Barney Rosset: Controversial publisher who introduced Beckett to a worldwide audience


In a profession renowned for its individualists, the publisher Barney Rosset was an eccentric among eccentrics, a man of strong passions who seldom listened to others – and never, if they wished to persuade him to change his course of action. In 1951 he bought a defunct New York publishing company, Grove Press, and devoted his energies to turning it into the most prestigious and adventurous literary publishing company in America. Professor Wallace Fowlie, of the New School University in Greenwich Village, gave him tips about current French literature and Sylvia Beach, of Shakespeare and Company, told him about a talented Irish writer in Paris called Samuel Beckett. In 1954 Rosset published the first US edition of Waiting for Godot and Beckett remained his most faithful author.

In the bars of Greenwich Village, New York and North Beach, San Francisco, Rosset met the new American poets and novelists, which led to the publication by Grove of the anthology The New American Poetry (1960) and of such Beat writers as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. My meetings with him, combined with his engaging Richard Seaver as his senior editor, led to his acquiring such French writers as Ionesco, Duras and Robbe-Grillet (all of whom I had first published in Britain), and because of the identification of these writers with the British avant-garde, he was also able to publish Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.

Rosset's predilection for erotica, and his willingness to take legal risks, led to the first American publication, in 1959, of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and in 1961 of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, both of which involved many prosecutions: victories in some states, defeats in others. So, although these titles, and erotic novels from lesser-known authors, achieved massive sales, Rosset incurred heavy losses through the cost of defending his books and the need to sue pirate editions.

Born in 1922, the son of a Chicago Jewish banker and an Irish Catholic mother who persuaded her husband to convert, Rosset was much indulged, and developed advanced tastes, in his reading and nightlife, in his teens. After the University of Chicago and UCLA, he went into the US Army, where he became an officer and a photographer.

After the early death of his father, Rosset was a rich young man. He eloped to France with his childhood sweetheart, the American painter Joan Mitchell, and they lived there before Rosset returned to his studies in the US.

It cost him millions to build Grove Press, which was run in an irrational and eccentric manner. He started a film distribution company, which built cinemas to show Scandinavian and other imported erotic films, the most famous being I Am Curious Yellow (1967). After initial success in New York, the cinemas incurred more losses.

He also commissioned film scripts which he intended to produce, but only Samuel Beckett's Film (1966), with Buster Keaton, was made. New series, new ideas, new authors took up most of his energy, and he also dabbled in the stock market, bought and sold land and tried to imitate his father's money-making flair, but every decade saw him poorer, mainly because of Grove's losses. He liked spending money and always behaved as if his resources were endless. But by the 1980s, in serious trouble, he reluctantly accepted an offer from Lord Weidenfeld, backed by Ann Getty, wife of the oil millionaire's composer son, to buy and refinance Grove Press. A year later, in 1985, he was dismissed. He continued to publish a small list under the imprint of Blue Moon.

Barney Rosset was an egotistical enthusiast, his courage physical and moral, and in his way a considerable athlete, thin and wiry. But his unrelenting lifestyle eventually took its toll. Rosset could hardly sit still for more than a few minutes, and, although not a drug user, he needed chemical assistance to wake up or fall asleep and to feel well.

His marriage to Joan Mitchell was short-lived – they were both self-willed and autocratic – and Rosset married another three times before settling into a long and happy relationship with a woman able to tolerate his restless mobility and frequent irritability. Rosset was a passionate liberal politically, supporting the Democratic Party, civil rights, women's liberation and many political causes that countered injustice and tyranny. He opposed the Vietnam War, American foreign policy towards Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, and liberationist movements elsewhere, and was a prize target for the FBI and the CIA, both of whom he suspected of sabotaging his career and publications.

He was interested in the arts but not knowledgeable, because his concentration span was short and he never gave himself the chance to achieve any understanding in depth. Shyness, stemming from an awareness that his critical knowledge was slight (he would have liked to have been a writer) made him reluctant to seek the company of many of those he published or would have liked to do, so that when a writer seemed likely to leave him, he did nothing. Even so, after Rosset lost Grove Press, the loyal Samuel Beckett produced a final work of prose, Stirrings Still (1988), a late masterpiece he dedicated to Rosset and gave him to publish.

In the 1950s and '60s, Grove Press, through its publications and its provocative journal, Evergreen Review, became "the voice of the underground" in the US, the most exciting list for intellectually orientated younger readers. Its literary authors included Alexander Trocchi, David Mamet, John Kennedy Toole, Gilbert Sorrentino and Jack Kerouac. In 1964 it published Hubert Selby Jnr's controversial Last Exit to Brooklyn. Political and non-fiction best-sellers included The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Eric Berne's Games People Play (1964) and Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1965).

During his last years, Rosset frequently visited Thailand and Cambodia and thought of living there, but he was too American to be happy away from New York for too long.

Barnet Lee Rosset, publisher: born Chicago 28 May 1922; married 1949 Joan Mitchell (divorced 1952), 1953 Loly Eckert (one son), thirdly and fourthly (one son, two daughters), fifthly Astrid Myers; died 21 February 2012.

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