Barney Rosset, Grove Press’s maverick publisher (of Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett) and subject of the documentary Obscene, is to receive a lifetime achievement award:
In 1951 Mr. Rosset got into publishing by accident when, at the suggestion of his ex-wife, he took over a stillborn company called Grove Press, whose entire list consisted of three reprints: Melville’s novel The Confidence Man, some writings by Aphra Behn and a volume of poems by Richard Crashaw. He quickly turned the company into what he later called “a breach in the dam of American Puritanism — a whiplashing live cable of zeitgeist.”
And yet, as the documentary suggests, he never completely lost his infatuation with film, and in the end it helped bring the company down. In the late ’60s Mr. Rosset made a killing distributing the sexually explicit Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), and he thought he could repeat the trick with other European imports, none of which found much of an audience. He also made some bad real estate decisions and in 1985 was forced to sell Grove, though he hung on to his magazine, Evergreen Review, which he continues to publish online.
Now 86 and a little shrunken, Mr. Rosset, who has just finished writing an autobiography, lives with Astrid Myers in a fourth-floor walkup near Union Square. There is a pool table in the living room, and the walls are lined with loose-leaf binders containing Grove-related photos and correspondence. Over a rum and Coke the other evening, Mr. Rosset recalled that in the famous 1959 obscenity case he had used Lady Chatterley as a kind of stalking horse for Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a book he had discovered in college but whose raunchiness he thought would have a much tougher time in the courts.
“I loved that book,” he said. “When I was a young man, it never occurred to me that it was about sex. What interested me was that Miller didn’t like Americans very much.”
He went to California to meet Miller, Mr. Rosset recalled, and Miller refused to sell him the rights. “He had all sorts of silly reasons,” Mr. Rosset said. “Too many people would have it. It might become a college textbook.” Mr. Rosset eventually secured the book through the intervention of Maurice Girodias, the publisher of the Olympia Press in Paris, and Heinrich Ledig-Rowohlt, Miller’s German publisher.
In 1961 he set about the very expensive business of fighting for the book in the courts. “The greatest joy that came out of my life in publishing was when Tropic of Cancer went on trial in Chicago,” Mr. Rosset said. “The judge was a friend of my father’s, and at one point when the prosecutor accused me of just trying to make money, I took out my Henry Miller term paper from Swarthmore College and read from it. I remember leaving the courtroom and somehow getting lost going home. It was snowing. But I was so happy that I thought, ‘If I fall down and die right here, it will be fine.’ ”
Mr. Rosset went on: “All my life I followed the things that I liked — people, things, books — and when things were offered to me, I published them. I never did anything I really didn’t like. I had no set plan, but on the other hand we sometimes found ourselves on a trail.”
Further: Paris Review‘s interview with Rosset / Roy Kuhlman & his Grove Press covers