international video release.
CINE Golden Eagle Award as writer/narrator of J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland.
The History of The Ginger Man published by Houghton Mifflin / Seymour Lawrence on St. Patrick’s Day – 10 weeks after Lawrence died at age 65, ending a 31-year literary friendship. The book, with 10 drawings by the author and illustrated by 30 photographs, is regarded as being an outstanding physical example of trade publishing. Exhibition, Anna-Mei Chadwick Gallery, London, June 7-18.
Exhibition in Dublin, organized by the designer Rachel Murray, The Lounge, 33-34 Parliament Street, October 29.
The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms, first in what the author calls his New York series, published by Thornwillow Press, in a finely-bound, limited, signed edition printed on handmade paper. Bob Precious, back in New York, opens The Ginger Man pub at 11 East 36th Street. The author receives an honorarium for each of Bob's authorized pubs so named, plus free drinks and comestibles on each visit for himself and a lady guest.
Trade editions of The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms published in New York by St. Martin’s and in London by Abacus. Second collection of short pieces, An Author and His Image: The Collected Short Pieces published in London by Viking.
Wrong Information Is Being Given Out At Princeton, second in the New York series, published. Release of the audio book of the author’s reading of The Ginger Man. Accepts challenge of Sir Rocco Forte to a doubles match of De Alfonce Tennis to be played in the ballroom of Sir Rocco’s Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, September 28. Sir Rocco and partner Wimbledon veteran Annabel Croft upset the top-ranked author and partner Sally Jones, a former Real Tennis world champion. Rematch is planned.
Sees The Ginger Man revived in Dublin by The Dublin Theatre Company and the summer run extended. Troupe plans to take the play to New York. The Ginger Man ranked 99 on the list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.
The Ginger Man returns to New York in a revival by The Dublin Theatre Company. Tour sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Irish government, which until the 1970s was banning the author’s books.
Exhibition, Damien Matthews’ Walton Gallery, London, March 20-April 6.
President of Fordham Preparatory School writes to say he’s sorry J.P.’s Prep experience came to such an abrupt end long ago. (See 1942 entry). Prep president suggests J.P. visit campus when he’s in town and assures the Prep would be pleased to include one of J.P.’s books in the school library’s alumni authors collection.
June, the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Ginger Man. Never out of print, sales top 45 million, legally translated in two dozen languages, with countless illegal pirated editions. Published for the first time ever in Ireland by The Irish Independent as No. 6 in the Great Irish Writers series.
Retrospective organised by Damien Matthews, 7- 20 February at The Molesworth Gallery, in Dublin, where it all began in 1948. Attendees are enthusiastic, no begrudgers in evidence, reviews are positive. Bruce Arnold, dean of Ireland’s art critics and biographer of Jack Yeats, writes in The Irish Independent newspaper: “Jack Yeats talked of ‘the living ginger’ – the magic that made art come alive. J.P. Donleavy has it.” Opens the Barry Flanagan sculpture exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art 27 June with a controversial but well-received talk titled: “Lobbing Hand Grenades: Remarks On Barry Flanagan.” The Ginger Man, published in a new Italian edition, makes Italy’s best-seller list.
Finally and for the first time, the artist turned writer, born in Brooklyn (the Heights) and raised in the Bronx in the sylvan suburbia ofWoodlawn, has an art exhibition in his hometown, which he calls “the king of cities,” New York, New York at The National Arts Club, 11-22 May. The artist is a guest on Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4
Returns to The Molesworth Gallery for another exhibition organised by Damien Matthews, 30 April -9 May. Meanwhile, the author is writing the third and fourth volumes in his New York series of novels, The Dog On The Seventeenth Floor and A Letter Marked Personal. His readership now extends to the Internet where the J.P. Donleavy Compendium (www.jpdonleavycompendium.org), an independent web site designed and maintained by David L. Hartzheim, has had more than 10 million hits since its launch some 71/2 years ago. There are plans for a Retrospective in Paris this autumn.