March 4, 2012

A Few Words About Barney


A drug-addled woman who once sang real pretty for a little while dies in a hotel bathtub, and the whole goddamn world went into paroxysms of mourning for a week. But a man who struggled and fought for the right of Americans to read and see and think what they want—a man who literally changed the world—dies, and the silence from the media was almost deafening. Oh, there were a few obits in the usual outlets, but I certainly didn’t hear a peep about it on radio or television.

        I guess that shouldn’t surprise me too much, should it? We are a population of dull-witted cattle, perfectly willing to accept everything as a given. We have no sense of history, as if South Park and free internet porn have always been there. But it was only thanks to the concerted efforts of Barney Rosset and Grove Press, who fought for the right to publish a few books—yes, books if you can imagine that shit—that such things (and so many others) could exist today.

        No one who talked to Barney for an hour would deny that he was a horny drunk. But that being said, he put it to good use, and led a remarkable life. The son of a Chicago banker who was investigated by the FBI at age fourteen because he was an avowed communist, was a cameraman for the Signal Corps in World War Two, and in the early fifties stumbled into buying a small bankrupt publishing house that would later become Grove Press. He was the first American release works by Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Henry Miller, the Marquis De Sade, Malcolm X, Kerouac, Burroughs, and so many others.

        It wasn’t a walk in the park, of course— Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer led to arrests and lawsuits that eventually ended up in the Supreme Court and changed our obscenity laws. No use getting into that whole history here—it’s readily available elsewhere.

        He briefly got into film distribution too, and that landed him in court as well, thanks to foreign art films like I Am Curious (Yellow) and Quiet Days in Clichy. He started the Evergreen Review literary magazine, his offices were bombed, he was investigated by the FBI again. A list of his adventures and misadventures, the people he knew and the people he enraged is endless.

        I have a few friends who worked with him at Grove back in the eighties, but I wasn’t lucky enough to meet him until 2002.

        Together with Morgan and my friend Gary, I was working on the extras for the DVD release of the 1970 film version of Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, and an interview with Barney—the book’s publisher as well as the film’s distributor—seemed necessary. So one warm summer afternoon, we trundled over to Barney’s 4th Avenue apartment. It was a huge, open, split-level space, with a dining room in the back, a few scattered tables, and chairs, and Barney’s desk tucked into a corner by the front windows.

        He was charming, lively, already a little tipsy on his ever-present rum and cokes, and was full of more anecdotes than we could ever use. (My personal favorite—which did sneak its way onto the DVD—was a story that ended with Barney calling Norman Mailer and insisting, “come over here and pick up your midget.”)

        I had a chance after the interview and during a few subsequent visits to his apartment to pore over his files. One wall of his apartment was lined with file cabinets, each drawer packed with correspondence, news clippings, contracts, photographs, royalty statements, and lawsuits to, from, and involving some of the most important writers of our time. It was all quite humbling. Toward the end of his life, Miller was still sending hand-painted postcards asking for money. His royalty statement that same year revealed that he earned fifty dollars, which doesn’t sound like much but was still more than I’d earned from book sales.

        There are a lot of stories about Barney from people who knew him better than I ever would—that he had a temper, that he had a monster ego, that he could be cruel. Those things may well be true, but around me he was nothing but funny, charming, and open. Which was a relief, given that he’d been a hero of mine long before we ever met. Hell, sometimes it seems he was responsible for providing half my library.

        He was a wildly contradictory figure, a man who described himself as both a communist and a patriot, a man who made and lost millions several times over, and a man who never lost his vision. The real genesis of Grove, he said, was back in 1940, when he was a freshman at Swarthmore. A friend suggested he take a trip to the Gotham Book Mart in NYC, and buy an under-the-counter copy of the then-banned Tropic of Cancer.

        After reading it, he said that he vowed at that moment he would find a way to publish that book legally in America. It took over twenty years, but he did it. He fought to publish several other books as well, which in turn gave him the right to publish dozens of books that were unlike anything any of us had ever read before—books that could change minds and lives and the way we look at the world. He had an unshakable philosophy and desire and the guts to back it up. The goal wasn’t his own glory, but to realize an idea. How many people can claim such a thing any more?


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