"I am in contemplation of my sins, part of me anyway."

- J.P. Donleavy, 1957
Photo courtesy, The J.P. Donleavy Archives.



by Bill Dunn
Copyright © Bill Dunn 2006
Levington Park: home of The J.P. Donleavy Archives.

In many of the 22 rooms of J.P. Donleavy’s Irish midlands home, once visited by James Joyce as a boy and later described by Joyce in his novel fragment Stephen Hero, are the contents of J.P. Donleavy’s voluminous and historically valuable archive. There are easily many hundreds of thousands of pages – possibly millions of pages – related to his prodigious careers as a writer, painter, playwright, screenwriter, and literary litigant. The archive also contains material from many contemporaries, including Brendan Behan, first ever to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man, and Richard Harris, first ever to play Sebastian Dangerfield on the stage in the theatrical production of The Ginger Man.

Exactly how many pages, linear feet or miles, and tonnage there are in the archive will be left to the lucky institution that snags this goldmine of material to figure out. Collectively, the J. P. Donleavy papers provide an insider’s view of book publishing, the theater, authors and playwrights, and many famous and fascinating people in America, Europe, and around the world. In the author’s many years in litigation protecting his work, The Ginger Man, his archive demonstrates how an author / playwright battles, writes and edits, and how his books and plays evolve, and how without agent representation he forms legal agreements and deals with editors, publishers, producers, actors, publicists, critics, reporters, and ultimately his public.

Neck Deep in Manuscripts

I should know. I’ve spent nearly five months neck deep in manuscripts, researching and writing J.P. Donleavy Library & Archive: An Inventory, which was privately printed in Mullingar in January 2006. J.P. has jokingly said: “The inventory makes better reading than the literature it describes.” The inventory, in actuality, is the reference guide for discussions between the author and those interested in acquiring the papers, which includes his alma mater Trinity College Dublin and various American universities, among others.

Before an archive can be sold, buyer and seller have to know what’s exactly in the archive. The document I produced identifies each item or related items and describes them, assesses their importance, and places them in the context of the life and career of the author, any connection to other works, people, events, and places. In the case of a large group of letters (dozens or hundreds) from one correspondent, there would be an overview of that group of letters, the contents, and relevance, with more detailed descriptions of 10 or so representative letters from that person.

As for my qualifications, J.P. has said: “You do, having an objective view, know my work better than I do.” I have been reading and guffawing over his works for 40+ years and seriously collecting his first editions, manuscripts, and art for more than three decades. I have some rare editions of The Ginger Man that the author doesn’t have.

From Reporter to Archivist

In a former life as a newspaper reporter and determined to meet my favorite author, I wangled an assignment to interview him in 1990 for USA Today. We hit it off. No doubt he was impressed by my command of his work and respect for it, including one of his most fascinating works, the handbook of the sport De Alfonce Tennis, a combination of fact and fiction and a real and practiced sport. I also laughed at many of his observations that hot summer day in Washington, D.C., as I scribbled them down. What was to have been a 45-minute interview wound up my spending the entire day with him. As we said goodbye, J.P. suggested: “If you’re ever in Ireland, you must come visit.” I took that to be a firm invitation, an assumption I tested a few years later when I was here to run in the Dublin Marathon. That was the first of a dozen visits to his midlands home.

Later learning that he was considering selling his archive to a leading institution to ensure its proper care and access, I offered to produce the inventory, explaining it was essential in any negotiations. I did 14 sample entries during a three-week visit, which eventually led to my coming back for four months to complete the job the author described as “five marathons completed
as one.”

Eureka! Another Treasure Uncovered

It proved the experience of a lifetime during which I often couldn’t sleep, due to anticipation over what I might find that day. Several times I started at 4 and 5 a.m. And more than a dozen times, I gave out a triumphant shout over a discovery and then immediately called J.P. to tell him what I had unearthed that he thought lost, stolen or had forgotten about, or never knew of.

Among the treasures I stumbled upon were:

• Some 50 unsent Christmas cards from Valerie and Mike Donleavy, each with an original watercolor by J.P., who was a painter before he was a writer. They were piled up in an unlabeled box. [Editor’s note: J.P.’s nickname from his Trinity days is “Mike”, short for his Confirmation name Michael. His pals called him Mike to avoid confusion with all the other Jims and Pats then at Trinity].

• Two very rare Gaiety Theatre programs from the ill-fated 1959 Dublin production of The Ginger Man, which closed after only three performances after the author and director refused to make changes demanded by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. That short run followed a triumphant run in London where the Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson raved: “There are two modern plays in London through which blows the wind of genius. One of them is the ‘Hostage’. The other is ‘The Ginger Man’.”

• A 1972 fan letter from Jacqueline Onassis buried in the folder of correspondence related to an unpublished manuscript, The Unexpurgated Code of Foxhunting.

• A 1970 Robert Redford letter expressing continuing interest in filming A Singular Man, J.P.’s second novel that caused its editor Seymour Lawrence to lose his job. The letter was filed not under the Redford’s name but A Singular Man – Film Enquiries. Another Redford letter, to date missing, reads: “Dear Mike, Am I famous enough yet?”

I discovered that the J.P. Donleavy archive, spanning more than 50 years, is actually several related and complementary archives containing primary and secondary material in the areas of publishing, art, theater, film, copyright law, marketing, politics, censorship, popular culture, and changing mores.

Robert K. O’Neill, head of Boston College’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, examined the archive in 2005 and discussed its acquisition with J.P. The New York Times, in its edition of February 11, 2006, quoted Dr. O’Neill as saying: “What’s particularly interesting is that Donleavy kept everything intact. …You seldom come across a collection that is as complete as his.”

Atypical Archive

What contributes to the depth and breadth of the archive are several unusual factors, not typically found in other author archives:

• His Own Agent – From the outset, J.P. represented himself in negotiations with publishers and theatrical and film producers. He has the resulting correspondence that is usually found in the files of agents – not their writer clients. Publisher Seymour Lawrence paid his author the supreme compliment, saying J.P. represented himself better than any agent he knew.

• Assistants – Starting with Tessa Sayle who in the 1950s organized J.P.’s files in a system followed by her successors, the author has always had secretaries who kept copious notes and produced copies of all correspondence and manuscripts. Thus correspondence is two-way – incoming letters and carbons or photocopies of J.P.’s initiating or responding letters. At the time of her untimely death in 1993, Tessa Sayle was the doyenne of literary agents in the U.K.

• Draft Through Final Manuscript – J.P. typically goes through several drafts of each book manuscript, as he often does with his letters. Most all drafts have been saved. Thus scholars can trace the writer’s editing process and the evolution of a story.

• Litigation – Disputed rights to various books and productions embroiled J.P. in litigation that helped to broaden copyright protection for authors. So expert did J.P. become in legal arguments over copyright and publishing practices that one attorney advised a writer with a copyright problem to go see Donleavy for advice.

A Man of Letters

To produce J.P. Donleavy Library & Archive: An Inventory, which is single-spaced and 166-pages, I went room by room, closet by closet, drawer by drawer, to examine manuscripts, first draft through final version, the first editions of J.P.’s 24 books, contracts underlying each book, artwork, ephemera, and many thousands of personal, business, and legal letters, and a few thousand photographs.

Among the items examined were the 41 cards and letters from Gainor Stephen Crist, often referred to as the person The Ginger Man character Sebastian Dangerfield is based upon, and who during the writing of the manuscript expressed his encouragement. I also inspected 200 letters from Arthur Kenneth Donoghue, model for O’Keefe in The Ginger Man and Samuel S in The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, and some 600 letters from Seymour Lawrence, J.P.’s American publisher from 1963 until his death in 1994.

Lawrence enthusiastically acquired the writer’s second novel, A Singular Man, for the conservative Boston publisher Atlantic-Little, Brown and then proceeded to lose his editor’s job as a result of the publisher’s fear of prosecution due to the book’s obscenity and sexual frankness. J.P. consoled Lawrence, advising him to become a publisher: “All it takes is one desk, one phone, and one author. I’ll be your author.” In 1965, Seymour Lawrence Books co-published with Delacorte Press the first, unexpurgated U.S. edition of The Ginger Man. Lawrence recalled their collaboration in a 1990 Paris Review article, “Adventures with J. P. Donleavy, or How I Lost My Job and Made My Way to Greater Glory.”

Other J.P. correspondents include: Limerick’s hometown boy Richard Harris, artist and publisher John Ryan, Hollywood director and Trinity College man George Roy Hill, theater critic and film producer Kenneth Tynan, sculptor Desmond MacNamara, William (Willie) Donaldson, a.k.a. Henry Root and author of several collections of the spoof Root letters, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, military analyst, top-seed De Alfonce tennis player and former Secretary of the U.S. Navy John F. Lehman, and comedian Billy Connolly, who had his stage debut as Beefy in the 1982 London production of The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, among others.

Many of the letters are striking in their length and revealing detail. In his opening 1962 letter, Richard Harris, who had starred in London smash hit production of The Ginger Man and the three-day Dublin disaster, and just completed his breakthrough film This Sporting Life, writes of the enthusiasm of others and their praise for his performance in This Sporting Life. But he admits that he himself is not excited. He proposes that he and J.P. collaborate in filming, independent of Hollywood.

Harris would be the first in a long line of actors, directors, producers, and investors who would propose turning The Ginger Man into a film. As J.P. has said: “Nobody who has ever spent any time in Hollywood has not thought of making The Ginger Man film.”

Writs, Rights, and Wronged

The legal papers related to the author’s 21-year battle with his first publisher Maurice Girodias of The Olympia Press run to more 4,000 pages, and include pleadings by J.P.’s counsel, Arnold Goodman, Britain’s legendary Lord Goodman, as well as the author’s own lawyerly letters, which often opened with the attention-grabbing, legalistic heading WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

There is also an October 1967 letter from Lord Goodman regarding the author’s play The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, based on the novella of the same name. His Lordship writes that he found the script touching and not obscene. But he cautioned there may be problems with the censors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office over language in the first scene of Act II.

Indeed, as the letters from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office indicate, England’s then government arbiter of what could and couldn’t be staged objected to more than 40 “disallowed” words and phrases, including: farting, balls, arse, ass, piece of ass, crap, shit, and prick. Despite financial backing and a willing director and producer, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S was never produced because the author would not make the cuts demanded.

Irish Censorship

In addition to extensive documentation of censorship in Britain, America, and even France of not all that long ago, the archive contains historic government documents of Ireland’s heavy-handed censorship.

Inventory entry for Item 176 reads in part:

IRISH IMPORTATION BAN of THE GINGER MAN. Historically significant collection of letters, government documents, and newspaper clippings related to Irish government’s 1969 renewal of the ban on importation of The Ginger Man under Censorship Acts of 1946 and 1967. The book was initially banned in 1957 after publication of the Neville Spearman hardcover edition and was extended to cover the subsequent Corgi paperback edition. That ban was lifted after 12 years. But the second ban quickly followed after publication of a new Penguin paperback edition. Documents reveal not only the author’s ongoing battles but the close-mindedness and oppressiveness of the early modern Irish state, and the struggle of Irish people to be rid of government intrusion.

Among the letters are copies of the requests by the author for government permission to import copies of his own books. There are four official notices from Ireland’s Department of Justice for as many seizures 1970-71 from the mails of the author’s books, under the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929 to 1946. There is also in the collection a permit of the Department of Justice, dated August 19, 1971, issued to the author, reading: “The Minister for Justice hereby grants to Mr. J.P. Donleavy … this permit to import two copies of the prohibited publication ‘The Ginger Man’ on condition that the books are for the personal use of the permit-holder and that they will not be offered for sale.” Stamp of the Department of Justice added.

Regrets Upon Discovering Whom They’re Dealing With

J.P., deceptively slight of build but trained at the New York Athletic Club as an amateur boxer who was an undefeated welterweight, has always defended himself, his reputation, and his work – in the pubs, news columns and letters to the editor, and in the courts of law and public opinion. As J.P. acknowledges and Maurice Girodias and many a pub critic discovered to their regret: “They just don’t know who they’re dealing with.”

Throughout the archive and years is the repeated evidence of challenges and potential defeat as well as the many triumphs of talent that could not be denied and dogged determination that would never surrender.

The battle between Monsieur Girodias and J.P. erupted when Girodias published The Ginger Man, a serious work of fiction, in June 1955 as No. 7 in The Olympia Press’ pornographic The Traveller’s Companion Series, which could have doomed the book. J.P. had mistakenly expected his first book would be published in Olympia’s belletristic Collection Merlin, which included Samuel Beckett’s Watt and Molloy. Those were the publisher’s only work known to J.P. and available in London for J.P.’s inspection at the local public library.

Many observers assumed Girodias, who was under pressure from French authorities over the other sexually explicit Traveller’s Companion titles, published The Ginger Man in the series to confuse authorities and to be able to assert in his defense that the series published serious literature, as a small extract of The Ginger Man had been published in The Manchester Guardian, as the newspaper was then known.

J.P., contending that Girodias breached their agreement, placed the book with mainstream publishers in London, New York, and elsewhere, bringing the book to favorable notice of critics such as Dorothy Parker and vast audiences, while Girodias sued and continued to publish his own editions.

But in 1970, The Olympia Press was registered bankrupt and its assets put up for auction by a Paris bankruptcy court. Among the 4,000 pages of documents from The Ginger Man lawsuits in three countries are the papers related to the winning bid placed by two beautiful women sent to the court as J.P.’s representatives and who outbid Girodias also bidding in the audience. They were J.P.’s second wife, Mary, and his then-secretary, Phyllis McArdle.

Girodias continued his legal battle, until the letter dated March 20, 1978 arrived from J.P.’s lawyer in France, who wrote: “J’ai le plaisir de vous faire savoir que j’ai obtenu le rejet du pourvoi de l’adversaire.” (Translation: "I have the pleasure of telling you that I have obtained the throwing out of the adversary’s appeal.”)

J.P. had become his own publisher as clear and sole owner of The Olympia Press. He also briefly was in the awkward position of suing himself, until he advised his solicitors to discontinue The Olympia Press lawsuit against him.

Brendan Behan as Editor

In the archive are scores of editions of The Ginger Man, a book that has never been out of print and has been translated legally into some two dozen languages, including Japanese, Russian, and Hebrew and illegally pirated in more. Brendan Behan, who directed the author to the Paris publishing house of The Olympia Press after The Ginger Man had been rejected by some 30 U.S. and U.K. publishers, predicted: “Mike, this book is going to go around the world and beat the bejasus out of the Bible.”

The first draft of The Ginger Man, as found in the archive, contains Behan’s unsolicited penciled changes and suggestions and his signature signed with a flourish atop page 80. Behan discovered the manuscript during an unannounced visit in 1951 to J.P.’s Kilcoole cottage in County Wicklow where he and his first wife Valerie lived near the sea. There was no one home. Behan, peering into J.P.’s studio from the yard, was hungry and thirsty. He broke in, spotted the manuscript, and with something to eat and drink, commenced to edit away. Upon J.P.’s return to an empty cottage that had obviously been intruded upon, he knew immediately who his uninvited guest and editor was. There beside the marked-up manuscript of The Ginger Man was a second pile of papers – the manuscript of Behan’s Borstal Boy, which Behan had been carrying with him.

Among the most recent editions of The Ginger Man to be found in the archive is the 2005 edition published by Sir Tony O’Reilly’s Irish Independent – the very first edition of the novel ever published in Ireland. And another bit of belated endorsement, documented in theatrical programs and posters in the archive, are the 2000 New York stage revival and U.S. and Canadian tour of The Ginger Man. The international tour was sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Irish government, which in 1959 stood by as the play was driven from the stage and until the early 1970s was banning his book.

Photographic Evidence

Included in the archive are a few thousand photographs, including portraits and candids of J.P. shot by some of the top photographers, including Jerry Bauer, Larry Burrows, Jill Krementz, Francesco Scavullo, and Ireland’s Sean Magee and Northern Ireland’s Bobbie Hanvey, among others. Many of the photos have appeared on dust jackets and accompanied magazine and newspaper profiles.

The black-and-white photos shot by Life magazine’s Larry Burrows in 1960 captured an animated and confident young J.P. against the backdrop of his working-class London neighborhood of Fulham, where he then owned a two-family flat. Having come to international attention with the success and favorable reviews of his first book and play, J.P. found himself being contacted by leading periodicals wanting exclusive photos to illustrate their profiles of him. Years later Burrows went to Vietnam to cover the war for Life magazine. He died February 10, 1971, on assignment, photographing the invasion of Laos.

Plus Fours

Arguably the best-known photo of J.P. and most widely used on dust jackets is the one of a young author kitted out in hounds-tooth hacking jacket, matching waistcoat, and plus fours, leaning on a walking stick, with a massive castle in the background. The photo was taken in the mid-1960s by his then assistant Tessa Sayle on the grounds of Dynevor Castle, the ancestral home in Wales of J.P.’s good friend Richard Dynevor. The handsome example of bespoke tailoring was done up by J.P.’s tailor on the Isle of Man. The photo first appeared on the back of the dust jacket of the 1968 novel The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and most recently on the cover of the 1994 autobiography The History of The Ginger Man.

Perhaps the most interesting – and historically significant – of the photos in the archive are the snapshots that J.P. and his friends took of each other. J.P. arrived at Trinity in the fall of 1946, equipped with an inexpensive but durable folding Kodak camera, which he and his friends used to record their adventures on and off campus, in and about post-war Dublin, to the Wicklow village of Kilcoole near the sea, and into the West and the 1950s.

Scores of photos have been reprinted in J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland (1986) and The History of The Ginger Man (1994). In addition to the interesting people and the adventures they capture, many of the photos are of historic significance because of the backgrounds of an Ireland that is now hard to find if not gone – unadorned pubs, uncluttered cobblestone streets of pedestrians and few cars, undeveloped hillsides, the cottage at Kilcoole, and such extinct landmarks as Dublin’s Grafton Street Cinema Café.

Wither the Archive?

Buried in the archive are the makings of numerous books by J.P. and/or others, including memoirs, several volumes of correspondence, completed novels and plays as yet unpublished and unproduced, and collections of poetry and photos.

Not surprisingly, J.P. is protective of his archive and its every single scrap of paper, which is a real part of him and his life. He wants to keep the archive intact, placing the papers at a leading institution with the resources to properly store, catalogue, and promote the material, providing controlled and secured access to scholars and others, especially those to whom his work has meaning, and so doing with periodic public displays, and seminars and publications focused on the papers.

J.P., who remains a very active creative volcano, also wants the material to be accessible and close to him – thus in Ireland – for use in writing future books. At present, a novella and novel are nearing completion and a collection of short pieces is being considered for publication. In addition to numerous universities that have expressed interest in the archive over the years as well as Ireland’s National Library, major auction houses too have contacted J.P. And Sotheby’s head of manuscripts lunched with him at the Connaught in London. Putting the archive on the auction block would likely bring a higher price but at a terrible price – the breakup of an astounding collection whose pieces would wind up in hundreds, even thousands of libraries. What goes into private collections would likely not resurface for decades and would be lost to scholars, students, fans, a deserving university, and a nation.

Considering how long it took him to assemble it all, J.P. much prefers to keep it all together.

JPD's Levington Park with his herd of cattle grazing on the grounds. Photo © 2007 Bill Dunn.

To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.

JPD in his library
with some of his manuscripts. Photo by Thomas E. Kennedy

"A Singular Day With J.P. Donleavy" by Bill Dunn - USA Today, July 17, 1990.
JPD and first wife, Valerie. Photo courtesy of The J.P. Donleavy Archives.
John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
JPD reads the manuscript of The History of The Ginger Man. Photo by Thomas E. Kennedy.
Gainor Stephen Crist on his way to see his broker to pawn an electric fire. Photo courtesy, The J.P. Donleavy Archives.
John F. Lehman.
Richard Harris in a scene from the first stage production of The Ginger Man. Photo courtesy, The J.P. Donleavy Archives.
First printings of landmark editions of The Ginger Man (left to right) Spearman, Corgi and Penguin.
JPD with a packet of Olympia Press first editions of The Ginger Man. Photo by Thomas E. Kennedy.
Infamous publisher Maurice Girodias, founder of the Olympia Press.
Brendan Behan.
Photo by Jerry Bauer
Photo by Tessa Sayle, courtesy of the JP Donleavy archives.
Trinity College, Dublin - one of the institutions of higher learning interested in acquiring The J.P. Donleavy Archives.

Bill Dunn, archivist of the J.P. Donleavy papers, is also the author of four books. His articles on a variety of topics, including publishing and book collecting, have appeared in a variety of leading magazines and newspapers.
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Compendium note: Sadly, J.P. Donleavy passed September 11, 2017 at age 91.