The Lost Opportunity

Reading an interview in the International New York Times Style Magazine about J. P. Donleavy, who is now eighty-seven and still lives as a semi-reclusive gentleman farmer on his Irish estate, reminded me of a lost opportunity which also involved my very good friend at the time, the equally reclusive John Paul Getty.


I first met Donleavy when I had produced, for the stage in 1981, an adaptation of his novel The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, in conjunction with Howard Panter. Although Donleavy was not an easy author to deal with we seemed to forge an early comradeship which soon led to a friendship of sorts.

In September 1998, at the behest of Richard Ingrams, I was asked to interview John Paul Getty who for years lived in the London Clinic trying to fight off a chronic drug addiction but was now cleared by his doctors and lived in a block of flats in St James overlooking Green Park. I wrote to him requesting an interview to appear in the Oldie magazine and to my great surprise he consented. It was the first interview he ever gave and as a result a friendship was born. We saw each other on a regular basis and the topic of women was invariably our common denominator. We exchanged stories and had a merry good time remembering romantic involvements and past follies.

J. P. Donleavy had ended up owning his original publisher, the Olympia Press in Paris, which had brought out his first book, The Ginger Man, in 1955 when no other publisher would touch it. Founded just two years before that by Maurice Girondias, a crusader against censorship and a militant pornographer, his imprint had established an international reputation by also publishing writers as good as Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean Genet and William Burroughs.

Donleavy had had a long-running legal battle with Girondias, who died in 1990, and his original plan as Olympia’s owner was to bring out his own past and future work under the imprint; but the company was in mothballs and it needed someone enterprising to revive it.

The idea was mooted by Getty after a conversation I had with him when he sat next to me at an Oldie lunch and we had engaged in light banter about our love of beautiful women and this led on to the topic of erotic literature. Getty told me about his collection of Olympia Press first editions, bought during his time in Paris. He was nostalgic for that adventurous era and bemoaned the disappearance of the press. With a swift reaction I asked what he would think of its rebirth, especially with eroticism back in vogue. His response was remarkably enthusiastic and to the point. He would be willing to finance such a resurrection, he said, so long as the amount of money was not prohibitive. When I pressed him further, he reiterated his commitment and gave me the green light to start on the necessary research.

Encouraged by Getty’s show of determination, I telephoned J. P. Donleavy, who welcomed the proposal but qualified his agreement with his usual proviso that, should the Olympia Press be revived, all his books would be published under its banner. The link with Quartet would, he thought, be ideal, with the company’s eclectic tradition enhancing the viability of such an association.

Then the unexpected happened. Paul began procrastinating, citing J.P.’s reputation for being difficult as a possible stumbling block. I did my best to reassure him that the problem was nothing to worry about, but failed.

The real reason for his withdrawal was something else altogether. The moment he realised we were almost home and dry he got cold feet. It had become a question of money and personal status. His advisors would certainly have been opposed to his involvement in the project and would never have agreed happily to furnish the entire capital. More than that, he was very conscious of having rehabilitated his reputation following a rebellious youth. His generosity towards charitable institutions and his efforts to help the nation retain some of its treasures meant the Establishment had taken him to its heart. What was it going to think of him now if he embarked on a new career as a pornographic man of letters? By his reckoning, the moment of impulsive enthusiasm shown at the Oldie lunch was about to cost him dear. All he could do was contrive a retreat.

I felt badly let down after having devoted a great deal of time to preparing the ground. The revival of the Olympia Press would have generated enormous publicity and interest – enough to attract exciting new authors. Alas, a dream was shattered and a lot of valuable time wasted on a renaissance that was not to be.

My friendship with John Paul Getty was ruptured and it was never the same again. It lost its intimacy; however, I’m glad to say, my friendship with J. P. Donleavy remains intact.

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