Barney Rosset Dies at 89; Defied Censors, Making Racy a Literary Staple
Published: February 22, 2012
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 tried to unionize several departments, including 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.’ ”