February 23, 2012

Hail & Farewell: Barney Rosset


Barney Rosset (1922-2012)

Call him what you will — and people called him a lot of things — there’s no question that one of the giants of American publishing died yesterday. Barney Rosset, famed avant-garde publisher, and even more famed for publishing book after book at his Grove Press in defiance of censorship laws, including Herny Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, passed away in Manhattan Tuesday night after complications from heart surgery. He was 89 years old.

As a marvelous twopart profile at the Los Angeles Review of Booksnotes,

Rosset and his first wife, the painter Joan Mitchell, in their Brooklyn apartment

… the Chicago native acquired Grove, then a reprint press, for $3,000 in 1951 and sold it to Ann Getty (only to be ousted from the company) for $2 million in 1986. During that time, he published a who’s-who of cutting-edge authors, introducing American audiences to literary trailblazers such as Samuel Beckett. His list included Jean-Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg, Eugene Ionesco, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Jean Genet, Frantz Fanon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the Marquis de Sade, to name just a few.

Rosset published Naked Lunch, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Story of O, and Waiting for Godot. In his magazine, The Evergreen Review, he published Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl, and Che Guevara‘s Bolivian Diary. (A publication that prompted Grove’s office to be bombed.) He published multiple Nobel winners, including Beckett, Harold Pinter and Kenzaburo Oe.

Rosset and Beckett, on the set of "Film"

And there was much more than that. He was a film maker, as well, producing and directing Beckett’s only film, which was also the last film of Buster Keaton. Then there was the time he became a film distributor, and made a fortune off I Am Curious Yellow, perhaps the first porno film to go, well, sort of mainstream.

As a New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin points out, however, he had his detractors: “Life magazine in 1969 titled an article about him “The Old Smut Peddler.” That same year a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post showed him climbing out of a sewer.” Others criticized his “seat-of-the-pants” style of publishing, saying he had a “whim of steel.”

From an Associated Press wire story:

A bon vivant who enjoyed long lunches and strong martinis, Rosset was a slightly built man with a brisk, peppery voice; and a breathless laugh, often at his own expense. His longtime editor in chief at Grove, Richard Seaver, would remember him as “often irascible, a control freak, prone to panic attacks,” with a “sadistic element” that shadowed his “innate generosity.”

John Lennon and Norman Mailer at a party at Barney Rosset's house in Soho

But the life style, the court battles, and the film projects eventually ate into Grove’s resources and Rosset had to sell a big chunk of the company to investors — who fired him a year later. The saga of how Rosset lost control of Grove is perhaps best told in the documentary made about him called Obscene, which was co-directed by Melville House managing editor Dan O’Connor, a long-time colleague of Rosset’s. (See the trailer below.)

Rosset and Kenzaburo Oe in Stockholm, after collecting Oe's Nobel Prize

In his later years, Rosset’s East Village walk-up was a meeting place for lots of indie publishers, including the publishers of Melville House. He would hold court in a genial way — he was happy to tell war stories, but often enough he wanted to talk about your business with you. He wanted to talk numbers, percentages, how the distribution worked. It was a lesson — and often enough he wanted a lesson in return, as he sat on his sofa with an ever-present rum and coke.

It was like he never quit publishing. Or, more accurately, like he couldn’t wait to get back into it. In fact, his last words to me were, “So when are we gonna do some business together?”

Our condolences to his widow, Astrid Myers.



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives