The Ginger Man letters: the editor’s backstory

On the first anniversary of JP Donleavy’s death, Lilliput publishes key correspondence

Four here at McDaid’s inspired characters in The Ginger Man: Tony McInerney (Tony Malarkey, fourth from left), Brendan Behan (Barney Berry, sixth), Gainor Crist (Sebastian Dangerfield, seventh), Desmond MacNamara (MacDoon, right). Photograph: Courtesy JP Donleavy archive

Four here at McDaid’s inspired characters in The Ginger Man: Tony McInerney (Tony Malarkey, fourth from left), Brendan Behan (Barney Berry, sixth), Gainor Crist (Sebastian Dangerfield, seventh), Desmond MacNamara (MacDoon, right). Photograph: Courtesy JP Donleavy archive


The real people who inspired the main characters in the 1955 novel, The Ginger Man, which was denounced and banned yet went on to become an international bestseller, speak for themselves in The Ginger Man Letters, published today by the Lilliput Press.

The letters of Gainor Crist and AK Donoghue (models for Sebastian Dangerfield and Kenneth O’Keefe respectively) and JP Donleavy combine to create a compelling narrative, a true story that reads like Donleavy fiction – often laugh-out loud funny, sometimes outrageous, elsewhere sensitive and introspective, then brawling and confident, and always revealing. Altogether there are 220 letters.

Crist, from Dayton, Ohio and ostensibly a student of law, was a handsome six-footer with ginger hair and no ambition except to have a good time. Donoghue, a Harvard graduate, was brilliant, blunt and neurotic. Donleavy, a New Yorker and son of Irish immigrants, was a skilled amateur boxer, a prankster, keen observer and an artist who would not be stopped.

JP Donleavy peers over the shoulders of newlyweds Gainor and Petra Crist, who were also studying at Trinity. Courtesy: JP Donleavy archive
JP Donleavy peers over the shoulders of newlyweds Gainor and Petra Crist, who were also studying at Trinity. Courtesy: JP Donleavy archive

The three Americans were among the friendly invasion of discharged servicemen and a few women, who after the second World War II came to Ireland for university. Dubliners were drawn into this constellation of characters, including a veteran of a different sort, Brendan Behan, out of the IRA. They patronized the pubs off Grafton Street and the cellars of a Fitzwilliam Place townhouse, nicknamed the Catacombs by Donleavy, where the partying never stopped.

Donleavy once said of the bohemian world they created: “No one knew or much cared that a so-called literary period was then hugely in the making. Comeuppance and instant amusement were all the rage. And you were as good as your last fist thrown or witticism uttered.” Donleavy sensed it wouldn’t last and began observing, listening and taking notes, what became field research for The Ginger Man, a novel that re-created that time and place, presented through the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, who keeps sailing his dreamboats in the rough waters of reality.

The correspondents had nicknames for each other. Donleavy was Guts, acknowledgment of his fighting spirit and quick fists. Crist was addressed as Gainor but sometimes revealingly signed himself SD or Dangerfield. Donoghue, who attended medical school in Vienna after Trinity but didn’t finish, was addressed as Doctor or General, a rapid promotion from his US army rank of corporal. He gave himself the title Lord Killorglin.

The intriguing letters, written in three distinct voices, are newsy, rich in detail about their unpredictable lives, their hopes, fears, challenges and triumphs after leaving Trinity. Donleavy, a welterweight in the ring, was often underestimated, given his trim frame and introverted and usually polite manner. But he never backed down from a challenge, as made clear in the letters. For example, he battled his first publisher, Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press, for two decades before prevailing. Donleavy once explained to this editor: “They just don’t know who they’re dealing with.”

Dubliner Tony McInerney and Arthur Kenneth Donoghue, formerly a classics scholar at Harvardm, inTrinity’s Front Square. Photograph: Courtesy JP Donleavy archive
Dubliner Tony McInerney and Arthur Kenneth Donoghue, formerly a classics scholar at Harvardm, inTrinity’s Front Square. Photograph: Courtesy JP Donleavy archive

But Donleavy could also be generous. Seymour Lawrence, who lost his job after publishing Donleavy’s second novel A Singular Man, launched his own imprint at the suggestion of Donleavy, who offered to be his first author. Lawrence would be his American publisher for three decades.

Also appearing in the letters are Willie Donaldson, who invested in the 1959 London stage production of The Ginger Man to repay a kindness done him at boarding school; Richard Harris, who starred in the London triumph; Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who figured in the Dublin disaster. Also Pamela O’Malley, who became Gainor Crist’s second wife; Sam Spiegel, who made Donleavy an offer he refused to Spiegel’s astonishment; Mick Jagger, who tried to be inconspicuous at a Donleavy party; and John Huston, who took Donleavy fishing.

I am the editor of the collection. I am a longtime fan of JP Donleavy who became a serious collector of his work. I was determined to meet him and seized on the opportunity in 1990 when he was in the United States on a book tour. I was then a reporter and convinced the book editor to let me interview him. What was scheduled to be a 45-minute interview wound up my spending the entire day with him. We hit it off. When we were finally saying our goodbyes, Donleavy said: “If you’re ever in Ireland, you must come visit.”

I took that to be a firm invitation. I tested my assumption a few years later when I was in Dublin to run in the Dublin Marathon. After the race, I went to Grainger’s, mentioned in The Ginger Man, as the “house of the aspidistra”, to replenish my fluids and to phone Donleavy, who invited me to Levington Park. That was the first of many enjoyable visits.

Universities and national libraries for many years have expressed interest in acquiring Donleavy’s archive of manuscripts, first editions, book and stage ephemera, thousands of photographs, his personal and business correspondence, and his legal case files. It was my wife, Chris, who observed that Donleavy needed a detailed inventory of the archive so that Donleavy and potential buyers knew what was on offer. She said I should do the inventory. I proposed the idea; Donleavy eventually agreed. I started my research in my own considerable Donleavy collection of books, ephemera and other material. I then took a sabbatical from work and headed to Levington Park to dive into the archive to complete the research and writing the inventory.

I read through Donleavy’s correspondence with Crist and Donoghue. Crist had died in 1964, aged 42. Donoghue was still alive and living in a Donegal nursing home. I relayed my enthusiasm for the letters to Donleavy and recommended he consider publishing a collection of the letters. He was intrigued. Meanwhile Donoghue had written Donleavy to suggest he write again about him. Donleavy asked me to write Donoghue for permission to use his letters. Donoghue responded, giving permission to Donleavy to use whatever Donoghue left behind. Donoghue, who aimed to make it to age 90, died in 2009, aged 87. Donleavy died peacefully on September 11th, 2017, a year ago today, aged 91.

Donleavy’s son Philip gave permission for this volume of collected letters, as did Mariana Crist and Jane McAleese, Gainor Crist’s daughters. Mariana also contributed a 3,000-word reminiscence of her father, often funny and ultimately moving. She writes: “as a father, I think, Gainor was wonderful too, in his way. I always felt loved and taken notice of.” Among her revelations, she reports having been babysat by Brendan Behan, while her parents attended classes at TCD. The book is illustrated with some 60 period photos, many never before published, plus two manuscript pages from the first draft of The Ginger Man and facsimiles of several letters.
Bill Dunn is also the author of six previous books, including two on lighthouses. He lives in the United States, two blocks from a lighthouse where he is a docent and the historian. The Ginger Man Letters launch takes place this evening, September 11th, at 6.30pm in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Stret, Dublin.

A selection of letters


[After months of silence Donleavy renews contact with Crist and then Donoghue, unburdening himself. The Ginger Man, a serious work of fiction, had been published in June 1955 by The Olympia Press, Paris - not in its literary Collection Merlin but in its pornographic Traveller’s Companion Series, which Donleavy strenuously protested, claiming misrepresentation and breach of contract. The author and publisher Maurice Girodias would become entangled in a legal battle that would last two decades. This letter carries no salutation but was written to Crist.]

40 A Broughton Road, Fulham, London S.W.6, July 55

I don’t know if they sell it in the bookshops- I should suppose so- i.e. English Bookshop on Left Bank which some American runs- English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine or Librairie Mistral, 37, rue de la Bucherie- someone might be reading it in a literary café- Le Tournon, 1 rue de Tournon- and failing all this- Olympia Press, 8 rue de Nesle Paris 6- phone DANton15-19. But the price is a bit fantastic. I don’t see how anyone will buy it- at Frs 1500 or 30/- although I’ve heard from them and they are giving me £150 when present printing is exhausted- which may be about coming of next Christ.

But Pam should be warned that Irish Customs will look at any book and unless she can put a bible cover over it or better a missal cover- they could easily confiscate it- Randall told me they looked through two books he was carrying and intended taking one away from him but due to fact that he was only spending day- they let him keep it. Will she be able to stop off in London on way back would like very much to see her. The gas works here is killing me. So is the baker across the street- every night smoke blows out of his chimney into my lungs. God let me get out of the smoke. I can’t stand it any more.

Olympia Press says that obviously I am a very difficult person- easily given to ignoring the problems of others and also given to violent outbursts of self pity- this in reply to a letter of mine forbidding them to send this edition to England with it included among list which for your enjoyment- is as follows- THE ENORMOUS BED: RAPE: SCHOOL FOR SIN: TENDER WAS MY FLESH: THE WHIP ANGELS: MY LIFE AND LOVES (FRANK HARRIS): CHARIOT OF FLESH: and one last that I must admit to being proud to have listed with Ginger Man- THE SEXUAL LIFE OF ROBINSON CRUSOE. Also one more title: WHITE THIGHS. An author I should suppose is a frustrated bank clerk who wants to be respectable- but of course this whole business is unfortunate merely because book deserves something more than this. Or does it.

I hate the Irish. God how I hate them. ¾ and the British- only Americans for me. I hope to make the Ginger Man into a libretto for Duffy to write music- you can play your comb and paper instrument that you used at Blackrock. Where will it all end. Tibet? Mac still wears his plastic collar- Dagmar has gone to Ibiza. We leave for Spain end of Oct. for where I can’t make up mind. Malaga or Ibiza- I can’t bear smoke any longer. But I don’t even want to do that. I think I’ll move to Bradford or Leeds which I’ll really feel at home.

Just got a letter from A.K. who says that his address till August 24th is-


He is chief counselor there and will then come to Europe. In London here I sit in park and as it says in Ginger Man

all sin starts
in the park
as marriage
in the dark
And ends
with the lights on.
(a sentence out of book)

By God By God By God- my last short story was called MEET MY MAKER I don’t think I can last much longer but V. with P & K. send love to you all and special regards to Mariana.

40 A Broughton Road, London, S.W.6, July 25, 1964

Dear Doctor,
Got news just a little more than a week ago that Crist is dead. He died in Tenerife in Canary Islands having been taken off a sailing ship enroute to the U.S.A. upon which he was a member of the crew. Have very sketchy third hand information about this, the ship was in fact a sailing vessel under sail, he was ill aboard this and taken off as I suppose the Canaries were the nearest land, he [WAS]put there in a hospital. I had heard stories and indeed saw photographs of him sent by M. Heron when he was supposed to be paralysed in the legs. But have now heard that this was only a temporary thing which came upon him when he was drinking. How old was he- I seem to remember about Behan’s age. It’s unlikely I’ll find out much more about anything- contact with people here rather skimpy if at all. Perhaps you have heard something from somebody, although this seems unlikely.

The ranks are thinning. But then they thinned out years ago when everyone spread all over the world. It was unlikely somehow that one would have seen Crist again. One thing I did know about him was that he was impervious to sea sickness. Enroute on the good ship Franconia from U.S.A. we set out from Halifax into the left over of an Atlantic storm and the seas were incredible, lifting the stern of the ship clear out of the water etc. Only a few hardy souls were left in the dining room, I finally sitting next to Crist was sick, that left Crist alone at table golfing down everyone’s horse dover [SIC], while the rest of the ship were out of action including most of the crew.

This is perhaps one of his qualifications for being aboard this ship- which was to spend three months in the U.S.A. No one seems to know what has happened to his body. He was I think married to a girl called Pamela so she would be the next of kin. I would suppose that Con would know something- but have [NOT]seen nor heard anything of her for years. I can’t remember how I met Crist. I think you or Randall Hillis brought him to my rooms or I was introduced to him on the streets at Trinity. That was in the days of Howth must have been- when George Hill was there and I think he must have been one who got house out there. Hill has been directing pictures, saw one recently Life of Henry Orient- which I enjoyed although many folk look down their noses at this kind of film. Someone told me there was little love between yourself and himself.

If I hear more I’ll let you know, but what else is there to hear, I wonder if he’ll have a gravestone. It’s a Catholic place I hear so there will be some reverence for the dead- but sadly as we know this costs money and I don’t know what Crist’s affairs were like, he did have a flat and a servant or two. But in Spain this is not a sign of affluence if you are a foreigner.

I will be in Prague sometime this Autumn and perhaps Munich- so will journey on to Vienna. Where do you live now. Did you ever get the book on Ireland and banking I had sent. Today a warm sunny day in London and I wear seersucker and do much walking, hundreds and hundreds of Americans everywhere- in center of town hardly ever seen any English- most amazing. Big postal strike here so mail is slow, one of reasons didn’t write sooner.

[While they shared and agreed on many things, Donoghue and Donleavy disagreed on Gainor Crist, whom they both knew so well, and came away with opposite conclusions. ‘Mike had sort of this high-class view of Gainor that I could never have. To me Gainor was a drunk who caused his wives a lot of suffering and all that,’ Donoghue told the editor in a 2006 interview. ‘Gainor Crist himself, although he was smart, never was interested in intellectual things. … He was a bright guy. He was very amused at the life here [IRELAND]. He’d keep you laughing about their oddities. He was very good about that.’ Donleavy has described Crist in print as ‘a gentleman from Ohio …never lost his charm nor dignity and was not a boozing, whoring, wife-beating philanderer … elegant appeal, a man of immense compassion.’172 In the following letter to Donoghue, Donleavy offers his private thoughts about Crist and admits regret.]
40 A Broughton Road, London, S.W.6, January 7, 1966

Mr. dear General,
I am in receipt of your extraordinary document of December 7, 1965 from Embassy of the U.S.A. Madrid, Spain. Fitting. Terribly fitting. In view of the numerous ill advised times that gentleman entered, sat about and exited from various American Embassies in Europe. I repeatedly said to him don’t. Don’t go into those portals. Ere a statutory document shall confound you and some of those close to you. And new one comes to the final word, one which one never felt would be spoken by any American embassy under any circumstances concerning this gentleman ‘If the Embassy can be of further service to you, please do not hesitate to write.’ Much beauty here.

Further, never that it has ever had to be questioned, that the gentleman lived through the day of celebration of American independence- I think it was that which was celebrated on July 4th. I regarded Crist as an American- Real. Untainted by Europe. Not of the wretched immigrant class as myself. Still brushing from the person the mud of the bog. Only sad note- is the poor quality of the American Embassy paper in Madrid upon which the letter is written.

Crist had many good qualities. He exerted democracy where ere he drank. He often punched folk in the face and pulled their hair when remarks unbecoming were made of me outside my presence- he beat the shit out of two Dublin arty crafties on my behalf - giving one of them a lengthy wooling on the floor- that is holding their hair in both hands and swinging it to and fro so that the head doesn’t half go with it fast enough- so that at the root of the hair pain is caused and some of it lost. I believe and old Irish form of justice.

I do regret that one’s last moments with Crist were ill of nature. But he had such incredible principles- amazing. I never figured he would stick to them- but stick he did. I once refused to buy him a pint in a pub in Fulham Broadway- but agreed to purchase a half pint and other half pint after- he said a pint now or a pint never. I believe I ordered the half pint. It came- he refused to drink. But said he would wait until I had drunk. I couldn’t believe it- again of course I am even as much principled as he- and would not buy the pint and did not. But there it was, the half, dripping with foam. There on the mahogany- I waiting for Crist to leap in one wild gesture and down it- never. He looked into the near distance at the publican’s wife. Thinking, I know not what. Perhaps marrying her for the pub’s sake-

Your stories safely received- read and enjoyed. And have to venture to New York next week for fast visit- to put down if I can naughtiness which has arisen there- dreadful the sneaky ways of folk- but will keep you in touch. Madam Sayle I think visiting Vienna, and she sends regards. And what about that longer story which was read to me. Also ‘THE CROW BEARING TRIBUTE SINGS A FAR SWEETER SONG THAN THE NIGHTINGALE WHO COMES TO COLLECT TAXES’ a chinese proverb or a Donoghue.

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