[Marxism] More on Barney Rosset

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 23 07:06:41 MST 2012

NY Times February 22, 2012
Defied Censors, Making Racy a Literary Staple

Barney Rosset, the flamboyant, provocative publisher who helped 
change the course of publishing in the United States, bringing 
masters like Samuel Beckett to Americans’ attention under his 
Grove Press imprint and winning celebrated First Amendment 
slugfests against censorship, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89.

His son Peter said he died after a double-heart-valve replacement.

Over a long career Mr. Rosset championed Beat poets, French 
Surrealists, German Expressionists and dramatists of the absurd, 
helping to bring them all to prominence. Besides publishing 
Beckett, he brought early exposure to European writers like Eugène 
Ionesco and Jean Genet and gave intellectual ammunition to the New 
Left by publishing Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and “The Autobiography 
of Malcolm X.”

Most of all, beginning in high school, when he published a 
mimeographed journal titled “The Anti-Everything,” Mr. Rosset, 
slightly built and sometimes irascible, savored a fight.

He defied censors in the 1960s by publishing D. H. Lawrence’s 
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” 
ultimately winning legal victories that opened the door to 
sexually provocative language and subject matter in literature 
published in the United States. He did the same thing on movie 
screens by importing the sexually frank Swedish film “I Am Curious 

Mr. Rosset called Grove “a breach in the dam of American Puritanism.”

Beyond being sued scores of times, he received death threats. 
Grove’s office in Greenwich Village was bombed.

In 2008 the National Book Foundation honored him as “a tenacious 
champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America.”

Other mentions were less lofty. 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.

Mr. Rosset was hardly the only publisher to take risks, lasso 
avant-garde authors or print titillating material. But few so 
completely relied on seat-of-the-pants judgment. Colleagues said 
he had “a whim of steel.”

“He does everything by impulse and then figures out afterward 
whether he’s made a smart move or was just kidding,” Life said.

Simply put, Mr. Rosset liked what he liked. In an interview with 
Newsweek in 2008, he said he printed erotica because it “excited me.”

A Counterculture Voice

In 1957 he helped usher in a new counterculture when he began the 
literary journal Evergreen Review, originally a quarterly. (It 
later became a bimonthly and then a glossy monthly.) The Review, 
published until 1973, sparkled with writers like Beckett, who had 
a story and poem in the first issue, and Allen Ginsberg, whose 
poem “Howl” appeared in the second. There were also lascivious 
comic strips.

Barnet Lee Rosset Jr. was born into wealth in Chicago on May 28, 
1922. His father owned banks, and though the elder Mr. Rosset had 
conservative views, he sent his son to the liberal Francis W. 
Parker School. The school was so progressive, Mr. Rosset told The 
New York Times in 2008, that teachers arranged for students to 
sleep with one another.

“I’m half-Jewish and half-Irish,” he told The Associated Press in 
1998, “and my mother and grandfather spoke Gaelic. From an early 
age my feelings made the I.R.A. look pretty conservative. I grew 
up hating fascism, hating racism.”

He called his 17th year his happiest. He was class president, 
football star, holder of a state track record and, he said, 
boyfriend of the school’s best-looking girl. He circulated a 
petition demanding that John Dillinger be pardoned. In 1940 he 
went to Swarthmore College, which he disliked because class 
attendance was compulsory. After a year he transferred to the 
University of Chicago for a quarter, then to the University of 
California, Los Angeles. A few months later he joined the Army and 
served in a photographic unit in China. After the war he earned a 
bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He 
joined the Communist Party but soon rejected it, he said, after 
visiting Eastern Europe.

Initially interested in film, he spend $250,000 of his family’s 
fortune in New York to produce a documentary, “Strange Victory,” 
about the prejudice that black veterans faced when they returned 
from World War II. The film was poorly received, and afterward he 
headed for Paris with Joan Mitchell, a former high school 
classmate who became an acclaimed Abstract Expressionist painter. 
They married in 1949 and returned to New York, where he studied 
literature at the New School for Social Research, earning another 
bachelor’s degree in 1952.

Told that a small press on Grove Street in Greenwich Village was 
for sale, he bought it in 1951 for $3,000. His goal almost from 
the beginning was to publish Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” an 
autobiographical, sexually explicit novel that had been published 
in Paris in 1934 and long been banned in the United States.

But he decided first to publish “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which 
had originally appeared in Italy in 1928. He theorized that though 
it was also banned in the United States, it commanded greater 
respect than Miller’s book.

Arthur E. Summerfield, the postmaster general, lived up to Mr. 
Rosset’s expectations and barred the book from the mails — Grove’s 
means of distribution — in June 1959, calling it “smutty.” But a 
federal judge in Manhattan lifted the ban, ruling that the book 
had redeeming merit. The reasoning pleased Mr. Rosset less than 
the result: as a foe of censorship he was an absolutist.

A Free Speech Advocate

“If you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech,” he 
said. He faced a new round of censorship after buying the rights 
to “Tropic of Cancer” for $50,000 in 1961, the agreement having 
been struck by Miller and Mr. Rosset over a game of table tennis. 
Mr. Summerfield again imposed a ban but lifted it before it could 
be challenged in court.

Nevertheless, the book was attacked in more than 60 legal cases 
seeking to ban it in 21 states, and Mr. Rosset was arrested and 
taken before a Brooklyn grand jury, which decided against an 
indictment. Grove won the dispute in 1964 when the United States 
Supreme Court reversed a Florida ban, bringing all the cases to a 
halt. Grove sold 100,000 hardcover and one million paperback 
copies of “Cancer” in the first year.

In 1962 Grove released “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs, a 
series of druggy, sexually explicit vignettes first published in 
Paris in 1959. Mr. Rosset had already printed 100,000 copies and 
kept them under wraps while the “Cancer” case was still in the 
courts. Almost immediately a Boston court found “Naked Lunch” 
without social merit and banned it. The Massachusetts Supreme 
Judicial Court reversed that judgment in 1966.

Many more Grove books proved controversial. One was “Story of O,” 
a novel of love and sexual domination, by Anne Desclos writing 
under the name Pauline Réage. But lawsuits dwindled. It was the 
film “I Am Curious (Yellow),” the rights to which Mr. Rosset 
bought in 1968, that sparked the next firestorm. He saw it as an 
exploration of class struggle, he said, but its huge audiences 
were clearly attracted by the nudity and staged sexual intercourse.

When a theater refused to show “I Am Curious,” Mr. Rosset bought 
the theater. He then sold it back after showing the movie. The 
authorities in 10 states banned it entirely.

After Maryland’s highest court ruled that the film was obscene, 
the matter went to the Supreme Court. In 1971 it split, 4-to-4, on 
whether the film should be banned everywhere. Justice William O. 
Douglas had recused himself because an excerpt from one of his 
books had appeared in Evergreen Review, which he said could be 
perceived as a conflict of interest. The deadlock meant the 
Maryland ruling would stand, although it had no weight as precedent.

By that time Grove had made $15 million from the film, doubling 
the company’s revenues.There were other run-ins over films. Ruling 
on a suit by the State of Massachusetts, a Superior Court judge in 
1968 banned further showings of another Grove release, “Titicut 
Follies,” Frederick Wiseman’s harrowing film about the abuse of 
patients at Bridgewater State Hospital.

There were triumphant moments, like Mr. Rosset’s late-night 
Champagne session in Paris with Beckett in 1953 that led to his 
acquiring the American publishing rights to “Waiting for Godot.” 
It sold more than 2.5 million copies in the United States. Beckett 
was just one winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature published by 
Grove; others included Harold Pinter and Kenzaburo Oe.

At Grove’s peak in the late 1960s, Mr. Rosset ran what he called 
“a self-contained mini-conglomerate” from a seven-story building 
on Mercer Street. Mr. Rosset was adept at spotting potential best 
sellers. “Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional 
Analysis,” by Eric Berne, spent two years atop the Times 
best-seller list and has sold more than five million copies.

But he also made mistakes. Mr. Rosset turned down J. R. R. 
Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” saying he “couldn’t understand a 
word,” and a planned trilogy of films based on short works by 
Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter was never completed, though it did 
lead in 1965 to an unusual art-house film, “Film,” starring Buster 
Keaton with a script by Beckett. In 1967 Mr. Rosset sold a third 
of the common stock of Grove to the public, retaining the rest 
himself. As a businessman he stumbled when he diversified into 
other fields, including real estate, film distribution and Off 
Broadway theater programs modeled on Playbill.

A violent blow occurred on July 26, 1968, when a fragmentation 
grenade, thrown through a second-story window, exploded in the 
Grove offices, then on University Place. The offices were empty, 
and no one was hurt. Exiles opposed to Fidel Castro took 
responsibility, angry that the Evergreen Review had published 
excerpts of “The Bolivian Diary,” by Che Guevara, the former aide 
to Mr. Castro who had been executed by Bolivian troops less than a 
year before.

Protests in the Office

To Mr. Rosset, things turned decidedly against him in 1970 when 
employees, led by a feminist activist, tried to unionize the 
editorial staff. He was accused of sexism, and some said his 
publications were demeaning to women. When protesters took over 
the office, Mr. Rosset called in the police. The union proposal 
was voted down.

Mr. Rosset sold Grove in 1985 to Ann Getty, the oil heiress, and 
George Weidenfeld, a British publisher. Part of the deal was that 
he would remain in charge. But the new owners fired him a year 
later. He sued, contending that the dismissal had violated the 
sales contract. The dispute was settled out of court.

After leaving Grove, Mr. Rosset published Evergreen Review online 
and books under a new imprint, Foxrock Books. After discovering a 
trove of suppressed 19th-century erotic books, including “My 
Secret Life,” he started Blue Moon Books, which published those as 
well as newer titles. He also took up painting and filled a wall 
of his Manhattan apartment with a mural. Grove’s backlist was 
acquired by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993. The combined entity 
today is Grove/Atlantic.

After his marriage to Ms. Mitchell ended in divorce, Mr. Rosset 
married four more times. His subsequent marriages to Hannelore 
Eckert, Cristina Agnini and Elisabeth Krug also ended in divorce. 
He is survived by his wife, the former Astrid Myers; his son 
Peter, from his second marriage; a daughter, Tansey Rosset, and a 
son, Beckett, from his third marriage; a daughter, Chantal R. 
Hyde, from his fourth marriage; four grandchildren; and four 

Algonquin Books plans to release an autobiography Mr. Rosset was 
writing, tentatively titled “The Subject Was Left-Handed.” A 
documentary film about his career, titled “Obscene” and directed 
by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor, was released in 2008.Mr. 
Rosset liked to tell the story of how he had responded to a 
Chicago prosecutor who suggested that he had published “Tropic of 
Cancer” only for the money. He whipped out a paper he had written 
on Miller while at Swarthmore (the grade was a B-) to demonstrate 
his long interest in that author. He won the case.

“I remember leaving the courtroom and somehow getting lost going 
home,” he told The Times in 2008. “It was snowing. But I was so 
happy that I thought, ‘If I fall down and die right here, it will 
be fine.’ ”

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