while you breathe give up"
J.P. Donleavy from JP Donleavy's Ireland
It was the first day of February, 1983 when I walked into the Argosy bookstore in Manhattan and saw a distinguished looking and very recognizable (to me) man by himself, browsing the shelves. "Mike?" I said. "What are you doing in New York?"
"Well, how are you?" he said, as surprised to see me there as I was to see him, since he lived in Ireland and I in Los Angeles. "I'm here on business, meeting with my publisher."
He had finished another book and we agreed to meet a few hours later by the entrance to the Central Park Zoo, to walk and catch up. Once he left the bookstore I said to the woman who worked in the rare books department, "Do you know who that was?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't," she said.
"That was J.P. Donleavy. You don't, by any chance, have any first editions of some of his earlier work, do you?"
We went up to the third floor and she located the first American edition of his first and most famous novel, The Ginger Man published in 1958 by McDowell, Obolensky. I had never seen this copy before and was excited to find it. The true first was a paperback published in France in 1955 in the Olympia Press's Traveler's Companion series. There is a long and fascinating history behind that publication (it was rejected 35 times before Irish writer Brendan Behan suggested Donleavy try the Olympia Press) and all subsequent publications of the book (which has never been out of print) and Donleavy (whose friends call him Mike) wrote a book about it in 1994 (The History of the Ginger Man).
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When I started writing professionally, I suggested to my editor at Newsday in the early 1970s that I go to Ireland and interview Donleavy. He agreed…and off I flew, to Levington Park, County Westmeath, just north of Dublin, where Donleavy resided in a huge stone house on 180 acres of farm land. He was born in the Bronx but moved to Ireland to take advantage of the Irish law that allowed artists and writers tax-free status. I spent a memorable afternoon with "Mike," taking a tour of his home, his land, seeing where he wrote his novels on a portable Hermes typewriter, and playing a few competitive games of Ping Pong with him. Over the following years I kept in touch with him by mail, sharing with him the birth of my two daughters, letting him know about my book projects, and hearing from him about an encounter he had with John Huston which he thought might be useful for the book I was writing about the Huston family.
"First met John Huston for lunch at his, at the time, residence (also betimes Elizabeth Taylor's and Richard Burton's) in Puerto Volarto [sic] Mexico of all places…," Donleavy wrote.
"A day or two later Huston took us by hired car down coast to the semi deserted village on the beach where he shot 'Night of the Iguana'. Here he taught me tropical ocean fishing (I was a poor pupil) out in a terrifyingly open boat surrounded by deadly sea snakes and highly predatory sharks whose fins were cruising by. Huston, awe inspiringly fearless had to several times snatch the rod out of my hand to deal with various unidentified demons I'd hooked while at the same time still managing to catch fish on his own line. Certainly into his latter sixties the man's strength and agility was quite bewildering. But I was never gladder, even as a former naval person, to finally reach shore again where we picnicked in a native hut, pigs running between our legs.
"The presence of The Ginger Man script in his papers is there because it was sent to him by a producer to whom Huston said he would not commit to an already written script, but when Huston read script said, 'This is a script I would direct.' (So it was reported to me – but do double check.) Which may be the reason I was ready to find Huston a most impressive gentleman.
"In any event, one interesting factor is that Huston is one of the background reasons for the present tax free status of artists in Ireland. His living presence here for many years (I did visit through his house shown to me by his butler who fondly and tearfully recalled him after Huston had left for California and I was thinking of buying it) literally added an international cultural importance and colouration to Ireland, which in turn was an influence attracting the present legislation. I also knew Rikki (sp may be wrong) Huston (John's wife,) later killed in accident. She in fact one day while I was sojourning on a western tip of Eire was coming on a visit but before reaching hit a cow with her car."
In 1979 Donleavy came to Los Angeles to discuss the possibilities of turning The Ginger Man into a film and I spent a few days driving him to places of his interest: Forest Lawn cemetery, Westwood Village, the streets of Beverly Hills, and his old friend, director George Roy Hill's home. He came to my house for dinner one night and I showed him a letter that Henry Miller had once written to me, responding to my request for an interview ("What I need is not publicity," the author of Tropic of Cancer wrote, "but money. I have granted many interviews but I am never offered any money for my time. And right now I need money bad."). Miller was one of Donleavy's personal heroes and he said, "You really must frame this." Donleavy also translated the motto at the bottom of Miller's stationary, which read "CUANDO MERDA TIVER VALOR POBRE NASCE SEM CU" ("When shit has value, poor people will be born without assholes.")
When I completed the manuscript for my book The Art of the Interview I asked Donleavy if he would consider writing a foreword. I thought it would be amusing, since Donleavy was a very shy man in public who didn't sit comfortably on television talk shows and who noted in a letter sent Jan 21, 2003, "I rate myself as the world's worst interviewee, perhaps because I sincerely try to do my best." I was surprised when he agreed (he's only written one other forward, to a book about bohemian Dublin between 1945-55, Remembering How We Stood, by John Ryan), and proud to have him introduce me in that book, which was published by Three Rivers Press in the fall of 2004.
This year Donleavy turns 80 and the Powell Library at UCLA will put his books and some of the letters he's written to me on display in March and April and if the stars align right, he'll make one of his rare visits to California. If he does, I've got a number of Hollywood royalty who would love to come to a dinner party in his honor, and some thirty-odd books for him to sign!
LAWRENCE GROBEL is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Playboy and at Movieline’s Hollywood Life. He has written eight books, including Conversations with Capote, Conversations with Brando, The Hustons, and The Art of the Interview, a subject he teaches at UCLA. He co-wrote Montel Williams’s Climbing Higher, which was a N.Y. Times bestseller. His next book will be on Al Pacino. His website is www.lawrencegrobel.com