Thursday, February 23, 2012

Deceased--Barney Rosset

Barney Rosset
May 28th, 1922 to February 21st, 2012

"Barney Rosset dies at 89; publisher fought censorship"

Rosset founded Grove Press, which took on American censorship laws in the '50s and '60s and championed the work of William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard and Malcolm X.


Elaine Woo

February 23rd, 2012

Los Angeles Times

Barney Rosset, the renegade founder of Grove Press who fought groundbreaking legal battles against censorship and introduced American readers to such provocative writers as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 89.

His daughter, Tansey Rosset, said he died after undergoing surgery to replace a heart valve.

In 1951 Rosset bought tiny Grove Press, named after the Greenwich Village street where it was located, and turned it into one of the most influential publishing companies of its time. It championed the writings of a political and literary vanguard that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Duras, Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

Rosset was best known for taking on American censorship laws in the late 1950s and 1960s, when he successfully battled to print unexpurgated versions of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," both of which were considered far outside the mainstream of American taste but went on to become classics.

In 1959, he published "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which had been banned by the postmaster general for promoting "indecent and lascivious thoughts," but in 1960 a federal appeals court found that its frank descriptions of sexual intercourse did not violate anti-pornography laws.

In 1961, Rosset published "Tropic of Cancer," which was blocked by more than 60 court cases in 21 states. In a landmark 1964 ruling, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it had "redeeming social value" and was thus not obscene.

Rosset "was one of the good guys, in effect doing in book publishing what Playboy was doing in magazines," Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said Wednesday. "He was breaking the boundaries and published some very important works."

While running Grove Press, Rosset also founded a seminal literary magazine, Evergreen Review, which published important early works by such writers as Susan Sontag and Edward Albee.

He later branched into film distribution, with his major success the risque Swedish art film "I Am Curious (Yellow)," released in this country in 1968. Although considered mild by today's standards, the movie, with its scenes of nudity and sexual intercourse, provoked court challenges and feminist ire. But it made millions of dollars for Grove and burnished Rosset's standing as a countercultural impresario.

"Grove Press and Evergreen were a central part of that cultural revolution of the '60s, and Barney was at the center of it," said Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic, the company formed by the merger of Grove and Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993. "He used to gleefully tell me stories about the FBI files they had on him. He took a joy in standing up to the establishment."

Rosset's autobiography, which may be published later this year, is titled "The Subject Was Left-Handed," a line from a report he found in his FBI file.

The only child of a wealthy banker, Rosset was born in Chicago on May 28, 1922. "I'm half-Jewish and half-Irish and my mother and grandfather spoke Gaelic," he told the Associated Press in 1998. With that parentage, he once observed, "I was forced into tolerance" and held radical views from an early age. He attended Chicago's extremely progressive Francis W. Parker School, published a newspaper called Anti-Everything and joined the left-wing American Student Union.

He studied at four colleges, including Swarthmore and UCLA, eventually earning a degree from New York's New School for Social Research in 1952.

He was a freshman at Swarthmore in 1940 when he bought a banned copy of Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," which had been published in Paris in 1934. Rosset identified with Miller's sense of alienation.

"The sex didn't really hit me. What really got me," he told the Voice of America in 2009, "was the anti-American feeling that Miller had. He was not happy living in this country, and he was extremely endowed with the ability to say why."

After serving in the Army Signal Corps in China during World War II, he moved to New York with his first wife, painter Joan Mitchell, who introduced him to the Greenwich Village art scene. A friend of hers told him about a small press on Grove Street that was for sale. He bought it for $3,000.

He wanted to publish "Tropic of Cancer" but instead began with books that wouldn't require jumping through legal hoops. His first success was Beckett's absurdist play "Waiting for Godot" in 1954. He bought it for a $150 advance against a 2.5% royalty and sold more than 1 million copies at $1 each. (It has now sold more than 2.5 million copies.) Rosset named one of his sons after Beckett, who became one of his closest friends.

The year he published "Godot," Rosset heard from UC Berkeley literature professor Mark Schorer, who urged him to put out an uncensored edition of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Rosset wasn't enamored of the book, but thought it could pave the way for the much bolder "Tropic," Miller's semi-autobiographical account of his early life and sexual adventures in Paris. Rosset notified postal authorities that he was sending the book in the mail. It was immediately confiscated, setting in motion the protracted legal tussle that ended in 1959 with the book's publication.

He then went to work on Miller, who was loath to allow Rosset to publish "Tropic." According to Rosset, the author feared what success would do to the book. "He wrote me a letter in which he said…What happens if you publish it and we actually win the case?" Rosset recounted in a 1997 interview with the Paris Review. Miller said he didn't want it to become so acceptable that it was assigned in colleges "and no one will want to read it!"

Miller's fear was unfounded. "Tropic" became a classic, along with many other titles Rosset published. He printed Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" in 1962, and Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg were among the defense witnesses at that book's trial. A few years later, Rosset snatched up "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" (1965) after Doubleday, fearful of repercussions after Malcolm's assassination, dropped it.

Rosset did not agree with the "socially redeeming" argument that led to the landmark victory for "Tropic" in 1964.

"My grounds has always been that anything should be — can be — published," he told NPR in 1991. "I think that if you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech."

His attempt to expand Grove into the film distribution business took the company to the brink of ruin. Rosset sold it in 1985 to oil heiress Ann Getty and British publisher George Weidenfeld, who ousted him as Grove's chief the following year. Rosset found himself starting over at 63 and launched other publishing ventures that eventually ran aground.

He revived Evergreen Review as an online journal and continued to run it until shortly before his death.

Married several times, he is survived by his wife, Astrid Myers, four children, three stepchildren, four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.

"Defied Censors, Making Racy a Literary Staple"


Douglas Martin

February 22nd, 2012

The New York Times

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 (Yellow).”

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 step-grandchildren.

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.’ ”

Barney Rosset [Wikipedia]

Grove Press [Wikipedia]

No comments: