"Be careful, those getting this then do the unforgivable. Which is frequently a lot worse than the first lousy thing they did to you."

- J.P. Donleavy from The Unexpurgated Code.

Adventures with J.P. Donleavy
How I lost my job & made my way to greater glory

by Seymour Lawrence

Published first in The Paris Review, Fall 1990

I first met J.P. Donleavy in July, 1961 at a garden party in London on what was believed to be the hottest day on record. The party was given on my behalf as Director of the Atlantic Monthly Press to meet leading British publishers, writers and literary agents.

I had asked my hostess to invite J.P. Donleavy whom I had never met, although we had corresponded for over a year about his novel in progress, Fairy Tales of New York. I didn't think he would turn up, since he was known to be a recluse who avoided literary parties, nor did some of my publishing friends who told me in emphatic terms that Donleavy did not like or trust publishers. About an hour after the party was in progress, the garden crowded with London literati, a solitary figure suddenly appeared at the top of the stone steps, slim, bearded and wearing a Brooks Brothers seersucker suit (which only Americans wore at the time). It was Donleavy, accompanied by a statuesque young lady with flowing blond hair. A number of publishers stopped what they were doing and made a beeline to shake Donleavy's hand and introduce themselves. He told me later that among them were several who had rejected The Ginger Man with curt one-line replies or standard printed forms. I stayed a few more minutes, in deference to my hostess, then invited Donleavy and his companion to dinner at the Connaught. She had another engagement but Donleavy was pleased to accept. He told me that he frequently went to the Connaught bar in the late afternoon for a glass of champagne, to lift his spirits and because of its vitamins (which he pronounced "vitt-amins"). After two glass of vitt-amins we went into dinner. The Connaught menu is one of the finest in all of England, and the wine list is equally impressive. Donleavy chose steak tattare and I order roast duck. I asked him to select the wine and he chose a '57 Chambertin. It was animated dinner during the course of which he asked me many questions, professional and some quite personal: what my wife was like, what my house on Beacon Hill was like, whether my children had a nanny, where I had gone to college, where did I "take lunch" in Boston, etc. He seemed to be very familiar with Boston, especially Beacon Hill, Charles Street, the Public Gardens and the West End of Boston where a good part of The Ginger Man had been written.

The novel we discussed at dinner was called Fairy Tales of New York. Donleavy had offered us the opening chapters of the novel which prompted me to phone his flat in London (he also had a house on the Isle of Man where he lived with his wife and children). He said that he had found my call "astonishing" as I spoke in such a relaxed manner about his work, totally unaware of the mounting transatlantic toll charges. It was clear that he had an emotional block about publishers because of his humiliating and traumatic experience getting The Ginger Man published. It had been rejected over and over again by British and American publishers, perhaps as many as forty, only to find a home with The Olympia Press in Paris — where The Ginger Man was misrepresented and published as pornography in the lurid Traveller's Companion Series. Donleavy had good reason not to trust publishers and he was wary of them. I was determined to become his publisher.

On my return to Boston I proposed to my associates at Little, Brown that we offer an advance of $7,500 for Fairy Tales of New York. Little, Brown was more conservative in their view of the book's sales potential and they set a limit of $2,500. I felt this offer was inadequate and that we might lose the author, so I used my prerogative as director of the press to increase the advance to $5,000. Donleavy accepted our offer promptly.

But three weeks later he wrote:

Unfortunately it looks like I'm going to complicate matters at this stage. I have decided to publish A SINGULAR MAN instead of A FAIRY TALE OF NEW YORK.

We agreed to substitute A Singular Man in the contract and airmailed agreements in September, 1961.

We had no further word from Donleavy until April, 1962 when he wrote:

It would not be appropriate to attempt publication of A SINGULAR MAN out of Boston. The problems which beset THE GINGER MAN appear to be at the least equal in the case of A SINGULAR MAN. Therefore I am attempting to find a publisher in New York which frankly I don't feel will be any easier.

I phoned him at once to reassure him that he should not be concerned or apprehensive about the book's publication in Boston and that censorship was no longer the problem it once was. I suggested that since I would be in Europe on holiday that we meet for dinner in Paris. I invited him to fly over as our guest with the opening sections of A Singular Man. Two weeks later I had an opportunity to read the first one hundred pages of this extraordinary novel while Donleavy explored the streets of Paris. It was exciting to meet its solitary here, George Smith, erecting his private air-conditioned mausoleum, which he visits in his bullet-proof "limozine." Smith, mysteriously rich and desperately lonely, is looked after by a bawdy black housekeeper and two secretaries, one of whom is a free-wheeling blonde named Miss Tomson, "the gay, wild and willing beauty" with whom Smith falls passionately in love. The book has great ribald moments, a Chaplinesque sadness, and sensuality equal to The Ginger Man.

A Singular Man was completed and airmailed to The Atlantic in late April, 1963. It was greeted with enthusiasm and astonished delight by all the young Atlantic editors. However, a senior editor who admired the book as "a strong and original piece of work," qualified his admiration and raised a red flag:

The book is bound to get into trouble in all sorts of censorship courts. One foresees much litigation. The postal authorities will certainly be tempted to meddle. Yet I wonder if Donleavy is not merely putting into ordinary English the thoughts and deeds of most men and women.

This comment was brought to the attention of the general manager who requested the manuscript for reading. His report, which ran to nearly two pages of single-spaced type, was heavily underlined:

I choose not to publish the Donleavy...Not to publish is no doubt an act of suppression...A decision to publish is an act of subversion...There is another world, peopled by men and women who elect continence short of wedlock. In my view, their world is just as valid as Donleavy's. Donleavy and his ilk are bent on destroying this other world. It amounts to a "party line" — obscenity is good, because it is naturalorgasm is the only reality.

On this disturbing note, I left for Europe for an extended editorial trip. My first stop was London where I planned to see Donleavy. In my absence the manuscript was turned over to the editor of The Atlantic, the chief editorial officer of the company. He took copious notes and as he read more and more he grew increasingly outraged.

Let's not kid ourselves: this will be regarded as one of the dirtiest books in years, and action in Federal and State courts is a probability. This is the most sexual novel we have ever solicited.

Our associates at Little, Brown shared his position that the book would be attacked on grounds of pornography. Legal opinions were sought in New York and Boston, and the book was taken out of production.

Over dinner with Donleavy, I told him what was happening in Boston and he did not seem surprised. In fact he anticipated this reaction a year ago when he completed the first draft. I told him that I did not the book was pornographic or obscene and that I was committed to its publication. I would stand by it at all costs and defend it to the rest of The Atlantic-Little, Brown board (of which I was the junior member). He thought this was unwise of me and that I should forget the whole business. The book wasn't worth it and I shouldn't jeopardize my career. I said, "Let's see what the lawyers say." Two days later I received the Boston Lawyer's opinion:

The book seems to be a fairly continuous satire of conventional existence, sometimes accomplished with humor. And when we consider the sexual episodes in which the hero becomes not infrequently involved, three of them have their moments of delicacy and tenderness, while the fourth is plain comical. None of these seems to be inspired by a desire to arouse lust in the reader...But to put it succinctly, the book is controversial.

I thought we had clear sailing but when I arrived at my next stop in Paris a cable was waiting from the editor of The Atlantic:


What prompted this cable was the opinion of the New York lawyer:

This book would be at least as difficult to defend as Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. With respect to A SINGULAR MAN, there is less chance of arguing successfully that it has "redeeming social importance."

I needed a break and I accepted Donleavy's invitation to spend the weekend with him, his wife and their two children on the Isle of Man. I sailed from Liverpool with a rowdy gang of leather-jacketed, beer-guzzling motorcyclists, the equivalent of the Hell's Angels, bound for their annual convention there. I kept a low profile. Donleavy was waiting at the dock, wearing dark glasses, stylishly dressed in tweed cap, tweed jacket and plus fours. When he saw my traveling companions roar off on their bikes he was horrified and said that my life had been at risk. We drove to a newly opened hotel near his house, where Donleavy had requested a room facing the sea. The room had a magnificent view but no door. I was told it would be installed later.

That evening I met Donleavy's first wife, Valerie, known as V, a slim, patrician young woman, very quiet and thoughtful, who became a Jungian therapist after their marriage. The Donleavys had invited Lord and Lady Percy to dinner. Percy was a direct descendant of Hotspur and had the long Percy beak. He had given up the high life of London to work as a lobsterman on the Isle of Man. He was dressed in rough working clothes, while Lady Percy wore an elegant, full-length satin gown. Percy didn't drink, and he said he had given up everything except sex. After a good dinner, with several bottle of excellent wine followed by vintage port. Lord Percy abstaining, Donleavy invited me to climb Maughold Head, a rugged headland high above the sea. It was pitch black and I couldn't see a thing except for intermittent flashes of light from a nearby lighthouse. We were on a precipice when my feet slipped on the heather. Donleavy caught me in time, saying "I almost lost a publisher. One more step and you would have plunged four-hundred feet to the sea."

Before I left for the Isle of Man, I had cabled the editor of The Atlantic:


When I returned to London I found this reply:


I replied by letter that to break the contract would not only be ignominious but would have damaging consequences. The book was already listed in the forthcoming Little, Brown catalogue and it was known by many people in the industry — booksellers, authors, agents and other publishers — that we had the book. I suggested an outside jury of three highly respected authors on our list — Katherine Anne Porter, Alfred Kazin and Sean O'Faolain — for their confidential opinion. If the majority found the book offensive or distasteful, I would abide by the decision of the Atlantic-Little, Brown board and I would ask Donleavy to withdraw it. I also suggested that we show the manuscript to Felix Frankfurter. Since Justice Frankfurter was retired from the U.S. Supreme Court I felt that he could give a free and objective opinion. Both plans were rejected out of hand.

After the endless exchange of cables and letters between Boston and London, it was a relief to find a quiet place on the coast of Brittany where I couldn't be found. I knew that a letter was being drafted in Boston asking Donleavy to withdraw his book but I felt that he should hear it from me first:

June, 1963

Pilat-Place - Gironde

Dear Mike:

I have been in constant touch with Boston since that splendid weekend with you and V on the island. There has been a succession of letters and cables across the ocean, and I will now try to convey to you what has happened to date.

The legal opinion was sobering. In no uncertain terms the New York lawyer predicted that A SINGULAR MAN would be prosecuted in many localities as violating the laws against obscenity and that it would be at least as difficult to defend as Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER. In the case of TROPIC OF CANCER there were more than 60 individual prosecutions. The ultimate determination of what is obscene and what is not obscene will be decided by the United States Supreme Court when they rule of the TROPIC OF CANCER case which will take place towards the end of this year or early in 1964.

In view of all this, the Atlantic-Little, Brown board feels that you should withdraw the manuscript and cancel the contract, and offer your novel to another publisher who would not have misgivings. I am against this decision and have tried my utmost to reverse it, but to no avail.

You know by now how deeply committed I am to you as an author. Nor am I alone in my regard for your work. Most of our editors feel exactly as I do, and every single one of my contemporaries is with me. But there are older members of the board who reacted violently to the sexual scenes, although Lord knows there was sex in SHIP OF FOOLS, in the novels of Brian Moore, and in the work of lesser authors whom we publish. I think it was the dominance of this theme in A SINGULAR MAN which brought on such extreme reaction. And the lawyer's opinion which stated that the novel would be vulnerable to prosecution was the final straw.

My warmest greetings to you and V and I only regret having failed you in this battle. It's the first I have ever lost on behalf of an author I believe in so profoundly, and it's a bitter pill. But I do not regard the war as having been lost. It will simply take more time and patience.

Regards as ever,

I returned to Boston to find that the proposed letter to Donleavy requesting cancellation of his contract had gone through several drafts on advice of counsel and Little, Brown executives. Everybody felt that I should sign the letter since I had been the sole contact with Donleavy. My letter was dated July 9, 1963 but before it had time to reach Donleavy two registered letters dated July 8, 1963 arrived at the respective offices of The Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown & Company. The contents were identical:

Dear Sirs:

With reference to A SINGULAR MAN contract dated September, 1961 and supplementary letter concerning first serial rights dated February 18, 1963.

As a matter of courtesy and without prejudice to any other remedies, or claims in the manner of protecting my interests I hereby inform you that unless I receive an undertaking within one week of the date of receipt of this letter of your intention to publish the work A SINGULAR MAN forthwith in the best interest of the said work, I intend to seek all remedies in protecting my interests and institute proceedings and to seek of not less than Three Hundred and Seventy Five Dollars ($375,000.00)

Yours faithfully
J.P. Donleavy

This letter had the impact of a hand grenade. Board meetings were hastily called, phone calls were made to legal counsel — and I was left out in the cold. My senior colleagues thought I had prompted Donleavy to send the letter. But I had not. This bold and imaginative stroke was entirely Donleavy's, though I wished I had thought of it first.

On July 16, 1963 the Chairman of Little, Brown wrote to Donleavy as follows:

We have reconsidered our position as set forth in Mr. Lawrence's letter to you of July 9th. Upon such reconsideration we a prepared to publish A SINGULAR MAN on November 7th as originally scheduled and in the manner originally planned. We wish you to know that we were motivated by our desire to avoid being overly censorious rather than by your threat of suit. Our attorneys advise us that we can successfully defend any suit instituted by you.

Despite our confidence that we can win any lawsuit which might be commenced in this situation, we are ready to go forward with the publication of the work.

The book went through production in an orderly fashion, with Donleavy's cooperation, even to the extent of his providing original jacket art. When the original manuscript arrived in Boston, it was fastened together with bolts and screws, with the title and author's name in cut-out letters pasted on brown wrapping paper. Without knowing it, Donleavy had created his own book jacket and I told the art director: "That's the book jacket."

A Singular Man was published on schedule in November, 1963 and it received serious attention throughout the country. No one thought it was pornographic. No on said it was a dirty book. And there was no threat of censorship or prosecution. Donleavy had received an advance of $5,000 for A Singular Man, and over the years in its various editions — hardcover, paperback, book club, translations — the book has earned more than $100,000 in royalties.

It had been a battle between conventional middlebrow values and a revolutionary new voice "boiling with creativity" as one young editor put it. It had been a battle between generations. But although the battle was over, the Board of Directors would not forgive and forget. Several months after publication of A Singular Man I received a four-page memorandum from the editor of The Atlantic advising me to cancel my proposed trip to Latin America to acquire new authors, terminate my foreign program, curtail the number of books we published, but the editorial staff, reduce overhead expenses and broaden my reading tastes. In no uncertain terms it was suggesting that I refrain from publishing any more authors like Donleavy who were more suited to Grove Press than The Atlantic Monthly Press.

An invisible force working behind the scenes was the absentee owner of The Atlantic, a rich woman who had inherited the company and whose principal occupation was breeding bulls. She felt that Donleavy's books were disgusting and immoral and would tarnish the image of The Atlantic. She had written a confidential memorandum to the Board, which I was privileged to read, in which she characterized my entire list as "second-rate and of questionable value," in an effort to force my resignation. The authors of "questionable value" I had acquired for The Atlantic included Katherine Anne Potter, Sean O'Faolain, Alfred Kazin, Nobel Prize winners Camile Jose Cela and George Seferis, Primo Levi, Pulitzer Prize novelist Edwin O'Connor, Howard Nemerow, Richard Yeats, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, and a number of young writers who have since achieved fame, including J.P. Donleavy.

In November, 1964 I decided to strike out on my own with an independent imprint based on The Atlantic's arrangement with Little, Brown. I began to negotiate with publishers in New York who would act as an "umbrella" for my list. Months went by and I became discouraged and beset by doubt as to whether this new venture would work out, when one day Donleavy rang from London and in his soft-spoken Anglo-Irish voice, with a trace of New York City, gave me this advice: "All you need to be a publisher is one room, one desk, one phone and one author. I'll be that author." He would give me The Ginger Man to publish.

* * *

In 1965, the first complete and unexpurgated edition of The Ginger Man was published in the United States. It was also the first book published under my imprint and it comprised my entire first list. We wanted to celebrate with a publication party at The Ginger Man restaurant in New York. Donleavy's initial reaction was to say no because he did not enjoy literary gatherings and because the owner of the restaurant, Patrick O'Neal (an actor who had played Sebastian Dangerfield in the stage version of The Ginger Man), was trading on the book's reputation. After much persuasion Donleavy reluctantly agreed to make a brief appearance. When he arrived at the restaurant, he beheld a crowded, noisy, smoke-filled scene of writers, reviewers, editors, agents, various media types, groupies and that strange breed of literati who find out where the parties are and move in like piranhas for free food and drink. Donleavy was appalled by this motley sight and carefully concealed himself behind a large potted palm in a corner of the restaurant, protected by his foreign rights manager, the very elegant Tessa Sayle and myself. Very few well-wishers knew he was at the party, and even fewer managed to break through that barricade.

From then on, publication parties were held at Donleavy's residence in Ireland. The first party was in June, 1971 at Balsoon House, Donleavy's elegant Georgian mansion on the River Boyne, to celebrate the publication of his novel, The Onion Eaters. Friends of Donleavy arrived from all parts of the world: his mother and sister from the Bronx; Lord Dynevor, whose ancestors were the original Princes of Wales, from Dynevor Castle; old Trinity College friends including "General" A.K. Donoghue, a Harvard graduate from the wrong side of the tracks who was the model for the character O'Keefe in The Ginger Man; Lord Dunsany, the monocled heir of the famed Irish storyteller, who lived in a neighboring castle; Barrett Prettyman Jr., a distinguished Washington lawyer who frequently argued before the Supreme Court, and was a friend of the Kennedys; Prettyman's stunning, well-endowed blonde girlfriend wearing a low-cut white gown; a wax-moustached international financier who had flown from New York because he was madly in love with the second Mrs. Donleavy; actors and actresses from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; local farmers and fox-hunting gentry; and an innocent-looking, beautiful young nun who had not yet "gone over the wall."

I had brought my fourteen-year-old daughter to Ireland to celebrate her birthday. She was to stay in the Chicken Coop, an ancient stone building at the rear of the main house. When I escorted her to her quarters I was startled to find bottles of perfume, cosmetics, a nun's habit, and various items of lingerie, including a black garter belt and black silk stockings strewn around the room. The clothes belonged to the nun who would be my daughter's roommate for the weekend.

The party was preceded by a day at the races at The Curragh, Ireland's famous track, where our activities were covered by a team from People magazine who had flown in for the occasion. At the party, forty guests dined on smoked salmon, roast saddle of lamb with fresh garden vegetables, apple tart with Devonshire cream — and an endless flow of Donleavy's favorite champagne, Roederer. After dinner there were scenes that could have come from a Donleavy novel: an Irish lord competing with an American book-club editor in lustful pursuit of the nun; a proper Anglo-Irish horsewoman demanding a gun to shoot "General" Donoghue who was proclaiming in a loud voice to a gathering audience that the Irish were nothing but "a race of ignorant, superstitious peasants who never left the bogs"; and a sexy German expatriate was overheard confiding to a local farmer that "the passion has gone out of my marriage."

Four years later, we gave a party to celebrate the publication of The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners (which one reviewer called "a ribald Emily Post"). The party was held at Levington Park, Donleavy's two hundred-acre estate on the shores of Loch Owel where he lives to this day as a gentleman farmer breeding Hereford cattle.For the invitation Donleavy drew the head of a grinning bow-tied fellow with words in his mouth. The guests included many of the same people from The Onion Eaters party and two unexpected guests, Bianca and Mick Jagger. The Jaggers arrived without warning, in a limousine with two starlets and a film director whom Donleavy knew. Mick Jagger, a fan of Donleavy's work, had long wanted to meet the author and had driven nearly three hours across Ireland on a black starless night along narrow winding roads to Levington Park from his rented castle outside of Dublin. Donleavy was clearly disturbed by these uninvited guests, who in a flash, had totally disrupted his party. The Jaggers are look-alikes, facially and physically, and doubly charismatic. Mick wore a shirt unbuttoned to the waist and Bianca wore a diaphanous blouse. The couple had the effect of an instant aphrodisiac. Women of all ages and walks of life made a bee-line for Jagger, inviting him to one of the upstairs bedrooms or the nearest lavatory. One young woman in a mini-skirt as dispatched home to Baltimore the next morning for gross misconduct. When Donleavy saw this scene of pandemonium and sexual frenzy he quietly retreated upstairs to his bedroom, only to reappear after the Jaggers had departed.

Publication parties continued at Levington Park with each new book, but they became intimate dinner parties of a dozen guests. Donleavy would preside at the head of a long refectory table, entertaining this audience with funny stories, usually at his own expense, with Chaplinesque touches and perfect mimicry. On occasion he would serenade us with a bit of doggerel from the Ould Sod: "It's the rich what gets the pleasure. It's the poor what gets the blame. It's the same the whole world over. Isn't it a shame."

Donleavy was the perfect host, always attentive to the needs of his guests, making each one feel that he or she had a special place of honor. These parties were surrounded by an aura of magic and had a liberating effect on guests who would make the most astonishing and intimate revelations about themselves. Donleavy's free spirit released others of their inhibitions. No one ever had a hangover the morning after, which Donleavy attributed to the quality of the champagne and wine, and that good, invigorating Irish air.

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