BEING A SPORTSMAN...
This can entitle you to frequent backslaps.
And it is a pity that such crass stupidity
accompanies this trait."
- J.P. Donleavy from The Unexpurgated Code...
HIS SPORTING LIFE: THE ATHLETE J.P. DONLEAVY
Copyright © Bill Dunn 2007
Street by Central Park South in New York City stands a 24-story stone
monument to sweat, sport, fitness, fair play and a swell and free early
evening buffet. It was there in the year 1941 on the 3rd floor of the
New York Athletic Club – the A.C. – that the teenager Paddy
Donleavy entered the boxing room, slipped on 16-ounce gloves, stepped
through the satin ropes onto a 15x15-foot square canvas over creaking
boards, and began to test, push and find himself.
Back in his Bronx neighborhood, he and pals had previously put on the gloves and pummeled one another for the fun of it. And he had boxed a few bouts at Fordham Prep. But this was different and life-altering. While a natural athlete as well as budding artist, J.P. began to realize and appreciate his raw physical talent. He sought under the tutelage of outstanding boxing coaches and referees Frank Fullam and Arthur Donovan to develop his abilities to the fullest. J.P. did, indeed, and learned to defend himself against anyone who challenged him in sports or later life – the former being the training ground for everything that came after.
Today, a half-world away in the Irish midlands, J.P. remains what he has been since his early teens – a finely-tuned athlete, whose fitness, skills, discipline and confidence complement – if not enable – his artistic efforts. The prodigious writer and painter owe much to the undefeated welterweight and middle-distance runner who set records on U.S. Navy obstacle courses to win War Bonds and furloughs.
No Surrender in Sports and Life
slight build and gentlemanly manner disguise a no-surrender attitude and have
misled many an opponent in the manly art of boxing as well as in the not-so-gentlemanly
provinces of publishing, the theater, art world and around the neighborhood.
As publisher Maurice Girodias discovered after losing his 21-year legal battle
with J.P. over the world publishing rights to The Ginger Man, J.P.
explains: “My politeness makes me look like such a pushover that they
just don’t know who they’re dealing with until it’s too
Born in Brooklyn, in the refinement of Willow Place in Brooklyn Heights, raised in the Bronx in the suburban respectability of Woodlawn Heights, James Patrick Michael Donleavy – known as Paddy to his family and friends long, long ago – got his first taste of physical exertion in and about the neighborhood. He ran and hid from furious neighbors who were the targets of his pranks, briefly delivered The Bronx Home News newspaper, cut grass one summer amid the imposing monuments and mausoleums of Woodlawn Cemetery where Herman Melville rests, ice skated in winter with his first girlfriend Carol Kuntze in Van Cortlandt Park, and fished, trapped, climbed trees and acted like an American Indian with his pal Alan Kuntze who trapped muskrat in the nearby swamps (now referred to as wetlands).
High School Track and Field
At the parish grammar school, St. Barnabas, Paddy Donleavy was one of the fastest boys in games of ringaleavio. From there, his Irish-immigrant parents, Margaret and Patrick Donleavy, entrusted the education of their middle child and the first of two boys to the Jesuits nearby on Rose Hill, at the highly regarded Fordham Preparatory School. The Prep was then on the campus of the famed Catholic institution of higher education and onetime football powerhouse, Fordham University, whose 1936 football team boasted a frontline known as the Seven Blocks of Granite, which included Vince Lombardi. The Seven Blocks easily outnumbered and certainly would have tackled behind scrimmage Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen, the backfield of the early 1920s. J.P. did some running at Fordham and was a medal-winning tosser of the eight-pound shot.
Cast of Characters
It was a
Fordham Prep boxing friend Thomas Michael Gill who in 1941 invited J.P. to
venture downtown to box at that impressive edifice and shrine to sport and
good sportsmanship, the New York Athletic Club. It would be the first of hundreds
of nearly daily visits. Tommy and Paddy would from Fordham Prep catch the
subway for the 25-minute ride to the 57th Street subway station, walk over
to the club, suit up, get in the ring and then try to kill one another in
friendly sparring matches.
Gill – a six-foot-one-inch light heavyweight – was easily 25 pounds heavier than J.P., whose weight hovered around 145 pounds, putting him smack in the middle of the welterweight class. Despite the weight differential, J.P. held his own, parrying the light-heavyweight’s punches and penetrating the big guy’s defenses to score points with jabs, uppercuts, combinations, and bolo punches (the latter being a 360° windmill punch borrowed from the arsenal of the then-up-and-coming prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson).
The smell, the action, the banter and the eccentric characters in the boxing room at the A.C. would provide the future author J.P. with material he effectively used in his novel A Fairy Tale of New York. Gathered there could be found some of the fabled social and sporting names in America, as well as titans of commerce, commodores of the seas and future film stars. And nearly all of them could break your jaw, such as former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, whom J.P. once unwittingly got in the ring with.
Many of the boxing room habitués were larger than life, for example LaMotta and the dashing sea captain and adventurer Harry Manning. In 1937, Commodore Manning was one of Amelia Earhart’s navigators aboard her Lockheed L10 Electra in her first, unsuccessful attempt to fly around the world. In 1952, Manning captained the luxury liner S.S. United States as it broke the transatlantic speed record, winning the prized Blue Riband. Unlike what the Admiral did to Cornelius Christian in A Fairy Tale of New York, the real-life commodore never knocked J.P. out.
Another of J.P.’s occasional sparring partner at the A.C. and a very colorful contemporary was Lawrence Tierney, also born in Brooklyn. Tierney, after quitting Manhattan College, eventually made his way to Hollywood where he was launched to stardom playing the title role in the 1945 gangster movie Dillinger.
Keeping a watchful eye on J.P. and Tommy Gill and training them well were the A.C.’s Frank Fullam and Arthur Donovan. Both had been professional fighters before coming to the A.C. and both had refereed numerous professional title fights. Donovan was the referee of the two Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight title fights (Schmeling won in 1936, Louis in 1938). A decade later, Fullam was the referee in the victory of heavyweight champion Joe Louis over challenger Jersey Joe Wolcott.
After their strenuous workouts, the battling friends J.P. and Tommy would repair to the club’s Tap Room where a sumptuous and free-of-charge buffet of barons of beef and attendant side dishes, was laid on at 5 p.m. It wasn’t long before J.P., with his parents’ blessing, opted to join the club as a junior member.
Spring and summer, J.P. played golf and tennis in nearby Van Cortlandt Park and at Winged Foot Golf Club, then owned by the New York Athletic Club.
Fleet Afoot While in the Fleet
in the tradition of his father, J.P. enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the fall
of 1944. During basic training, he won War Bonds by placing first in the races
over obstacle courses and setting several records in covering the distance.
He also played catch-me-if-you-can with the USN’s Shore Patrol, as he
accepted dares of fellow sailors and broke from the ranks on the parade ground
several times, out-running the military police every time. While the Shore
Patrol and the commanding officer, who screamed “get that man,”
never figured out who he was, J.P. admits all they had to do to unmask him
was look at the nearby scoreboard where his name was listed in gold as the
obstacle course record holder.
When briefly stationed in Florida where his Navy unit, part of the Amphibious Corps, was confined to quarters at a Miami hotel awaiting orders to ship out, J.P. thought it was another false alarm. In what might qualify as one of the most high-stakes gambles ever wagered in the sport of golf, J.P. gave himself liberty, going out the hotel’s second-floor window, dropping down into the hotel’s garden, and thence to a local golf club where servicemen played free and were, following a round of golf, often invited to dinner and drinks on the house.
It proved an enjoyable afternoon – and a not so enjoyable evening. “I discovered I had been wrong. This single one time, the Navy for once absolutely meant what it said. The Navy’s Shore Patrol were there already waiting for me to return and to arrest me,” recalls J.P. “But as I was the single radar man aboard this Amphibious Corps vessel, I had to be returned to the crew. Otherwise the landing ship would bump into things they couldn’t see in the dark.”
J.P.’s personal ship of state was eventually righted and a new course set through calmer waters as he sat exams, won a fleet appointment to Annapolis and was assigned in preparation to the Naval Academy Preparatory School on the Susquehanna River, overlooking the town of Port Deposit, Maryland, where he resumed his dominance on the obstacle course. And the sailor was relieved to realize that if he were to be killed, it would be as an aspiring Admiral rather than a Seaman Second Class.
To Ireland: Golf, Pub Pugilism and the Occasional Class
war, J.P. availed of the G.I. Bill of Rights to enroll at Trinity College,
Dublin. He arrived for the 1946 Michaelmas Term with a dictionary, an impressive
collection of suits and jackets, more than a dozen pairs of shoes, including
golf shoes, plus a tennis racket, golf clubs and a folding Kodak camera to
record his adventures.
One snapshot from the period shows the newly bearded J.P., wearing a dark brown corduroy suit with a white handkerchief spilling out of his breast pocket as he leans forward to line up a putt on a green at the Royal Dublin Golf Club on North Bull Island in Dublin Bay, where he often played with Trinity roommate Michael Heron.
J.P., having left the U.S. Navy, let his beard grow and maintains he was just about the only man in Ireland to have one. The beard, perhaps indicating his artistic aspirations, instead of eliminating a morning task, early inspired taunts from resentful clean-shaven loudmouths in the pubs of Dublin who baited J.P. until it was discovered that he was not adverse to defending himself and delivering a lightning fast fist to the gob of those advancing upon him.
As his reputation for quick fists and flattened opponents developed and spread, one tough guy came looking for J.P. at Davy Byrne’s pub as he recalls in his book J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland. J.P. was pointed out to troublemaker, who sized him up and reacted dismissively: “Him? That little guy?” But the bruiser spoiling for a fight was quietly and diplomatically advised: “That’s what they all say.”
Pasta Punch, a.k.a. The Corkscrew
his punching technique, J.P. likens his arms to two strands of cooked spaghetti
and kept as supple and relaxed as a skipping rope. As a punch is propelled
from the shoulder, the arm whips through the air like a snapping strand of
pasta. The fingers, initially relaxed, come together into a fist of stone
that rotates slightly inward as the strand of spaghetti snaps taut, delivering
the fist to the target face or torso at maximum velocity and concussive force.
Readers of A Fairy Tale of New York may recognize the above description as an alternate definition of the scientific “corkscrew punch” that the Admiral effectively used to put hero Cornelius Christian to sleep. As the Admiral describes it: "My corkscrew never does anybody any permanent harm. Just puts them to sleep. It’s scientific. The glove rotates as the punch leaves and when it lands, quicker than the eye can see, it has an extra penetrating force. Developed it after years of experiment, based on the rifling in a gun barrel."
In This Corner, Brendan Behan
first meeting Brendan Behan, which occurred at Davy Byrnes in 1946 or
early 1947, the two almost came to blows as the habitués at the
bar rail hoped they would. Begrudgers took delight in introducing one
to the other as presumptive writers and then proceeded to egg them on.
Behan took the bait and called J.P. a “narrowback” –
a term for pampered Irish-Americans whose backs are narrow from the comforts
of American life, unlike their immigrant parents who had developed broad
backs from all their hard work.
J.P. didn’t understand the term but also didn’t like the sound of it. Sure enough the two did step outside and squared off. But then Behan unexpectedly extended his hand. They shook. As reported in J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland, Behan said: "Ah, there’s no need to fight. Why should the pair of us out here beat the bejesus out of one another to the satisfaction of the eegit likes of them inside. Sure I’m a writer. And I meant no harm in calling you a narrowback. But I can tell by the way you’re ready to fight about it, that you’re a writer too. And fuck the ignorant bunch back in there who wouldn’t know a present participle from a hole in their buried mother’s coffin. Come on, the two of us, we’ll go somewhere and have a drink. And we’ll tell the story around that the both of us were so fast at getting out of the way of each other’s fists, neither of us could land a punch."
Within just a few years, J.P. had the opportunity to broaden his back with the strenuous work of carpentry, masonry and farming on his newly acquired property. After marrying Valerie Heron, the beautiful younger sister of his roommate and golfing partner Michael Heron, J.P. left Trinity in 1949. (According to philosopher and writer Colin Wilson, Valerie was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen). J.P. and his wife moved into a small Wicklow cottage in Kilcoole, near the sea. In a stone shed he converted to his studio, J.P. continued to paint. And in the warmth of a sun porch he’d built attached to the cottage, he began writing the novel that would become The Ginger Man.
In a bid for self-sufficiency and agrarian reform, the artistic athlete began farming his 3½ acres, first using a rusted shovel he found discarded in the hedgerow. J.P. reports: “The only tools I ever previously had in my hands were a tennis racket and a golf club.”
A.C. Member in Good Standing
J.P. sold the Kilcoole cottage to return to America with his wife for an extended
stay, during which he painted, wrote and began circulating The
Ginger Man manuscript. His mother Margaret suggested he drop by the
New York Athletic Club to see his friends and have a workout and meal. J.P.
demurred, explaining he would likely be persona non grata and listed on lobby
bulletin board among the inactive members delinquent in their dues. But no,
he was a member in good standing, his mother having paid his dues during his
time in the Navy and then while he was abroad at Trinity College.
In early 1953, J.P. and Valerie left America for her mother’s home on the Isle of Man, before buying a small house with two self-contained flats in the Fulham section of London – then a social no-go area. J.P. resumed the healthy habit he began in New York and fully developed in Dublin during his Trinity days of taking long, random walks through city neighborhoods, parks, and cemeteries and along the waterfront.
On his feet J.P. equipped himself with sensible and comfortable bluchers – alternating between a black pair and a mid-tan pair from Tricker’s of Jermyn Street. They featured the corrugated rubber sole and heel for exceptional cushioning, gripping power and spring in the step. The walks were as much exploration as exercise and clearing of the mind after hours of writing.
Publication of The Ginger Man in Paris in 1955, the U.K. in 1956, and the U.S. in 1958, followed by the 1959 theatrical production propelled the promising author to prominence and eventually a global audience. Despite the demands of his writing and painting careers, J.P. always made time to exercise and engage in sports, which helped him in meeting the demands of his work and the unforgiving deadlines.
Invitation to a Fight
J.P. returned to New York City for the publication of his novella The
Saddest Summer of Samuel S, which was inspired by his Trinity pal
Arthur Kenneth Donoghue’s undergoing Freudian analysis in Vienna. Between
promotional obligations, J.P. walked from his hotel to his favorite New York
haunt, the New York A.C. for a workout in the boxing room. He took some time
at the speed bag, next the heavy bag and then went a few rounds with a fellow
member. All the while he was being observed closely by a stranger, who turned
out to be the club’s new boxing coach and successor to J.P.’s
trainer Arthur Donovan.
The coach finally approached J.P. to compliment him on his skill and invite him to join the club’s team as its welterweight for an upcoming matchup. J.P. inquired where that might be. The coach enthusiastically reported that the scheduled match was only an hour’s scenic drive up the Hudson, past Bear Mountain, to the West Point where A.C.’s seasoned boxers would take on the cadets of United States Military Academy. As J.P. was then 40 and cadets were on average half his age, he declined this invitation to volunteer for combat.
trip to his hometown, J.P. went a few rounds with a club member he didn’t
immediately recognize. While the opponent appeared over-weight and didn’t
seem to be in top form, looks proved deceiving. In the ring, the stranger
threw and landed very hard punches and had a chin of steel that absorbed J.P.’s
jabs and combinations. It proved a good workout that ended with both men standing.
The unstated rule of the A.C. boxing room is that sparring is to be kept to a gentlemanly level and that knockouts are to be eschewed in workouts in favor of energetic exchanges and parries of various punches. After going three rounds, the combatants awkwardly shook hands with their gloves still on and bid each other good day.
J.P. didn’t see the fellow again until he spotted him a few years later in the official A.C. winged-foot club shirt being interviewed on television in connection with a film of his life titled Raging Bull. Actor Robert DeNiro, who gained 60 pounds for the role, played J.P.’s onetime opponent, former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, who during his career had been known as the Bronx Bull as well as the Raging Bull.
Smokin’ Joe and Non-Smoker J.P.
J.P. was back in New York for the U.S. publication of The
Onion Eaters, only weeks before the Fight of the Century, the much
anticipated March 8th heavyweight title fight between Smokin’ Joe Frazier
and Muhammad Ali. J.P. – the non-smoker – ventured to a Philadelphia
gym where he met Smokin’ through a mutual friend. This time J.P. did
not get in the ring.
Photos taken in the locker room capture J.P., wearing a handsome tweed jacket in Prince of Wales plaid and his arms crossed, standing and looking down at the seated prizefighter who is wearing his silk warm-up robe with the hood up, looking upward at the guy with the beard. J.P. denies a rumor that he offered Smokin’ Joe boxing tips. He assures that he simply wished the fighter good luck. Frazier knocked out Ali in the 15th round of their first fight. Ali won the second fight by decision and the third fight by technical knockout in the 14th round.
The Herd and The Hunt
is considered by many a club sport practiced in big city gyms, J.P. found
himself taking up the country life and new sports. In 1969, having remarried
and relocated from London back to Ireland, J.P. adapted to his surroundings
and developed a new workout regimen, which included more running – as
he was often chasing down runaway cows. J.P. and his second wife M.W. (Mary
Wilson) acquired the stately Balsoon House and its 35 acres in County Meath.
As J.P. noted in a chronology in the catalogue of one of Dublin painting exhibitions:
“Sends wife to purchase bullocks to graze the land, she buys heifers
and J.P. has to buy bull.”
In 1972, J.P., Mary, the herd of cattle and several horses moved from Balsoon House to Levington Park in the neighboring county of Westmeath. The handsome 22-room Georgian manor house at Levington, built in 1742, was visited by an 18-year-old James Joyce in 1900 and described by him in his novel fragment Stephen Hero. Joyce even mentions having a picnic on its 170-acre estate overlooking Lough Owel, which now provides prime grazing for the herd and long stretches of open land and many hills and hedges for equestrians to traverse.
The one sport in which J.P. reluctantly and briefly participated and readily would admit he was and remains incompetent is foxhunting. In contrast, Mary Donleavy, now the Hon. Mrs. Finn Guinness, a noted breeder of eventing horses and a fine equestrian, was active in the Westmeath Hunt.
The traditional hunt breakfast of the local hunt was held one year at Levington Park. TV and magazine cameras were there to record the event: kitted-out folk mounted on their horses, house staff giving them silver cups of selected spirits to fortify them for the hunt, yapping hounds underfoot, suddenly master of fox hounds sounding his horn and all the riders off on the trot.
Tallyho, No, No, No
evidence clearly shows, J.P. was, for one of the most snobbish sports in existence,
kitted out in outré rat catcher top hat, black hacking jacket, white
silk scarf about the neck and secured with a gold stick pin, over a silk shirt,
atop the widest cavalry twill jodhpurs ever seen at the Westmeath hunt, bellowing
out like helium-inflated pantaloons over the hips and thighs and then narrowed
at the knee, finished off by a handsome and useful for the event pair of polo
boots. On J.P.’s hands for the protection they afforded was a pair of
mid-tan calfskin gloves.
As the cameras rolled, J.P. reluctantly mounted his horse. They ambled down the tree-lined drive to the gates, where out of camera range J.P. dismounted, walked the horse back to the port cochere. There he handed the reins to a groom brought in for the day, went inside, up to his room, dropping into his favorite chair and went back to writing. The hunt proceeded without him.
While not a fox hunter, J.P. is a competent rider who from the 1970s through the mid-1980s, enjoyed an occasional ride about the rolling hills of Levington Park atop his horse Schultz, named for the hapless West End impresario and title character of the novel of the same name. But having observed the spills riders often do take, which have provided rich material for the Darcy Dancer novels, the author has since dismounted and prefers to stand on his own two feet rather than seated on a willful, four-footed, one-ton beast.
Top-Ranked by W.D.T.A.
to boxing and running, the other sport in which J.P. excels is De Alfonce
Tennis, of which he has written the definitive and only book, De
Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions, Its History,
Accoutrements, Rules, Conduct And Regimen, published in 1984. J.P.
is, in fact, the top-ranked player, according to the W.D.T.A. (the World De
Alfonce Tennis Association). One of the rules, according to the book, is that
the author never loses in competition play. But being the true sportsman he
is, J.P. has not invoked the rule the few times he has been bested in championship
J.P. notes the game is “actually played internationally by a devoted group of athletically elitist adherents.” Challenge matches have been played at J.P.’s Levington Park, the officers’ gymnasium at the Pentagon, and the chandeliered ballroom of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.
There are an estimated 100 or so players worldwide among whom, again according to the rules, J.P. always ranks number one. The elite ranks include the onetime commander of the 600-ship U.S. Navy, John Lehman, who was Secretary of the Navy from 1981-87 during President Reagan’s administration, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff of that era, hotel magnate Sir Rocco Forte, and onetime British tennis ace Annabel Croft. At age 15 Annabel was the youngest Briton ever to play at Wimbledon, becoming Wimbledon’s Junior Championship at age 17, and the U.K.’s top-ranked female tennis player by 21. When De Alfonce finally came to Ireland, one of Ireland’s great lawn tennis players, Matt Doyle, took up the sport, joined in matches and became, as one would expect, unbeatable.
In J.P.’s De Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game, there’s mention of the Game Club – “a great soaring variant of an Italian Renaissance palace”. The book reports it was there that an early variant of De Alfonce – known as Bangkok Boxo Ball or Bangokok – was played. The description of the Game Club might remind readers of a certain athletic club in uptown New York City not far from Central Park.
De Alfonce Tennis, which can be played indoors or outdoors in singles or doubles matches, was in its early days nicknamed Foncy or soft tennis, the latter name owing to the soft sponge ball employed and that flies at blinding speed when struck by the lightweight rackets. When asked if he designed the De Alfonce ball, J.P. responded: “No, the sphere was designed in pre-recorded history by an engineer unknown.”
All equipage and rules are regulated by the W.D.T.A., which for several years had a phone number listed in the New York City phone book and was also available from operator assistance. The listing came to the attention of a particular professional tennis association, whose high-paid lawyers suspecting licensing infringements made legalistic inquiries as to who and what the W.D.T.A. was. Once informed with further and better particulars about De Alfonce Tennis, the lawyers from the other tennis association fell silent.
Pentagon and Ballroom Play
to favorable book reviews in major magazines and newspapers of De
Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game soon after publication, the
international press has remained fascinated by the game and has provided coverage
of several challenge matches. Esquire magazine covered John Lehman’s
upset of J.P. in the 1978 match at the Pentagon, the U.S. military central
command headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
On May 27, 1986, J.P. found himself in Paris to play Virginia Wade, a Wimbledon finalist who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. She was replaced by writer and challenger Phillippe Sollers, in a hotly contested match de démonstration played at Gymnase de l’Eglise américaine. The match took place around the time of the opening of that year’s Tournoi de Roland-Garros – the French Open. Nevertheless De Alfonce held its own in garnering headlines. Upon J.P.’s beating Sollers, the headline in one French newspaper read (in translation): J.P. IS BETTER THAN JOHN MCENROE
The Times of London devoted the top three-quarters of the front-page of its Weekend section and a full inside page to the 1998 enciente De Alfonce doubles match that saw Sir Rocco Forte and his partner Annabel Croft top J.P. and his teammate Sally Jones. Sir Rocco was the perfect host of the event, played in the ballroom of his Balmoral Hotel before an enthusiastic crowd of fashionably but informally dressed ladies and gentlemen.
J.P.’s partner was the 1993 world women’s singles champion in Real Tennis, the variant tennis game played by royals and noble folk in which lob shots and pop flies are popular. Ms. Jones sent numerous lob shots climbing toward the ceiling and then descending slowly, which Annabel and Sir Rocco took turns smashing back at blazing, unplayable speed. A rematch is planned.
J.P.’s Foncy Court and Football Pitch at L.P.
J.P. is always
up for a game of Foncy with visitors to Levington Park. The soft tennis net,
rackets and ball are kept ready in the sport paraphernalia alcove under the
cantilevered stone staircase and just outside the locked door to the library.
Games can be played enceinte in the green room, the 20x40 foot living room,
or en plein air on the football pitch.
The football pitch is flood-lighted for night play and enclosed on three sides by a stout stone wall, rising 12 feet toward the normally gray and often raining skies. The wall extends to the south side of the house and encloses the orchard. To reach the pitch, the host and his guest athletes walk along the hallway James Joyce once trod and through a hallway door onto the patio, across the tree-shrouded lawn or through the apple orchard, to the field.
Rugby and soccer are the games of choice. On rare occasion, American football is played – usually when there are enough Americans in attendance who know the rules. In such match-ups, the game ball is a regulation leather Wilson football, given to the author by his publisher Seymour Lawrence. A Harvard man, friend of Senator Ted Kennedy and admirer of the Kennedy family, Lawrence made a gift of the ball long ago in hopes that it would transplant the Kennedy family’s fondness for touch football across the Atlantic to the Irish midlands.
Javelin Tossing: Yes, Gaelic Football: No, Ping Pong: Not Lately
As of this
writing, the one football not found at L.P. and thus not played is Gaelic
football, which is a very complicated game and difficult to learn as an adult.
The pitch at L.P. has also been used for track and field events. Bob Precious, who owns and operates The Ginger Man pubs in New York City and Connecticut, visited Levington Park some years ago and wound up competing against J.P. and others in tossing a discus and hurling a javelin about the parklands and only besting J.P. by two-and-one-half inches.
An excellent and enjoyable workout, now defunct because of plumbing issues, was swimming laps in L.P.’s indoor pool, into which J.P. can be seen diving in J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland: In All of Her Sins and Graces, the 1992 autobiographical broadcast program he wrote, narrated, and starred in. With non-functioning filters and water heater, the only ones swimming in the pool at Levington Park these days are frogs.
Near the pool is the remnant of a ping-pong table at which J.P. had occasionally used his De Alfonce skills to outscore guests. But table-tennis play has been suspended as half the table was moved upstairs in 2006 for redeployment as a sturdy flat surface onto which archival material is sorted out.
Daily Training Regimen
So far north
are the Irish midlands where J.P. lives, the winter dawn seems to never come
and in summer comes too early, while the rain year-round seems to never end.
No matter the season, the organic herd of prize cattle serve as an alarm clock,
waking one with their gentle mooing, as they graze the wooded parklands.
Out of his bed springs the athlete, author and painter. As he turns on the telie for bad news updates on the latest natural disasters, political hotspots and war zones, J.P. begins his day with a workout inspired by the New York Athletic Club’s Frank Fullam and Arthur Donovan. While his last fist fight is several decades in the past, J.P. remains in top form. In rapid succession, he fires off a series of potentially lethal punches at an imaginary opponent. As he bobs and weaves across the floor of his cluttered bedroom, the welterweight throws powerful combinations.
Each morning, J.P. throws 100 punches with six-pound weights in each hand. Then he switches to two-pound weights in each fist for a speed workout of 100 punches. He closes out the routine with 50 situps in under two minutes. His first workout of the day is over.
Breakfast Fit for Thoroughbreds
morning workout, J.P. heads to the kitchen for a breakfast befitting an Irish
Derby contender – a glass of juice from freshly-squeezed oranges from
Zimbabwe, Colombian coffee, Cashell’s Wholemeal Bread with organic honey,
and his own muesli mixture of nuts, dried fruit, oats, bran, wheat flakes,
and some small hard pellets intended for race horses that a champion jockey
recommended. Says J.P.: “If it’s good enough for $10-million thoroughbreds,
it’s good enough for me.”
J.P. is now ready for some 5-6 hours of work – reviewing the mail, sending off responses, and the important work of writing and editing his work in progress. He doesn’t stop for lunch, nor does he particularly have the appetite for a midday meal.
Cattle Call and a Final Workout
By late afternoon,
J.P.’s second and final workout of the day commences. The author agrarian,
with some 60 grass-fed cows and a lucky lone bull, patrols the pastures in
his Massey Ferguson tractor. He often jumps out of the cab to briskly walk
the grounds for closer inspection of the animals and the fences that keep
them in. This is a warm-up for the run that occasionally follows the inspection
tour and scythe cutting of dock weed and thistles.
The Levington herd is contented and happy from free-range grazing the 170 acres of rolling hills. The cattle are used to seeing and hearing J.P. When it’s time to move them to another pasture and J.P. gives out his distinctive call (EEE-yup, EEE-yup), they come ambling to him. Neighbor farmers marvel at the calmness of the Levington cows and their responsiveness to J.P. His cattle exhibit none of the skittishness of barned cows. Unlike other cattle that tend to scatter when strangers come, J.P.’s are curious. They stand their ground to study visitors and often sidle up for a closer look.
Once the herd and fencing are checked, J.P. may opt for a training run. He alternates between three basic runs.
To maintain his endurance, he will do repeat quarter-mile laps non-stop, running down the tree-lined side garden, bursting onto the football pitch to traverse its outer boundaries, then back up through the apple orchard and across the slated verandah. He’ll cover 2-3 miles before he’s done.
For speed workouts, J.P. sprints from Levington’s massive wood front door down to the iron front gates 300 yards distant, rest and race back. He’ll make the roundtrip three or four times.
Then there’s the occasional uphill climb as he runs up Sherlock-Gébler Hill when the cattle happen to be grazing there, one of the most distant points from the house. The long hill, named by J.P. in honor of two departed writer friends, John Sherlock and Ernest Gébler, rises at a steep angle from the shores of Lough Owel. Near the zenith of Sherlock-Gébler is an ancient Celtic burial ground, denoted by the unusual bulge in the hill and the stones that encircle it. With the cows and bull accounted for, J.P. runs up the hill, skirting the burial ground, and then walks down the hill. He repeats the circuit several times. The herd will pause in their grazing and watch J.P. in his grueling workout.
Strenuous as the hill climbs are, they are made more so by the fact that J.P. is usually wearing his bog-trotting gum-rubber Wellington boots, or a reasonable facsimile of the world-famous Wellies simply because that’s what he wears when he’s out inspecting the herd and the grounds. But for speed workouts, quarter-miles loops through the orchard and most other athletic endeavors, J.P. wears the appropriate plimsolls.
Finally Time To Relax
often 6 or 7 p.m. before J.P. is back at the big house. He might then relax
with a glass of juice or chardonnay and some crisps or cheese and biscuits
or his specially-made fish paste, taken in the green room. With soft music
playing on his custom-built sound system, he enjoys catching up on the news.
He might grab a newspaper or two from several piles in the room containing
papers ranging from current issues to several years old. They still make for
interesting reading as much of the news is still new to J.P. He frequently
rips articles out of the papers, marks them up with notes in red or green
pen, and stacks them in piles or folders for future reference.
Or he might skip reading to paint. J.P.’s painting is a stimulating and enjoyable break from the work of writing – something J.P. looks forward and often does evenings and/or weekends. He can do it anywhere, anytime. Instead of the intense concentration of writing, J.P. seeks to relax, defocus and let the subconscious direct his right hand across the paper or canvas.
Dinner is minimalist, but healthy and usually whipped up by himself. He often throws a mélange of uncooked vegetables into a bowl, along with a spoonful of garlic mayonnaise, crumbled wholegrain bread and a sliver of whatever Levington Park organic beef – cooked rare – remains in fridge.
In his excellent
2006 profile of J.P., Brian Lavery wrote in The New York Times of
February 11: “He carries himself with a youthful energy and says he
is ‘embarrassed’ about becoming an octogenarian because people
will expect him to shuffle along with a hunched back. Instead, he jumps out
of his armchair to demonstrate that he can kick his legs into a near-vertical
split and throw lightning-quick punches (seven in one second, he said).”
J.P. subsequently reported to me that Muhammad Ali in his prime threw five punches a second. J.P. also has noted that, after his last annual physical, his lady doctor asserted: “Your test results are those of a 31-year-old.”
Proper diet, exercise and the accompanying discipline to maintain both have given the writer and painter high-octane energy and laser-sharp focus that have enabled him to maintain a level of productivity far beyond most of his artistic contemporaries and fitness that emboldens him to still accept De Alfonce Tennis challenges.
Bill Dunn is J.P. Donleavy’s archivist. Despite never having played De Alfonce Tennis, Bill is – or was – a top-seeded player, according to the inscription written in his first-edition copy of De Alfonce Tennis by the author. The inscription, penned in 1990 upon their initial meeting in Washington, D.C., when then newspaper reporter Bill, a longtime J.P.D. fan, had come to interview J.P., reads: “To Bill Dunn / 1990 No. 2 ranking / De Alfonce player / The Hon. Founder / J.P. Donleavy.”