Crist, Gainor Steven (1922–64), bohemian and Dublin ‘character’, was born on Shafer Boulevard in Dayton, Ohio, USA, on 1 August 1922, the only child of Dr Damian Crist (d. 1952) and his wife, Helen (d. 1928), ballerina, the daughter of Alfred Mannassau of Canada and Chicago, a well-known baseball umpire. Both his grandmothers were of Irish origin.
Educated locally and at Phillips Exeter Academy, an old-established boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, Crist studied briefly at Dartmouth College (an Ivy League university in Hanover, New Hampshire) before joining the US Navy in September 1942. During the Second World War he served in England, Normandy, and Germany. In 1946 he came to TCD on the GI Bill of Rights to study law. However, he rapidly lost interest in his studies and plunged into Dublin's bohemian subculture, becoming a regular at the Catacombs. His associates included Brendan Behan (qv), and he is best remembered as the inspiration for Sebastian Dangerfield, the heavy-drinking, casually promiscuous hero of J. P. Donleavy's novel The ginger man (1955). It should be noted, however, that Dangerfield is not a straightforward portrait of Crist but draws on other inhabitants of the subculture, among them Donleavy himself. (Crist is also commemorated in a poem by John Jordan (qv), a personal friend.) In a 1975 interview published in Paris Review, Donleavy recalled that their friendship was based on the fact that he was the only person who would listen to everything Crist had to say, while Crist was ‘the only man in the world who ever listened to me unquestioningly’.
Like Dangerfield, Crist lived in the expectation of inheriting a comfortable independent income when his wealthy father died and wished to maintain his image as a gentleman in the meantime. Both Donleavy and Anthony Cronin recall that Crist always dressed formally, with bowler hat and cane, and had formal, polite ‘southern’ manners especially when dealing with women; he lacked the undercurrent of violence found in the fictional Dangerfield – though ‘gargantuan horrors followed in his wake’, as Donleavy revealed to the Paris Review, these were not intentionally caused by him. (‘He was always absolutely a gentleman in every way’, Donleavy further told the interviewer Karen Purvis, ‘never struck a woman [as Dangerfield does], and never misbehaved.’) Ken O'Donoghue, the principal original for the character Kenneth O'Keefe – Dangerfield's sexually frustrated ‘straight man’ in The ginger man – recalled that, though he was an alcoholic, Crist's incessant drinking took place at a controlled pace, and he always maintained an air of gentility. In retrospect O'Donoghue described him as a sociopath, charming on the surface but incapable of empathy or of responding to another person's feelings. (O'Donoghue began to develop this view – from which Donleavy always dissented – after allowing Crist to borrow most of his money just before he himself went to Paris seeking work, on the unfulfilled promise that, when an impending cheque arrived, Crist would forward the money to Paris.)
According to John Ryan (qv) (1925–92), Crist's charisma ‘caused society to somehow spin about him’, despite the fact that ‘he never attempted to do anything, let alone complete it, said nothing memorable, yet whose memory is so much cherished . . . made two women marry him, penniless and alcoholic though he was, and a man to write a book about him that has caused a near cult throughout the world’. In the early 1950s he left Dublin for London to find work and subsequently attempted to escape his problems by accompanying Donleavy to America, where the writer went in order to submit The ginger man to publishers (Crist read the manuscript without noticing that it was partly based on him). After a year in America, Crist returned to Europe; in 1954 he moved to Spain, where he taught English at the Berlitz School, Barcelona. Between 1955 and 1962 he taught English at the Mangold Institute, Madrid.
On 27 September 1946 Crist married Petra Constance Hillis of Kent, England. They had two daughters, but their marriage broke up because he neglected her and she (the only member of their Trinity set who actually completed a degree course) grew impatient with his lifestyle. After living apart for some time, they divorced in May 1957. On 5 January 1958 Crist married Pamela (qv) (d. 2006), daughter of Patrick E. O'Malley, a Limerick wine merchant, and his wife, Kathleen (née Bonass), of Dublin. They had been living together since 1951. (The obituaries of Pamela O'Malley claim they married in Gibraltar in 1952; if this refers to a legal ceremony, it would have been bigamous.)
Crist died on 5 July 1964 at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where he is buried. After seeing a man resembling Crist in Dublin in the early 1990s, Donleavy occasionally voiced suspicions that Crist might have faked his own death in order to evade financial and matrimonial difficulties (one of his favourite songs had been ‘Don't bury me in Santa Cruz’). This is generally considered unlikely, however, as he is known to have suffered severely from pneumonia and delirium tremens in his later years.
A photograph of Crist, which in 2006 was on permanent display above the bar in Grogan's pub, South William Street, Dublin, is said to be the only known likeness of him.