Barney Rosset Interview
(The Subject Was Left Handed)
(The Subject Was Left Handed)
By the time he was in the 8th grade Barney Rosset was permanently radicalized, a romantic and privileged outlaw, who would change the face of the American culture by standing up against censorship, and breaking down the barriers to true freedom of speech. The only child of a Chicago banker, he was investigated by his arch enemy, the FBI, before he was 13 years old. The first FBI report on him noted, "The Subject is Lefthanded," a fitting title for an autobiography, if he ever writes one.
Originally a filmmaker after he got out of the Army, Rosset fell into publishing accidentally, partly out of the frustration of being a filmmaker and partly because Grove Press landed in his lap. Over the next 35 years he rattled the smug, conservative hallowed halls of publishing, waving his banner of SEX & POLITICS wherever he went, breaking the rules as he came across them, standing up for what he believed in in one court battle after another, as he published what must be considered along with Maurice Griodias’ list at Olympia Press in Paris, the most ground breaking group of writers any English speaking publisher has put together over the last half of the 20th century. From Miller to Burroughs, to Robbe-Grillet, the list reads like a who’s who of the avant-garde, in literature, film, theatre and politics.
At its height, from the mid 60’s to the early 70’s, Grove owned its own building in Greenwhich Village, published the most important radical magazine in America, Evergreen Review, owned its own theatre, and made a fortune showing and distributing the erotic film I Am Curious (Yellow). As the literary flagship of the counterculture, Grove indirectly helped create an entire generation out to the change the world, but inevitably got caught in the changes they promoted themselves. A Women’s Liberation takeover of the Grove Press Building that lasted for months put Grove behind a financial 8-ball they could never get off their back. It took 12 years of treading to pay off the debts incurred in that period, so in 1985 when he was offered $2 million by Lord Weidenfeld, and the guarantee he could continue to run his company with the financial clout to compete in the spiraling marketplace, he accepted the offer. Just over a year later George Weidenfeld unceremoniously removed him as chief operating officer of his company.
Fiercely passionate and loyal, sometimes even to his enemies (according to friends), at 67, with a jutting jaw and snow white hair, he has the energy of a man 30 years younger, bouncing around the loft he’s just about to move out of on lower Park Avenue, for the the friendly confines of the East Village. For the last several years he has been publishing his own list of erotic/political books under the banner of Blue Moon Books.
The interview took place in two sessions, approximately six months apart, in February and July of ’89. It, like Barney, suspiciously attacks and praises subject after subject as it moves all over the map, but somehow manages to come full cycle.
Smoke Signals: What exactly happened with the Grove-Weidenfeld deal?
Barney Rosset: That’s suddenly a very popular question. Somebody from the New York Times came just the other day to do an article for the Sunday Magazine entitled Grove-Weidenfeld. A guy named Bagley came to me, and he said he was doing an article on an average to medium sized publishing company, and what the problems are. And that didn’t make sense to me. Grove is not average, it’s a weird aberration. Frarrar Strauss would be more interesting. He thought the same thing, but he’d already interviewed Weidenfeld.
SMOKE SIGNALS: How did Weidenfeld lose so much money? Are they going bankrupt?
BARNEY ROSSET: Gettys do not go bankrupt. . .I’d say the whole problem was more a matter of personalities clashing. Vanity Fair came to me too. Kaplan. A fine writer, James Kaplan, had a novel published by Knopf. I’m not exactly sure how friendly Vanity Fair is to Weidenfeld now. Tina Brown was certainly very friendly to them when they bought Grove. Her husband I think was hired by Weidenfeld. He was the editor of the Sunday London Times. But it didn’t last. There must have been an unfriendly Barney Rosset breakup. So they’re writing another article. I’m really very puzzled, because I don’t feel friendly to Weidenfeld. And now you’ve come from Paris Review.
SMOKE SIGNALS: I’m interested in the beginning of those negotiations, why you sold in the first place, and why if they went to all the trouble to acquire a house as unique as Grove, they didn’t protect and strengthen their list in the tradition they were buying.
BARNEY ROSSET: The whole thing was pretty weird, but so is the Paris Review interviewing me. (He goes into a long monologue on how the Paris Review is connected to the CIA, and how Peter Matthiessen came out and said he was working for the CIA) In those days to be playing spy was almost to be a Liberal. At that point, as I remember, a magazine was to be concocted of American writing to infiltrate the natives of other countries with that great American culture. And George Plimpton played a leading role in it. And we were all called to a meeting at somebody’s apartment, and this magazine was to be distributed by a different American publisher every year. And 12 of us were chosen – the winner’s name drawn out of a hat by the poet Marianne Moore. And I sat there with all these people and it suddenly occurred to me that this was a CIA affair, and I didn’t want to be part of it. And I got up and left. Dick Seaver was there with me, but he stayed. I went back to the office and sent George a telegram saying we wouldn’t participate. Then George called me and said, "You know, what you said was very interesting. We should get together some day and discuss it." That was 20 years ago, and we never did. I think Farrar Strauss’s name was drawn. It only lasted one year. I was feistier about my opinions then. But I was obviously very disturbed about that. To me, they were the ins and I was the outs. Like Merlin, who I didn’t even know about then. I certainly felt more akin to Maurice (Girodias) and Merlin than the Paris Review and Tom Ginzberg. So I’m very suspicious about the Paris Review wanting to interview me.
SMOKE SIGNALS: I think the interview is outside of personalities. It’s a recognition of an important body of work which you and Girodias were primarily responsible for publishing. And incidentally, what exactly is the problem between you and Maurice Girodias?
BARNEY ROSSET: About a year ago this Soviet dissident named Savitski, who appeared in the last issue of Evergreen, wrote an article on me. He’s a young man, very romantic, not really anti Soviet, he just thought Gorbachev was an idiot, or he’d still be there. Anyway, the article he wrote about me was published in Observator in Paris, which since Savitski knows neither English nor French, you can imagine it had a few errors. As far as I was concerned I loved it, although it was littered with errors, the spirit of it was nice. Maurice read it and blew his top. And wrote long long letters complaining about it, starting off with one to Samuel Beckett, who doesn’t like him to begin with. And to the papers and so forth. None of it was ever published, but he was just denouncing me and so on, even though in the middle of it he says, "well he wasn’t that bad. (laugh) It was that Richard Seaver who was a monster." The letter was marvelous, though it was not published.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Why was he denouncing you?
BARNEY ROSSET: Maurice’s anger at me, not that it’s factually incorrect, but in some way, I don’t know, I can’t explain it. Maurice and his father (Jack Kahane) before him certainly befriended Henry Miller, for example, and were very important to Miller. And when I wanted to publish Henry, and couldn’t get Henry to allow me, I fought for a long time with him and I was about to give up when I enrolled Maurice on my side. And Maurice was very key to getting Miller to change his mind.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Why didn’t Miller want you to publish him?
BARNEY ROSSET: Miller’s given reasons were he didn’t want to get in trouble in this country. And of course he was right, he did get in trouble. The American Legion was going to burn his house down. You can’t claim Miller was out for money, ’cause he wasn’t. He turned down the money, anything I could offer him. Finally, between Maurice and Henry Rogalt of Germany, the two of them finally convinced Miller to let me go ahead. I’ve said this over a hundred times and I’m saying it again, Maurice Girodias was extremely instrumental. It wasn’t that I never heard of Miller – I wrote my freshman English paper at Swarthmore on Miller, and I had never heard of Maurice. Maurice was very instrumental in other people being published too; Beckett, Genet, Terry Southern, William Burroughs. Which I have always acknowledged, and which Maurice was most helpful. At some point Maurice decided I stole them from him. We published The Olympia Reader, which is totally a thing for Maurice. And when he tried to put it together it was a total mess. When my then wife and I spent days and days recasting it and redoing it, it was a work of love to show how good Maurice was – I think I expurgated his introduction, where he denounced me. Not only am I doing all the work but now I’m supposed to denounce myself. (laughs) I think I cut that. We published it here and sold many copies. Then Maurice came here. But he had a tremendous feeling of competition with me, which I didn’t feel. I loved him! I still do. I don’t even know if he’d speak to me. I think he was great – He published The Olympia Press which followed his father’s Obelisk Press. It gets down to this whole thing that he published what he personally loved. I can pick a Maurice Girodias book out of a thousand. Because of the peculiar interests of Maurice in a certain kind of writing – to me it’s not even erotic, let alone so called pornographic – Maurice had a very highly attuned taste, and in The Frog Prince (the first installment of his autobiography), he tells how he grew up. It’s sad that he ultimately destroyed everything he got involved in. Including Olympia. . .When I first started publishing in 1951 I began to hear of a person named Girodias. In 1954 The Ginger Man was published. And I bought it. I bought the American rights from an English publisher. Then I received a letter from Monsieur Girodias, several pages, single spaced letter, telling me that he owned the rights. And the book that I had was censored, was cut – which it was, and Donleavy was perfectly happy to go along with that one. And saying that I should really go along and buy it from him, from Girodias. And I got so sick of the whole thing after reading Girodias’ letter that I voluntarily returned the rights to the English publisher, and washed my hands of it, and I’ve never regretted it. Anyway, it went on in a lawsuit that went on for at least 20 years between Maurice and Donleavy. Very very bitter. And ultimately Maurice went bankrupt, which he had done several times before. I think that Maurice thought he would buy (Olympia) back for a couple of thousand dollars, ’cause who wanted it? But Donleavy sent his wife and she bought it for a few thousand dollars, but they bought nothing. All the authors’ contracts reverted in the event of bankruptcy, so he bought a shell. So Donleavy had the name, with no desire to use it, and Maurice lost his company. Very sad. And we at Grove Press had The Olympia Reader – who do we pay the royalties to? I tried for about two years to pay them but I didn’t know who to pay. So I got Maurice and I got Donleavy and I argued with both of them. Why don’t you split it. After about two years Maurice agreed. I said, you fool, you idiot, you’re going to get some money! If you don’t agree you get zero. And finally I thought Donleavy had agreed and then he walked away from it. So Donleavy was so obstinate that he preferred to get nothing rather than for Maurice to get something. That’s as far as I can see. And in the meantime I think The Olympia Reader is out of copyright anyway. So the book is gone, the company is gone, Maurice is bitter, Donleavy got the satisfaction of buying it, but not of continuing it.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Why is Girodias mad at Dick Seaver?
BARNEY ROSSET: Dick knew him before I did. And they cordially detest each other. But they both helped each other. Dick and Alex Trocchi were in Paris together, and they had this magazine called Merlin. I never learned all the ins and outs of that, but Merlin was the first publisher of Beckett in English. Dick is one of the two people I know who translated anything of Beckett’s that got published. Until Beckett said "Fuck both of you." He loved both this other guy (Austryn Wainhouse) and Dick, but he thought it was better to do it himself. And Dick would be the first to say that. Anyway, Merlin had Watt and Malloy and they brought them to Maurice and Maurice did it. And he feels he should get credit for discovering Beckett, and that scoundrel Dick Seaver came along – (laughter) and Dick Seaver will tell you he feels the exact opposite, that Girodias wouldn’t recognize Beckett in a million years. So somewhere in there lies the truth, but they really don’t like each other. I sympathize with them both. I like them both. I think it’s unfortunate that they share this mutual dislike for each other. So anyway, in this article Maurice wrote to the newspaper, he went after me, and then he really went after Dick.
SMOKE SIGNALS: When did you meet Dick Seaver?
BARNEY ROSSET: I met him in Paris in ’53. I had already started publishing Waiting For Godot, and I had never heard of Dick Seaver or Merlin, so they had no influence on me because I had never heard of them. But when I got to Paris I did hear and I made a big thing out of meeting Dick. I’ve forgotten how I heard of him, it may well have been Beckett who told me, I don’t know. But that’s when I met him, and I thought he was marvelous, and immediately wanted him to come to work with me. But it took years for that to happen.
SMOKE SIGNALS: When did you actually start Grove Press?
BARNEY ROSSET: ’51. I started it in ’51. But it was started before me. I think in 1947 on Grove Street by a man named Robert Balcomb and Robert Feltz, and Cynthia Balcomb who owned the house on Grove Street. They started a publishing company to do reprints. They did three books and then quit. Then I bought out Feltz. Bought out – we’re talking $1,500. And a trunk full of books. And Balcomb, who I discovered I couldn’t live with. So I bought out the remaining copies of these books. So that’s when I started, but technically it was started on Grove Street by Balcomb and Feltz.
SMOKE SIGNALS: And then you went to Paris in ’53. . .
BARNEY ROSSET: I went there specifically to see Beckett. I had lived in Paris before, in ’48. Before I was publishing. I was with my wife, well, we weren’t married yet. Joan Mitchum, she was a painter on a fellowship. I was a filmmaker. I went there and I was with her and we come back to this country. I went to The New School. And I met somebody who knew Balcomb & Feltz, and I heard they had quit. So I took over three or four trunks of books, and took ’em up to my brownstone, and started. And that’s how that was. Evergreen Review came later (1957). Then I decided to go back to school and learn how you publish. I took a course at Columbia, where Don Allen was a fellow student. The students, I think, were on a really superior level. And also the teachers, who were specialists in publishing. Ian Ballantine was there one week and so forth. And I met Don and I was really taken by him. I thought he had a really superior feeling about writing. Although he and I couldn’t have been more different as people. We really had nothing in common. He had been an instructor at UCLA, he had been a specialist in the Navy. He’d gone to Japanese language school run by the Navy, which produced most of the great translators 20 years after the war. And eventually when I started Evergreen Review he was very key. For awhile. Quite awhile. Eventually that we had nothing in common took over. And we parted. He then went to work for New Directions. Then he went to California, where he’s been publishing ever since. He had a superior ability, especially in poetry, where he led me into Ginsberg, Michael McClure, the whole San Francisco spectrum. He was also totally alien to God, very aristocratic, impossible, but with a real sensitivity to language. Marvelous! So Don was very important to the beginning of Evergreen.
SMOKE SIGNALS: What about Dick Seaver?
BARNEY ROSSET: He came later. I met him in ’53, and I didn’t see him again for a number of years, when he was working for George Braziller, his book club. I don’t know when he came here. I think somewhere around ’61. He was Associate Editor, then Managing Editor of Evergreen.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Which I think was what he did at Merlin?
BARNEY ROSSET: I think so, but I really wasn’t that familiar with Merlin. I met Alex Trocchi when I went to see Beckett, and Trocchi terrified me! Iris Owens would understand that. (laughs) I admired him and thought he was marvelous but oh my God! Then I met Dick and I said there’s a sane, sensible beautiful person. I didn’t want to go near Alex Trocchi!
SMOKE SIGNALS: Was he a junky at the time?
BARNEY ROSSET: I don’t think so. He was so different as a junky here in New York. So pitiful. So beaten into the ground. He would come around here begging. It was really sad. His arrogance diminished. Ultimately is arrogance was wonderful. You realized that, or I did, after awhile. It was so much better than his begging. After he was arrested he jumped bail and all of the people who put the money up lost it. Which seemed to me wasn’t too nice. But by then he was giving heroin to his kid too. It was a real waste. We published a really good novel of his here called Cain’s Book. He was really a good writer! Dick (edited Trocchi’s first novel, Young Adam) knew him very very well, much better than I did. He was the King. Physically. I didn’t want to tangle with him, and I felt that I would if I hung around him. As I say, I didn’t know his work in Merlin, or did I hear of Beckett through Merlin. I knew of Beckett through little pieces I had read and through Godot, though I certainly recognize Merlin’s influence.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Probably in its own way as great as Evergreen, but much more limited. I never saw a copy of it until much much later, but I remember the first time I saw Evergreen, it just blew me away. I thought, wow, there really is a world out there!
BARNEY ROSSET: Where were you?
SMOKE SIGNALS: Tennessee. Nashville or Knoxville. One of the two.
BARNEY ROSSET: It’s funny, I never had the feeling we were getting that kind of response. I was more concerned with (laughter) being lynched!
SMOKE SIGNALS: Well you obviously had good reason, but from where I was coming from, out in the provinces, Evergreen & Ramparts were the most important magazines in America. And the amazing thing was you could get them down at the local campus drug store, no pun intended, right next to Life & Look. More than any other form of communication out there, those magazines spread the word of what was going on, particularly in the early 60’s before the mainstream media got integrated into the gestalt by the Democratic Convention, Woodstock, etc.
BARNEY ROSSET: You know, in ’68, during the Chicago Convention, to my internal discredit, I was going to go to the Convention, I was going to go home, I mean I had arranged for it a long time in advance, really made plans for the trip. Dick and Jeanette Seaver went, and guided Jean Genet through the goddamn holocaust up there, and my oldest friend in the world, Haskell Wexler, made a film in the middle of it, Medium Cool. Haskell and I met when we were seven, we were co-captains of our football team, and so forth and so on. I remember saying to my wife, "I’m going to Chicago, it’s going to be very dangerous." And she said, "So, go!" Actually, in the car, I was going to drive, I had about a 20 minute stop, so I called her again and said, "Are you sure you want me to go?" She said, "Well, if you’re afraid, come home." So I said, "Ok." And I turned around and came home. I had an intuition I was going to get killed. And at that point there was no intimation there was going to be any violence. Even knowing the city as I knew it, I really felt if I went there I might not survive it. So I didn’t go. But Dick went and right through the middle of everything guided Jean Genet. Haskell was out there shooting it live – during one shot of Medium Cool you hear in the background, "Haskell, this is real! They’re shooting!" He had no fear whatsoever. I’d been through World War II and everything, but I really got frightened. (He walks over to the bookcase, and pulls out copies of early Evergreen, and starts talking about Seaver and Girodias again.) I think Dick and Maurice are two of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. I’m an only child. I’ve told many people forever, if I had ever had a sibling I wish it could have been Dick Seaver. What more can I say? And Maurice and I share strange little things – we both have Jewish fathers and Catholic mothers. His mother was French, mine was Irish. Maurice says that his mother and father got along because his father couldn’t speak French and his mother couldn’t speak English. Therefore, it was the perfect marriage. Well, my mother and father stayed together – I’ve never figured out why (laughs). But there were a number of similarities (between us). And Maurice must have had a great feeling for his father, because of the hatred he felt (laughter). He has a lot of sort of apocryphal stories, which must have some bit of truth, but when the war started in ’38 or whatever, Maurice’s father said, "Son, it’s time for you to join the French Air Force." And Maurice said, "Drop dead!" And his father dropped dead. (laughter) I believed it the first time, because (Girodias) said it with such conviction. (His father) did die shortly thereafter. Maurice did not join anything, he stayed in Paris throughout World War II, while his younger Barney brother (translator Eric Kahane) did go out of the country and was a part of the Free French, or whatever. Maurice stayed right there. When I first heard through another publisher he was writing his autobiography, I said he should divide it into three books, up to World War II, World War II and after World War II. Which is what he did. He wrote up to World War II. And Maurice told me a story about World War II, he never bragged about doing anything – quite the opposite, but again one of those crazy stories like his father. He said that he never lifted one finger to help the good guys until the war was ending, and the German army was fleeing Paris, so one day he and a friend of his got drunk, around the Boulevard Saint Germain whatever, and there was a young German soldier directing the tanks out of the city as the Germans were leaving, and they got Molotov cocktails, and they were going to kill that soldier, but just as they were about to do it, a French woman went out and killed him. (laughter) He didn’t do anything. I mean, there’s a lot of something there in that story. I’ve never quite understand his role during the war. He sold art books, but he also managed to go bankrupt during the World War II. Which was almost impossible! My second wife was a German, and she was in Paris during the occupation working for the Nazi newspaper, which took over the Communist Party newspaper. She was a child more or less. Her father was a Colonel in German Intelligence, and managed to get his daughter out of Germany, and get her in this position in Paris. And she told me a lot of crazy stories about that, which I began not to believe, but they were all true, because when we went to Paris to meet Beckett, all of the people she told me about certainly materialized. And Maurice was there during all that time pushing books. Paris during World War II has always been a fascinating place to me. As I say the lady I was married to, I ultimately believed all her stories when the eyewitnesses appeared out of the ground. They were Beckett’s best friends. When we went to see Waiting For Godot the whole cast came up and kissed her. But there was Maurice. . .And it must have been a very strange moment. I mean, I was going to publish a book a couple of months from then called The Hour of the Wolf, which is about Paris 1940-what? ? ?
SMOKE SIGNALS: Was it a novel?
BARNEY ROSSET: A novel. I had published a autobiography or biography of a woman named Monush, who was there throughout the war, a total madwoman, so crazy and so bad you had to still love her. Like all of her friends, Chevalier, etc., etc., and again this whole story of the light in Paris during World War II, to me it’s a fantastic, crazy, mad period!
SMOKE SIGNALS: What kind of books are you (Blue Moon) putting out now?
BARNEY ROSSET: I have this one author who’s taken for himself a French name. He has a great fixation or love for, I think his name was Boris Dieoff, who was a writer somewhere around World War II. He’s taken the name Daniel Dieoff, and he’s an American living in Chicago. He’s given himself a non de plume. I think he’s an extraordinary writer. I’ve already published three books of his in paperback, and I have three more. He actually writes them faster than I can deal with them. I’ve never met him, and he’s in Chicago, but from New York. One of them takes place in Berlin in 1923, and now this thing in Paris in 1941. This manuscript I have takes place in Chili right now, today. The work is both very political and very sexual. Which is what we were all about. Right from the beginning. I used to take out full page ads in The Times saying SEX & POLITICS, as headlines across the top. So this guy’s work embodies to me. . . the spirit of. . .for example, Seaver and Maurice, or Bernard Frechtman and Genet.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Frechtman and Genet?
BARNEY ROSSET: Frechtman was Genet’s translator. An amazing relationship. It took me a long time to understand. But I ultimately did, and I still couldn’t believe it. I mean, Genet didn’t know any English. But he denounced Frechtman. It was because his agent, Zazeka Collins who had been a very-very close friend of Frechtman, got in a fight with him and told Genet that he wasn’t any good (as a translator). Then he killed himself.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Right after that?
BARNEY ROSSET: Yeah. Very fast. Now I’m not gonna tell you that Bernie Frechtman wasn’t a little crazy. (laughter) This relationship with Genet was so incredibly close. It was almost like they were married. Now he was somewhat rough in the beginning but you could see as he developed and learned he was perfecting his art and getting really good, and then to be told that. . .Maurice’s Roger Caseman book was another case. A marvelous book! And another example of where Maurice and I crossed over. Roger Caseman was the only person hung in World War I for being a traitor. He was Irish, and he also happened to be gay. And that’s what ultimately did him in, but that wasn’t the beginning. He worked for the British State Department. And he denounced the British, he said he wasn’t British, he was Irish. And he ultimately deserted the British and joined the Irish, and he was delivered on a submarine to Ireland by the Germans, in the uprising in 1916, and he was caught and hung. And the Irish defended him, and the British said he was a homosexual. And the Irish said That’s a dirty lie! You know. He couldn’t have been a homosexual, but he was. He wrote diaries in the Congo. He uncovered the treatment of people in the Amazon and the Congo. He did a marvelous work, but he also wrote about his love affairs. So the British brought it out. And the Irish said it’s a dirty lie, they’re all forgeries, but it was real! But what ultimately happened was the British came to the United States and told the Irish here and got the Church to stop supporting Caseman, because they were raising all kinds of money for his defense. So that stopped that, but Caseman remained a hero to the Irish for years until Maurice found the original diaries and published them. And he also wrote a book to go with it. And making a most sympathetic person out of him. And I published it here. And I got marvelous comments from Paul O’Dwyer. Irish patriot. He said Roger Caseman is not a homosexual, and it sold a lot of books! (laughter) I said how are we going to get any attention on this book, and Paul O’Dwyer joined right in the conspiracy. I really loved it. He understood immediately the importance of Caseman. If you don’t get somebody mad about it nobody’s ever going to hear about it. It’s a marvelous book. And that was the personality of Maurice. And it had nothing to do with sexual preference. It was about this man who was a political renegade who was fighting for the rights of people in the Amazon and the Congo who was an Irish patriot who was also gay. And wouldn’t conceal it. Which was ultimately his undoing.
SMOKE SIGNALS: You seem to relish the fight yourself.
BARNEY ROSSET: (laughing) When we brought out Tropic of Cancer, after going through hundreds of law suits, we won, knowing we were wrong. And they didn’t appeal it! (laughter) Sonofabitch, we won one! We had lawsuits with printers, publishers, you name it, but we got it published, though it was never mentioned we had to buy the 250,000 existing copies of the book that had already gone to press. So we trimmed it. And put a new international on it, added a new introduction to it, a new cover, and got the guy in New York to publish a statement saying "I realize that this book is in copyright, and Grove Press owns the copyright, a few little things like that, but that seemed to convince everybody. Believe me anybody could’ve published Tropic of Cancer, we were just lucky we didn’t have to go back to court, though we were so threatening we had to go through almost the same thing with The Story of O, and The Life and Loves of Frank Harris.
SMOKE SIGNALS: It sounds like it was a war. What copyrights did you retain when Ann Getty bought Grove from you?
BARNEY ROSSET: They don’t own Tropic of Cancer or Story of O, cause nobody owns it. I remember when The Story of O first came out Albert Goldman gave it a rave review in the Times Book Review, saying it was one of the great novels of the 20th Century, and then he came to do an article on me for Life, and attacked me for publishing this slime. I saw him at Bradley’s bar one night after that, and he was with a girl, a painter who I knew, and she came up to me and said hello. And I said "Go and tell the guy you’re with if he doesn’t get out of here in two minutes he’s dead. And he got out, but when they went outside he slugged the girl. And she came back in and called the police. Oh what a shithead! I still can’t believe what he did! And Weidenfeld of course owns all the rest of the copyrights now.(painful laughter) Every once in a while I would have fantasies about my Chicago background, right, like Tropic of Cancer stories, and get very threatened. But it worked! It didn’t work for Maurice. Just like Terry (Southern) and Mason (Hoffenberg) didn’t really work for Maurice. Mason was very off the wall. Terry was very funny. I mean, as he is as a writer. You couldn’t threaten him. He was also a very good friend of Dick Seaver’s and Trocchi’s. A very good writer. But he couldn’t write a book by himself. I mean, he wrote some by himself, but not much. He couldn’t write a film by himself. Dr. Strangelove. So he was always getting into problems. He always had a collaborator. If you read anything you can almost pick out every line Terry did, because it has this crazy sense of humor. Mason Hoffenberg is flat. It’s Terry who’s funny.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Undoubtedly Terry’s funny. But I actually have heard a number of other people say how funny Mason was too. The whole Candy story is very confusing. How many editions were there?
BARNEY ROSSET: There were lots. One publisher said he owned it, but nobody owned it. Those people who pirated it got out of it scot free. The same thing with The Ginger Man. But you had to think twice about getting into litigation with Donleavy. I remember one day I got a phone call from Terry. You’ll never guess where I am. I certainly couldn’t. I’m at the side of the pool of the Beverly Hills Hilton, looking at all these beautiful girls! He got a job writing a film. I don’t remember which one, but he was so happy! And he described the scene, all the lush surroundings. Here he was, this interloper, laughing at them, but enjoying it. I would have never hired him to write a film, alone. He needed a collaborator. He did a marvelous film, but a total failure, The Loved One.
SMOKE SIGNALS: One of my all time favorites!
BARNEY ROSSET: When I saw it in New York the audience booed. All 20 of them in the theatre, for the first run. I took it out recently on VCR. Again it was my oldest friend Haskell Wexler who was the cinemaphotographer. And that film, the original film was six hours, which I don’t think anybody has ever seen. I had wanted to publish the script, and I went to Terry, and he said, "No, we sold it to Random House." They cut it and cut it and cut it to make it more palatable, but people got very upset by it. Making fun of death. Evelyn Waugh (who wrote the novel) wouldn’t have liked it either. Tony Richardson was the director. Haskell told me when they were making it they had all these girls there painted white in all this makeup, one minute for funerals, the next for marriages, these girls were nude actually, but they’re all in white paint, and just to torture them they’d keep them there for hours. They were crying, tears coming down on the makeup on their bodies. They cut it from six hours to two hours. The film was a real disaster. I think they’d accept it much more now. Well maybe not now, but three years from now. I loved it, and showed it to people who hadn’t seen it.
SMOKE SIGNALS: You started out as a filmmaker. What was the film you made?
BARNEY ROSSET: It was called Strange Victory – I have a black and white video cassette of it. It was about racial discrimination in America. The theme of the film was very simple. It was about a war we had fought and won. Defeated Hitler. Not actually something Maurice would see. What a dichotomy! It was a very downbeat film. It was about how we won the war, and crushed Hitler, but he escaped. Escaped and came here. The racial problems came right back to us. Though we had done these wonderful things we did not get rid of racism in our society. So the film was about how it continued to live here. We went into the hospitals and photographed babies, put tags on them, black, Christian, white, Jew, whatever. And showed what place they would have in society. A woman opposed to a man, a black as opposed to a white, and so on. And that was the film. When I looked back at it I was amazed. It showed the place women played in the war. In the industrial effort. It was enormous. Though after the war they were all thrown out. Including by the unions. So the ultimate ending was, we fought a war but we didn’t really win. So that was the film. Not a great success (laughter). And it had flaws as a film. It was meant to be a 20 minute film and it was stretched to 80. So that was more important to me than I Am Curious (Yellow) which was important but it was almost an accidental result of Grove Press Books and my previous experience as a filmmaker. When I was told about I Am Curious I was able to grab it. It wasn’t hard for me to jump from books to films.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Then you still considered yourself a filmmaker when you bought Grove? You still had intentions of making films?
BARNEY ROSSET: Right.
SMOKE SIGNALS: But never got back to it?
BARNEY ROSSET: I took over Cinema 16, the whole thing. A Film Society after World War II. Amos Vogel later became the head of the Film Festival, and then later came to work for me running the film library. He was basically an Institutional person. I sent him and George to Czechoslovakia during that one small period and they brought back marvelous Czech films, and the FBI almost put them in jail for dissident pictures and films. The FBI was rifling people’s rooms and possessions for the wrong reason though. We were on their side. (laughter) I’m going to Nicaragua Monday. I’m going to visit my son. He’s working there now, but he lived there for a number of years. He’s a PHD in Agriculture. But he’s also political. The books we did at Grove on Nicaragua are now the number one books on the reading list of the Nicaraguan government. He had a Fullbright Lectureship there, then he was hired to be the project coordinator of an environmental project in Costa Rica, to help all of Central America with the problems of pesticides, and so forth and so on. Nicaragua wasn’t allowed into the project because Congress said no money could be channeled to Nicaragua, which of course crippled the project. And so this outfit, financed by the American government, hired my son, which is incredible, and second, he was told, "If you can get the money for Nicaragua we will welcome it." So he wrote a Federal proposal for Sweden and Norway, and got it. And they gave the money. The money goes to the United States and then down to Nicaragua. And he’s down there now building it. Actually physically building it. And there’s also a publishing conference going on. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and on the (July) 19th is the 10 anniversary of the Revolution.
SMOKE SIGNALS: You have a fierce political bent. Where did it come from? How did it start? Were your parents political?
BARNEY ROSSET: Ed DeGrazzio, who started writing a biography of me, thought because I was from Chicago my father was a Mafioso, but he was a banker. Who in Chicago was a banker in the 30’s? As I remember he certainly knew a few people. . .(He starts opening old photo albums, pulling out DeGrazzio’s biography, which is a weird mix of fiction and biography that drives him wild.) Here I am with gangsters! I was in the 7th grade, here I am in my school clothes, and I read a book about Mussolini then. The person I really liked though was John Dillinger. Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. DeGrazzio’s book goes into excerpts from a book about gangsters on the 1930s. He’s trying to make you understand who I was talking about. Here’s he’s not inventing. Then he switches back to speculation, and you can’t tell which is which. He got me so fucking mixed up!
SMOKE SIGNALS: Was he doing the book for Grove?
BARNEY ROSSET: For nobody. Just doing it because he wanted to.
SMOKE SIGNALS: You mentioned Mussolini. That’s what first got you into trouble with the FBI, wasn’t it?
BARNEY ROSSET: I was asked who I thought was the most important person, and I just read the book, so I said Mussolini. I didn’t say I liked him.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Then the FBI started investigating you?
BARNEY ROSSET: They must have already had a suspicion or they wouldn’t have bothered. The first page of my FBI file prophetically states "The Subject was left handed." (laughs) I was a delegate, a college delegate, while I was in the 7th or 8th grade, to the American Students Union convention at Vassar, run by Joe Ash and Jimmy Lechser, later the editor of The New York Post. And we had this meeting at Vassar in 1934. I went as a delegate, though I was much younger than the others. Everybody was under suspicion though. (He goes back to turning the pages in the photo album) Here’s Haskell (Wexler) in an Army uniform.
SMOKE SIGNALS: You and Haskell were in the army together?
BARNEY ROSSET: No. We were friends from the age of 7. We went to high school together. We were co-captains of the football team.
SMOKE SIGNALS: And you went to college at the age of 15.
BARNEY ROSSET: No, no, I was perfectly normal! (laughs) See here (he points at the album). American Student Union, plays, the usual stuff. "American students want peace, educational, economic security." This is what, 1939? Here, this is Nov. 6, 1939 – "ASU THROWS PEACE BALL!" Do any high schools in New York do that now?
SMOKE SIGNALS: What would you say was your major political catharsis at such a young age?
BARNEY ROSSET: Seems like I was always political. DeGrazzio worked on the intelligence files for several months. I was radicalized by the time I was in the 8th grade. Haskell and I put out a newspaper called The Somunist. Some of the parents in that school went crazy (laughs).
SMOKE SIGNALS: And then you left Chicago and went to Swarthmore?
BARNEY ROSSET: One year. I discovered it wasn’t near Vassar. Then I went to Chicago University for a quarter and then I went to UCLA and then quit UCLA and joined the infantry. And after the war I made the picture. (pointing at Haskell) He married my girlfriend. I wrote a short story about it. (Locates story in book) I was surprised when I found it. I must have been 16-17 when I wrote this.
SMOKE SIGNALS: (reading from the story) "He drained the drink in one gulp and carefully mixed another. He picked the ambient paper up off the floor and sat down in a soft chair, the drink in his hand, and the paper on his lap. STRIKERS RIOT, POLICE THREATEN TO SMASH MEETING, the headlines blared at him!"
BARNEY ROSSET: (laughing)
SMOKE SIGNALS: So you always see injustice glaring back at you like headlines?
BARNEY ROSSET: But then the girl comes.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Then the girl comes. It’s politics and sex again. Your trademark.
BARNEY ROSSET: Then DeGrazzio stopped. (He closes the book)
SMOKE SIGNALS: Do you feel most of the fiction you published over the years was thinly disguised reality?
BARNEY ROSSET: Yeah.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Do you think that’s true of almost all fiction being published, outside of the obvious genre stuff?
BARNEY ROSSET: Well everything has to start somewhere. By this point in my story I was using the girl’s real name. It was the only way I could concentrate on it.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Politics and sex, it’s strange, that’s what made Grove and brought Grove down. I’m referring to the Women’s Liberation takeover of the Grove Press building on Mercer street, back in, I believe it was 1970 or ’71. Who was responsible for that?
BARNEY ROSSET: I thought it was the FBI.
SMOKE SIGNALS: The FBI? That’s pretty bizarre.
BARNEY ROSSET: Very. Totally bizarre. I knew it was them. I tried to nail it down. It went on for months. They destroyed us. It’s hard to explain it to people on the outside, but it really was the end of Grove Press. We had like 300 and something employees when it started and we had like 20 when it was finished. We won the battle, if you want to call that winning. And it was aided and abetted terribly and unfortunately by a left wing union. It was the Amalgamated Furriers. They were attempting to unionize Grove Press. Now no publishing company was unionized. Why did they start with us? Number one: The head of the union confessed to me he was an opportunist, and that he felt I was correct, it was an FBI instigated thing, and that he fell for it. The union was having a lot of trouble. The Furriers – it was a dying union. A left wing union that had been red baited almost out of existence during the McCarthy era. It had in its Constitution that you could not be a member of the union if you believed in violence or overthrowing the government. That was in their Constitution and it was forced on them by the McCarthy people. Otherwise it would have been destroyed. Well that wasn’t our fault. But there they were attacking us. So we counter attacked – Do you want to be a member of a fucking union you can’t even be a Black Panther? We didn’t even say that, we just handed out the Constitution to everybody that worked at Grove. And when they had meetings of the union at Grove I would go. I’d speak because there was a certain amount of Democratic pluralism there. I’d get up and say I’m firing all of you whether you win or lose. I couldn’t find out from these idiots what they wanted. They would never tell me. I never got a demand.
SMOKE SIGNALS: They were physically in the building?
BARNEY ROSSET: Well they were people working there. Some. There were two groups. There was a Women’s Lib group who did not work there.
SMOKE SIGNALS: They didn’t work there? How did they get in the building then?
BARNEY ROSSET: Two of them worked in the building. And there were 12 or 15 of them. They were let in. And I was in Europe. And I called Grove from Denmark, and I got my secretary and I said, "Hi, how’s everything?" And she says, "Fine." "Everything going ok?" I ask. "Well there is something special today, I’m on the 6th floor." Our office was on the 7th floor. "Well why?" said I. "Well," she says, "some other people are in your office." "WHAT?" (laughter) In my office I had all my personal letters and records. And they had barricaded themselves into my office.
SMOKE SIGNALS: These were the women?
BARNEY ROSSET: The unknown women. I said, "Get ’em out!" And she said, "No, they won’t come out." I said, "Go in and throw them out." "No, nobody wants to do that." I’ll tell you what I would’ve done, I would’ve done what I’m telling you. So I said, "Let me speak to somebody else." So I spoke to Dick Seaver and a guy named Ira Shapiro. And nobody really wanted to get them out. I mean I’m going crazy. What are they doing while they’re in there? They did smash up the furniture but they didn’t steal the documents, which is utterly amazing! But they sure smashed the place up, and hung flags out the window like they’d taken over Grove Press. And here I am sitting in Denmark – rather cleverly planned, wouldn’t you say? Well, I said, "If none of you have enough guts to get them out, call the police." So they called the police. But the girls inside the office, the ones barricaded inside, said, No, they only wanted to be arrested by women cops. So they went out and looked for women cops, but they couldn’t find any. So finally the men cops had go in and carry them out. Our own little Civil Rights movement. So they carried them out, and they were booked and arrested and so on. My lawyer, a woman I had hired, on the staff of Grove Press, because I wanted to be in the forefront of using legal aid for women, was their lawyer it turned out. So I come back from Denmark, and they’re arrested, and this is the beginning of the drive to unionize Grove. And people are marching around the building screaming You make all your money on obscenity, and give all this money to black women of America, and give it to Malcolm X’s widow – Malcolm X’s widow was a very very great friend, and happy what we were doing for her. The letters they wrote were phony. They were like what happened with the Black Panthers. Bobby Seal would write a letter to one of the others, but it wouldn’t be his letter – a fake letter, and then the other guy would get mad, and the next thing you knew they were shooting each other. Fake letter. This was the same thing. There were all sorts of fake documents handed out. I have ’em. Accusing me. The lives of women were being destroyed by pornographers. So they demanded a 24 hour a day child care center. I said, "Ok. There’s an empty lot across the street owned by NYU. It has a fence around it. I will lead you there. And we will put up a tent. Nobody would follow me. Then we had speeches all day in front of the building. One guy worked at Random House. I finally called up Bernstein(President of Random House),who I didn’t know, and said, "If that guy doesn’t quit making fucking speeches in front of this building I personally am going to come down and take over Random House. By force. He said, "What, what, what," and he called in his editor John Simon and read the riot act to him. He stopped immediately. Unbelievable. He was also Abbie Hoffman’s editor. And later they had a book of Abbie’s called Steal This Book, and they wouldn’t publish it, and we did it. So I mean it was monstrous – every day the building was emptied out by bomb threats. By fire alarms. I mean it was a living hell. And this fucking union was doing all of this and thinking they were going to organize and get some points out of it. Well, it went on and on, and we didn’t know who could vote – no managing people could vote, this that and the other. And it went on two or three months and they finally had the election and they were wiped out! I mean, nobody voted for them. I thought we were all lost – I’d already written my speech accepting the union: It was a good fight and we lost – welcome. And when I went to to the union meetings the head of the union, this crazy nut, would get up and say, "Well I think Barney is wrong, but I admire him." And then our side had a meeting, rather parties at The Village Gate – I wouldn’t let him in. He asked me why he couldn’t get in, and I said, "because I don’t want you." And he said, "but I let you in our meetings." And I said, "Well, you’re stupid!" (laughs) But I’d sit outside at the bar with him, talking while the party was going on inside. He’d call me on the phone and say, "Barney, you and I ought to have a drink and play a game of tennis." I said, "Listen, we’re in a fight. When this is over we’ll have a drink and play tennis." But when it was over and we won, I asked the sonofabitch to have a drink with me and play a game of tennis, but he wouldn’t do it! But about a year later he did come around to my point of view, and we sat down with lawyers and tried to figure out who the fuck literally were the people who instigated this thing, and we could never ever finger point it. And they destroyed us! When we went to the trial of these women who were arrested Charles Rembar always said it was his finest hour as a lawyer. Here were these women who wanted to go to jail, they were bound and determined to destroy the courthouse, and we go before the Judge and this woman Emily Goodman is the lawyer for them, and she demands they give back the women’s fingerprints. She tells the Judge, "you’ve illegally taken our fingerprints, and we demand them back! And we want a 24 hour child care center in courtroom right now." And they had a couple of babies with them. Robin Morgan, who worked at Grove; her baby was yelling and screaming. While all this was going on I talked to the arresting officer and asked him whether it would influence him in making future arrests if we dropped the charges. He said it wouldn’t, but the DA said it would be a terrible tragedy. So he asked the policeman, who told him it wouldn’t have any effect on him performing his duties in the future if the charges were dropped. And Emily Goodman was screaming at the Judge and Robin Morgan’s baby was screaming at the Judge, so the Judge looked around the crowded courtroom, and said, "I agree with Mr. Rembar," and dismissed the case. I never heard from any of those women again. It really crippled the company. We were dead broke after that. We had to move back to 11th street – we had a building, the Evergreen Theatre. And from there we moved in my house, where I lived. And from then on it was a holding operation. For a number of years we were actually making a little bit of money, but we had incurred debts we couldn’t pay – it took 12 years to pay them off, month to month. We finally did it, but the company was just subsisting for all those years. So when this guy Weidenfeld came along and said, "Oh I’ve got this woman who’s got all the money in the world and she’s gonna give it all to me, and I want you. You can do whatever you want. I’ll give you all this money to run the company." I was sucked in. And then thrown out. Weidenfeld was a master con man. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He has a great talent for taking you in and making you feel immune. He told me exactly what he was going to do to everyone and then he did it to me. And that in a nutshell was that.
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