There was one other interesting footnote to my friendship with J. P. Donleavy that came years later at the end of the 1990s. He had ended up owning his original publisher, the Olympia Press in Paris, who had brought out his first book, The Ginger Man, in 1955, when no other publisher would touch it. The Olympia Press was founded in 1953 by Maurice Girodias, a crusader against censorship and a militant pornographer who had many clashes with the authorities. Among his ‘literary’ authors were Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs. Donleavy had a long-running legal battle with Girodias, who died in 1990, and his original plan as Olympia’s owner was to bring out all 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 Sir Paul Getty as a result of a conversation I had with him when he sat next to me at an Oldie lunch. We engaged in light banter about our love of beautiful women and this led on to the topic of erotic literature and how it is no longer considered to be taboo. 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 needed 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 Paul 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 realized we were almost home and dry he got cold feet. It had become a question of money and personal status. His advisers 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.
But nothing is ever really wasted. I suggested to Richard Ingrams that an interview with Getty might make a startling contribution to the new Oldie magazine; he agreed and helped to broker what was the first interview with one of the world’s richest men, and a famous recluse. Some years later, when Boris Johnson was its editor, the Spectator bragged of being the first to publish an ‘exclusive’ interview with J P Getty. I felt obliged to write to him and to his credit, he apologised and set the record straight.