NEW YORK (AP) - Barney Rosset was a publisher, not an author, and struggled for decades to write the story of his brave and wild life. But few over the past 60 years had so profound an impact on the way we read today.
The fiery and publisher Rosset, who introduced the country to countless political and avant-garde writers and risked prison and financial ruin to release such underground classics as “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” has died. He was 89.
“Barney was a great, great American publisher,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic Books, who called Rosset an inspiration and a publisher powerfully motivated by his feelings of social responsibility. “He was extraordinary. I would say that if there’s a Publishing Hall of Fame, he definitely is going in it.”
As publisher of Grove Press, Rosset was a First Amendment crusader who helped overthrow 20th century censorship laws in the United States and profoundly expanded the American reading experience. Rosset had an FBI file that lasted for decades and he would seek out fellow rebels for much of his life.
Between Grove and the magazine Evergreen Review, which lasted from 1957 to 1973, Rosset published Samuel Beckett, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Jean-Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and William Burroughs. He was equally daring as a film distributor, his credits including the groundbreaking erotic film “I Am Curious (Yellow),” and art-house releases by Jean-Luc Godard, Marguerite Duras and others.
Rosset himself was the subject of a movie, “Obscene,” a 2008 documentary that included commentary from John Waters, Gore Vidal and Amiri Baraka. The same year, he received honorary citations from the National Coalition Against Censorship and from the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Awards.
His autobiography was tentatively titled “The Subject Was Left-Handed” and Algonquin’s Publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt said she hopes to release it within the year.
“While working on this book, Barney took great pleasure in digging up his rebellious ancestors and his rebellious roots, from a bad-boy great-grandfather to his very progressive elementary school that he was sent to in Chicago,” she said in an interview. “I think that in looking at how he got where he got with his own rebellious attitudes, he could see that he was maybe even pre-ordained in some way.”
A bon vivant who enjoyed long lunches and strong martinis, Rosset was a slightly built man with a brisk, peppery voice; and a breathless laugh, often at his own expense. His longtime editor in chief at Grove, Richard Seaver, would remember him as “often irascible, a control freak, prone to panic attacks,” with a “sadistic element” that shadowed his “innate generosity.” Rosset, interviewed by The Associated Press in 1998, called himself an “amoeba with a brain,” ever slipping into enemy territory.
“I’m half-Jewish and half-Irish, and my mother and grandfather spoke Gaelic,” he explained. “From an early age my feelings made the IRA look pretty conservative. I grew up hating fascism, hating racism.”
A Chicago native, he was the only child of a banker, a rich kid with a passion for the arts and a rage to make trouble. His hero was John Dillinger, the nation’s foremost bank robber. By eighth grade he was printing a newspaper called Anti-Everything and he had joined the left-wing American Student Union.
“By the time I was a sophomore in college, second year at UCLA, I had reports that government agents had entered my apartment and took books and that they followed my mail and who I sent things to,” he said.
“At the time it was not fashionable to be against Hitler. It was called `premature anti-fascism.’ Then I volunteered in the infantry and that confused them.”
Rosset’s first interest was film. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler was a childhood friend and during World War II Rosset met the directors John Huston and Frank Capra while attending the Signal Corps photographic school. After leaving the service, he moved to Manhattan and produced “Strange Victory,” a docudrama about racism in the post-war United States.