Mike’s Back in Town
By John Froude, Contributor
August / September 2000
Bronx boy, bard, and beef baron J.P. Donleavy converses with John Froude.
James Patrick Donleavy, known to his friends as Mike, is standing in the lobby of the New York Athletic Club. He observes. He notes with approval the liveried attendant silently holding up a placard before a new barbarian. On which is written PORTABLE PHONES ARE NOT PERMITTED.
Mike is dapper, be-tweeded with an understated tie and light tan wingtips.
Or brogues as they would be called in Ireland, of which country he is a citizen. It is also where he lives: Levington Park, Mullingar, County Westmeath. He may be slender and 73 years of age, but there is something about him that makes you feel he is more than capable of shaking a fist or two. He is in New York, his birthplace, for the first time in several years to attend a revival of The Ginger Man at the Irish Arts Center. This play is loosely based on the novel of the same name which has been in print since 1955, selling ten million copies worldwide and universally regarded as a picaresque masterpiece. Not to mention his 14 other novels and six works of nonfiction.
After finding a quiet spot and ordering a drink, beer in my case, a De Alphonse in his (that’s soda with two cans of Welch’s grape juice), we engage in conversation, fragments of which are recorded below.
You were born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx by parents who came from Ireland.
Yes. It wasn’t too bad, although I was expelled from one school for being a bad influence on the student body.
I didn’t know anything about Ireland or the Irish growing up, strangely.
My parents somehow lived like Europeans in a way. We weren’t allowed Coca-Cola, white bread, or tinned food, which made me feel quite deprived.
My mother came to America on a luxury liner with her Australian uncle, not the typical picture of an immigrant.
Something that no one prints, and that I love to bring up, is that she loaned money to de Valera. He repaid it too. With interest.
My father came from a farming family in County Longford. He worked as a florist on top of the old Ritz Carlton hotel. He was the only orchid grower in New York and he kept alligators. He finished fifth in the civil service exams and worked as an inspector for the fire department. So we were reasonably well off. No discomforts.
The characters in your novels have ambivalent feelings about New York. Do you?
That would be a true picture. One of my routines is to go and stand on the steps of the Plaza Hotel and watch for half an hour. You see so many dramas. These observations have to be controlled. A writer doesn’t want to pull the shades down, but if you don’t it can lead to deep depression.
But I can’t complain about my life here. I am the 42nd-longest serving member of this club. I was a junior member aged 14 and my friend Tommy Gill and I would entertain our lady friends in this beautiful dining room.
There was a boxing room. People from all walks of life collected there.
There was Harry Manning, Commodore of the American Lines, who was famous for daring rescues on the high seas and who had Amelia Earhart for a girlfriend. Arthur Power, of Power’s Model Agency. If you asked him he would immediately introduce you to anyone you wanted to meet in Hollywood. Commodore Bayliss was in charge of the New York port so you could go pretty much where you wanted to. Tommy’s father ran the Glen Island Casino where all the big bands such as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller played.
There weren’t many junior members there but if you boxed, these glamorous people would open all sorts of doors for you. It was a paradise metropolis back then.
Arthur Donham, the famous referee, trained me in the ring. I was said to have the fastest hands in the business.
You would have been 18 years old in 1945.
Yes, I first joined the Amphibious Corps and then submitted myself to examination for admission to the Naval Acadamy prep school outside of Annapolis to get out of swabbing decks. My academic record was so bad I was thought to have no chance but I got accepted. I was sorry not to see active service in the war but must say I felt that if I had to die it should be with a few stripes, perhaps admiral. I objected to dying as an able seaman. Death requires rank.
What about writing?
That was always lurking about in the background. I wrote poems in the Navy and wrote letters, often love letters, for my shipmates. In the Amphibious Corps these were generally very successful. On the other hand, when I did the same thing at the Acadamy one girl wrote back to say she had never read so much rubbish in her life and if she ever received another goddamn letter like that…
Trinity College on the GI Bill was next?
Yes. I studied microbiology there. One played tennis right in front of one’s rooms. That’s where I met Gaynor Steven Crist, a fellow American and very good friend of mine. He became the main model for The Ginger Man although he was much nicer, never violent or unpleasant. And through all his many trials and tribulations he made a point of maintaining his dignity.
He apparently died years ago. I have a photo of his gravestone. But later on people sent me a picture saying, “Don’t you think this looks like Gaynor Crist?” And it did! On another occasion I was with my then wife, we had gone up to Dublin and we were walking past Trinity when I saw a man on the other side of the road who looked just like him, mannerisms and all.
I walked about ten paces, stopped dead in my tracks and said, “My God, no one who ever knew him saw him dead. No one.”
Did you think of yourself as being part of the literary circle centered around McDaid’s pub?
Not terribly. Brendan Behan was a great pal. When you were alone with him he was a completely different person. Very quiet, almost shy. He wrote some beautiful short stories. “After the Wake” was one. He was the first to see the manuscript of The Ginger Man. He broke into my closet looking for something else, found the manuscript and started editing it. He even signed his name on it. I was absolutely furious, but in the end I incorporated nearly all of his suggestions. He was a tormented man and I felt very sorry for him in his later days.
What about Anthony Cronin’s book Dead as Doornails?
Anthony Cronin was one of the few people to see me in action but he’s never said anything about it in print. In the catacombs one night there was a typical sort of bullying drunk. I begged him to withdraw. I knocked him clean over the bed onto an orange crate. Cronin said, “I’ve seen them all, I’ve seen Sugar Ray Robinson, I’ve seen Marciano, but I’ve never seen a punch like that.” I never had any trouble in Dublin after that. The trick is to keep the arm and fist loose like a piece of spaghetti and the fist limp until the moment of impact. If you do that they won’t even see it coming.
Did you know Samuel Beckett?
No, I never actually met Beckett but I wrote somewhere that he had been an outstanding cricketer at Trinity. He sent me a note back saying that it brought him great pleasure to think that he was still remembered for that.
When you tried to publish The Ginger Man in New York in the fifties it was rejected by twenty-three publishers in a row.
The realization that I could not be published in America was terribly traumatic. I went back to Ireland, sailing out of Manhattan on the U.S.S. Franconia with Crist. Because of this [rejection] and the litigation with the Olympia Press that went on for twenty-two years I never really had any sense of success throughout my career practically. Recognition and sales are necessary on a practical basis for an author.
I suppose that Girodias who owned the Olympia Press deserves some credit for publishing you?
He did say that but if you look at it in another way, what he was doing was turning me into a pornographer. And I could have disappeared off the face of the earth. That’s what I faced when he brought The Ginger Man out. I swore. I remember my fist coming down, saying, ‘I will rescue my book if it’s the last thing I ever do.’ So now you are looking at the owner of the Olympia Press in Paris. I own the greatest, the biggest, the most famous pornographic publishing entity in the whole world. After twenty-two years. It was a horrifying revelation to Girodias when he found out.
So, after you bought him out it was pretty much plain sailing?
No, I’ve never had plain sailing. My battles still continue on various fronts. I don’t think I’ll ever see a day of plain sailing.
At this point we went to look for his son, who is badminton champion of the club. As we looked, J.P. Donleavy explained to me the rudiments of De Alphonse tennis, a game he invented that resembles real tennis but is more complex. In any tournament he is by courtesy always the first seed.
He has written a book about it. He writes almost every day, even when traveling. To miss a day or two is bad for the story and he has to force himself to concentrate. On the other hand, he has nothing whatsoever to do with the literary world. “I have been too busy with the lawyers,” he says.
Running the cattle farm must bring you pleasure?
Not at all. I’ve had cattle for quite a few years now. Bloody things. If they break they can do a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of damage in five minutes and a hundred yards. That’s what I face. If I hear one more cow bellow, I think I will be able to listen to anything.
What do you think of Dublin these days?
It’s a very changed place. Very bustling. The hotels are jammed and the pubs are awash. There are great planeloads of people from Manchester and Birmingham flying in for weekends.
We do not find his son so we walk down to the lobby and I stand in line for a cab. He waits with me, very courteously. There is a furious thunderstorm with torrential rain. We observe an altercation on the sidewalk. It occurs to me that Donleavy is coming to terms with the city. His last two books, The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms and Wrong Information Is Being Given Out at Princeton, are both set here. As I get into the cab I look back at the writer who walked his own line. Is he really sick of cows?
And I say goodbye to the dapper man. An Irish American with an English goddamn accent. An observer of the human parade, with a touch of melancholy perhaps, permitting himself the occasional wry grin or once in a while a belly laugh.
The last of which
we have not