Few heroes in fiction are more extreme than JP Donleavy's brawling, boozing, whoring Ginger Man. And few more real. In life he was Gainor Crist and when Pamela O'Malley saw his feet, she was his. Patrick Cooney reports
Pamela O'Malley de Crist lowers her glass of house red and fixes me with her pale blue eyes. "Gainor was a real person, not a character from fiction," she says. "He cared deeply about people, I want you to make that clear." She beams a broad grin and empties the glass.

For a woman whose husband was the model for one of the most roisterous characters in 20th-century literature, she is remarkably tolerant. For who could be more excessive than dandy Sebastian Dangerfield, the whoring, boozing, brawling hero of JP Donleavy's classic The Ginger Man, set in the Dublin of the 1950s, still in many respects a village where everybody knew everybody else's business. Dangerfield cuts a swathe that many would- be wild men have tried to emulate.

Dangerfield is about to capture another audience, for 1995 is the Year of the Ginger Man. The film of the book is going into production with all sorts of Hollywood brats vying for the lead; there's a revival of the stage adaptation on the cards, a string of Ginger Man pubs springing up across the States and, inevitably, a brand of strong beer named after the late, great Dangerfield. To help us through this smorgasbord, Donleavy himself has written a complete history of The Ginger Man, charting its painful birth and the half-century of legal battles he fought to vindicate it.

For more than 30 years, Pamela O'Malley de Crist has kept a dignified silence while all manner of scholars and chroniclers have dissected Dangerfield and therefore her late husband, Gainor Crist. On a rare visit to London, she sits on the wide veranda of a St John's Wood pub and tells her story.

"I suppose I first saw him on a ferry going from Fishguard to Rosslare. I noted this person because of his unusual footwear," she smiles. "He was wearing sandals and bright tartan socks - with a suit. I certainly registered that." They met later at a friend's party and, as she says, "that was that".

Crist, an American, had come to Dublin after the war by means of the GI Bill, which allowed ex-servicemen a college education wherever they chose. Crist chose Trinity College and made a very definite impression on the city immediately. His good looks, charm and debonair manner impressed, and it wasn't long before he joined forces with the young bloods who made up its bohemia. This was the Dublin of Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien, of Bewley's Oriental Caf and McDaid's pub.

"It seemed natural, just a group of people who met up most days," she explains. "Now, when I see and hear the way historians talk about it, it seems extraordinary. What for me had been a normal student life had become a legend. Brendan had always been famous in the city as a character, and of course his life has been distorted over the years."

The young Donleavy was astute: while the world and his wife were partying, while the stories were spun and blouses undone, he was scribbling down the details.

"It was a very bulky manuscript. Hundreds of thousands of pages," she laughs. "Everyone was aware, but treated it as a bit of a joke. When it was published, by the Olympia Press in Paris, as part of a pornographic series, Gainor was delighted."

Donleavy was not amused by the manner of his book's publication, however, and spent the next 25 years in and out of courts suing the publisher, Maurice Girodias. (Donleavy is now proprietor of the Olympia Press.) While his tenacity and stubborn belief in The Ginger Man can be admired, his attitude to his old friend and mentor Crist seemed to some unworthy.

"It was very odd when the book was published, because we never got sent a copy. It was only when a friend of ours was asked to write the foreword for the English edition that we received one. Gainor found it a funny book, and it is. Extraordinary things happened to Gainor, and he did extraordinary things."

This is true: take, for example, the exploding lavatory, or the kangaroo fight in Soho.

"Most of the key exploits were based on fact. Gainor had a zest and a vitality for people. You'd be sitting in some pub and some nutcase would come, and you would know that person was going to end up at your table. He fixed on people and drew them out, made them talk. People got adopted and stayed with him for a week. He had a fatal attraction."

When he met Pamela, fresh out of college and from a respectable wine- merchant family, Crist was married with two small children, was studying law and "had no great ambition". Pamela had other ideas.

"We came to London in 1951 to set up home, really to get away from Dublin and the drinking." Crist loved London, he called it "the city", and walked Pam the length and breadth of it. But the peace did not last, and his first wife informed the authorities that he had no work permit. The Crists moved again in 1953, this time to Franco's Spain.

"The move to Spain was really accidental, but we could survive there teaching English. Then in Barcelona where we lived it started to fill up with Irish people, and I saw a repetition looming and moved to Madrid."

It seems that wherever Crist went, the others followed. "Party Dublin" was drawing to a close and the revellers were growing up and moving on. Brendan Behan was writing now for money and not pints. Donleavy relocated to the Isle of Man with the "bulky manuscript", and the many others were settling into careers or secure domestic bliss.

In far-off Madrid, the Crists were attempting to shake off the effects. "We got teaching there, but things hadn't changed that much. He still got into terrible messes and expected you to help him out of them. He was very complicated, found it hard to sustain discipline, but then there was a whole lot of things that went into that - the break-up of his first marriage, he missed the children and he always harked back to his mother's death.

"He'd go some place and get involved with some woman. I'd get furious and then realise what a humiliating emotion jealousy was. Whenever I left him, something happened. He'd say: 'I needed company, I didn't intend that at all.' And, of course, I'd have to get him out of it."

By 1962 Crist's reserves were running low, and although Pamela says "he drank no more than anyone else", other friends who visited him in Madrid towards the end talk of a "gone alcoholic". He contracted TB, but "cured well".

"He was very strong, but I suppose I didn't realise how bad he was. Although he got over the illness, it left its mark."

Crist's great need for adventure took him off on one last journey. In search of a job, he took a ship bound for Florida, was taken ill on board and put off in Gran Canaria. Left lying on the quayside while hospital treatment was discussed, he vomited and choked to death. The year was 1964. He was 42 years old and virtually penniless.

"I was called to the American embassy. A marine let me in to see this lady. She told me and pushed a bag of tissues to me. I'll always remember that, because in Europe we always used handkerchiefs. That's how I found out."

He was buried in Tenerife, making the island a unique Irish literary landmark. Although she organised the funeral, Pamela has never visited the grave.

"I'm not one to visit cemeteries. But I suppose I'll have to go there before I die. It seemed unreal. I was a widow at 35, and looked about 25. Being called 'a widow'. God, I felt so stupid, and I felt so guilty after his death, but a friend saved me. He said: 'For God's sake, you kept him alive the last few years.' "

Her life didn't stop - she lived on in Madrid and became involved with the Spanish Communist Party, resulting in three spells in prison for anti- Franco activities. Although retired now, she is still involved with anti- racism and Third World support groups. Recently she was awarded the King Alfonso the Wise medal, no less, for services to education.

Donleavy, now the grand old man of Irish literature, lives out his autumn years in grand style in County Westmeath in the Irish midlands. His recent books of remembrance have all praised his old friend Gainor Crist, whom he calls "saintly" and "blessed". Perhaps he is repaying an old debt, long owed to the original Ginger Man.

What does Pamela make of him? "Oh, we're very friendly. I phone him when I'm in Ireland. He sends me copies of his books. I'm certainly not going to buy them!" For all her good wishes to "Mike", there is a bone of contention that she and all the elderly survivors have to pick with him: namely, that for long years when Gainor Crist was out of earshot in Madrid, and indeed until recently, Donleavy claimed that Sebastian Dangerfield was based on his, the author's, early life, and that rankles with Pam. For the first time she bristles slightly and then chokes a laugh.

"I know, I know, it's so absurd to any of us. Donleavy liked to imply that it was himself. But how could he have done all that? It could only, and did, happen to Gainor. He was unique."

She has never remarried. "No, it takes you a long time to get over it. I remember walking into a street 10 years after he died where there were memories and just bursting into tears. Sure, I've known other people, but I suppose he probably affected me more than anyone else.

"Let me tell you one story about him," she says. "We were invited to a party in Madrid, full of American people, mainly journalists, who were whispering to each other and pointing that there was the Ginger Man. So Gainor, to liven things up, offered to do a mime about life in New York. He jumped up on a little table and said: 'There's no conversation in this city, you don't need much language to get by. The only words you need to know in the world is FUCK, use that skilfully, and SHIT, that too is useful.' He mimed getting his breakfast, muttering 'FUCK',and getting into a cab, 'SHIT'!

"Well, the silence was chilling, and I thought: 'You wanted the Ginger Man, you've got him.' "

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