Interview with Barney Rosset

Barney Rosset Interview
Grove Press
by Alexander Laurence

AL: We were just talking about the Stan Gontarski article which talked about
the acquisition of the Che Guevara diaries. You sent Joe Liss down there. Then
you went to rescue him and went there with a false passport? That wasn't true?

BR: I don't think so. No way! I have never done that in my life. I didn't
really read the article.

AL: He mentioned that you used the name Roger Tansey and checked into a hotel.

BR: That's my grandfather's name. I don't think that's possible. How could I
do that? You need a passport with your own name. Sounds better that way.

AL: I wanted to ask you some questions about publishing in the 1950s. There
was this guy Ralph Ginzburg who published erotic books. Did you know him?

BR: I didn't know him. I was aware of him, sure. All that stuff about
Blueballs, Pennsylvania. I think that we had some correspondence but I think that we
were on two different wave lengths. He's as different as Larry Flynt is to me. It
doesn't make us any better than the other. I don't know what Ginzburg's motivations were.
He made very beautiful magazines. I have copies of Eros. It was

very art driven. I was into the printed word.

AL: Were you very interested in mail order?

BR: No. That's what got Ginzburg in trouble. The Evergreen book club was like
any other. You got a subscription to the magazine and then you became a
member of a book club. It's not an original idea. It was our way to do two things
at once and it worked. We were able to get subscriptions and sell books.

AL: You started out republishing forgotten classics?

BR: I didn't start out that way. I bought and took over Grove when they had
published three books including Aphra Behn and Herman Melville. I continued
that for a short time with Henry James and several books. I brought in new
things. Samuel Beckett came in fairly early on. And Ionesco.

AL: Was it your original idea to bring out the Victorian books right then?

BR: No. The Victorian books didn't come till many years later. After Lady
Chatterley's Lover which came out in 1957. My Secret Life....

AL: Harriet Marwood, Governess....

BR: That was neo-Victorian. That was done by John Glasco who also did this
Aubrey Beardsley book, Under The Hill. We can pinpoint all these books. Stan is
the one who can do it.

AL: Well, if I understand you, early on you were committed to literature, in
publishing Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet...

BR: I always was.

AL: You were always interested in radical politics. Then there were the books
that were not so much literary....

BR: No. That's not true. We found a treasure trove of Victorian books that
must have belonged to some collector, I don't know. He died. I bought all these
Victorian novels at a bookstore, one place, and that included A Man With A
Maid, Suburban Souls, which I think is the best Victorian novel, and nine or ten
more books that were unpublished in modern times. These were Victorian
underground books. Later, much later, that lead to Maurice Girodias. We were very
different but there are some similarities. We followed our own tastes. He had
Terry Southern and J. P. Donlevey and so on. The books were often published
under the guise of being erotic. When I read Maurice's books, and I love them, but
erotic to me they weren't. The reverse was true of he to my books.

AL: Do you think that Girodias saw himself as being a pornographer?

BR: I don't think so. No way. He made fun of himself.

AL: Didn't Girodias get Alexander Trocchi to write some pornography?

BR: He thought Trocchi was a very good writer as I did. He was a very good
writer. Maurice made fun of himself. He called them his "DB's", his dirty books.
If Terry Southern was a writer of DB's, I don't know....

AL: Was that a marketing concept?

BR: It was a concept of himself. His father, Kahane, published Henry Miller
when he did Obelisk Press. Maurice took that over. It went bankrupt during
World War II. That's when Maurice changed his name from Kahane to Girodias. It's
his mother's name. Maurice was a very crazy pure soul in his own way. If you
wanted to call him a pornographer, he would enjoy it. He had a very peculiar
taste. Very satirical. Very little sex.

AL: Girodias had many legal battles as you did.

BR: I never had any legal battles with him. Most of his legal battles were
with other publishers, like Pauvert, about The Ginger Man and Story of O. Mine
were strictly about first amendments rights concerning Lady Chatterley's Lover
and Tropic of Cancer. I was more like Pauvert as a publisher.

AL: Did you have much influence of what John Calder was publishing?

BR: I don't understand. John Calder and I both published Beckett. That was
our closest tie. I don't know anything else we both published.

AL: Maybe some of the French writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet.

BR: I doubt John was doing any erotic books or political books. He was more
interested in the opera.

AL: I was reading this recent book, What Wild Ecstasy, which mentioned that Hugh
Hefner was thinking about acquiring Grove Press in the early 1970s. Do you
know anything about that?

BR: I don't know if he ever thought of it. It occurred to me, once. In one of
my periodic moments of depression, I went to Chicago, which is my hometown. I
met Spectorsky, who was then the editor of Playboy. I got there one
afternoon. Hugh Hefner was asleep. So I never did see him. When I had gone to this
nightclub, Chez Paris, and found that he had turned it into his accounting office,
that ended it. We never even discussed it. I have never met him to this day.

AL: What I know is that his advisors were telling him that buying Grove Press
was a good idea. I think this is probably documented in a few sources. Hefner
had a lot of financial problems in the 1970s.

BR: I never heard that and he never approached me. I tried to approach him,
indirectly. I saw Spectorsky who I liked very much. He died right after that.

AL: What was the extent of your relationship with James Laughlin? You wrote
many letters to him about publishing Henry Miller, since Laughlin was Miller's
original American publisher. Were you influenced by Laughlin?

BR: I respected him. I never met him. Laughlin had subsidized Henry Miller
for years. Henry felt that he didn't get paid enough but I thought that it was
pretty good that he got a monthly stipend from a publisher. We never did that.
But Laughlin refused to publish Tropic of Cancer. I read Tropic of Cancer when
I was a freshman at Swarthmore. I thought it was fantastic. Finally years
went by, and Laughlin told me to do it, and I felt morally bound to Laughlin.
Henry finally said OK. Henry did really want it published. He was not after
money. He said that he didn't want to be attacked by the American Legion which was
probably also true. He didn't want to be a renegade. He also enjoyed the
underground status.

AL: What about the spectacular story that Gilbert Sorrentino told as an
editor for Grove Press in the late 1960s about the production of the book My Secret

BR: It's crazy. That story of Sorrentino's. I love the Sorrentino article,
but I look as it as Rashomon. It has no relationship to reality, none. When Dick
Seaver or Fred Jordan read that article they just think "What the hell is
this? I hardly knew Gil." There were no meetings at Grove like he talks about. I
loved the story. I read it and think "Boy, would it have been like this!" Dick
Seaver reads it and foams at the mouth. (laughter) That thing about My Secret
Life: that took us months and months of incredibly hard work. We couldn't get
from The British Museum. We knew it existed. They wouldn't let us look at it.
The Kinsey Institute had it. They wouldn't let us have it. We got it from a
famous publisher in Hamburg. He had negatives of all the pages. We got all of
that and spent months correcting all of that, not changing it or expurgating
it, just cleaning up the spelling so you could read it. Sorrentino acts like we
did it in a week. It's unbelievable. What happened was another fly-by-night
publisher in California got the original text from The Kinsey Institute which
infuriated us. We went out there and started a lawsuit against it and said that
our book was coming out and that we owned the copyright which was nonsense.
Our text were different because we had corrected the spelling. We went to court
and the judge asked "Why isn't it in copyright?" to the defendant, who said
"It's not in copyright because it's obscene." The judge said "Are you sure,
because if you're right you have to go to jail." He gave this guy a week. We said
it was ours because we had set the type. What we had gained was two months.
Ours came out, then his came out and went under the water. We tricked him. This
took a long time. I think that Gil Sorrentino was talking about how there was
a last minute frenzy, at the very end, when we saw that we were competing. We
were after that book for years.

AL: I think that Sorrentino was talking about you on the original tape that
you had brought over twelve volumes of My Secret Life and gave it to the staff
to work on at breakneck speed. Then there's the whole story about Sorrentino
trying to make copies of it at a Kinko's.

BR: No way! Not only that, we paid royalties on it to a German publisher for
years. We did My Secret Life in various ways. There were three editions. We
sold a lot of copies. The huge one in hardcovers. Then we did a cut version.
Harry Braverman did a version that was 600 pages. It was a boring book. But it
was still a huge book. The interesting thing about My Secret Life is the index.
The index you can publish as a book all by itself. Marvelous.

AL: Has anyone actually read the book all the way through? Harry Braverman?

BR: We did in order to cut it down to a livable length. The one thing that
amused me is that great scholars think that this is an autobiography. I
guarantee my life that it ain't. It is done though from the period. It was done and I
can tell by the construction of it that it always gets a little more exciting
as the guy gets older, to keep your interest going. Somebody here at Columbia
wrote a big volume, a very scholarly book about My Secret Life. It's the
longest Victorian book. I'll give him credit for that. But in no way does it compare to
Suburban Souls, which is like a Proustian, pre-Proust.


AL: Of course when you have a trial or a legal battle that helps to bring
some attention to a book by a Burroughs or a Miller, but did you have strong
ideas about launching a book and promoting a book?

BR: Yeah. With Lady Chatterley and Tropic of Cancer for example we used every
means we could. We would take out full page ads in the New York Times saying
"Sex and Politics." It was right out there in front. We didn't conceal it.
That was our, and certainly my, two fields of interest. Not only that, I felt the
two inter-crossed very very strongly, politics and sexual expression, seemed
to go together. I remember that Hitler and Mussolini were not too much in
favor of sex in publishing. I felt the opposite. In this interview I did with
Feltrinelli in 1958, I go into this subject at great length, then, in 1958, about
that problem. Feltrinelli had just come from Italy with a fascist youth
background. He was a little bit squeamish about going along with me altogether. He
became a renegade. He became a guerrilla fighter. He died in an explosion.
First billionaire ever to do that.

AL: Maybe the only one? Since you mentioned an explosion and a bombing, I
wanted you to talk a little about when Grove Press was bombed. Stan Gontarski
mentions that in his article. Grove had published some Che Guevara books and had
put idealized posters around the city, and the result was some anti-Castro
Cubans bombed the offices of Grove Press. Can you remember that day and what was
going through your mind?

BR: I greatly admired Che Guevara. Did then and still do. He had gone to
Bolivia which I had thought was a Don Quixote failure. At the same time I had
admired him. Mao said "Fish need water in which to swim." And Che went to Bolivia
where there was no water and no fish so he couldn't swim. He couldn't even get
the Communist party on his side. That was his life. It was very interesting
what had actually happened in Bolivia, because we had heard all these reports
that made no sense. I contacted some Cubans here in New York, and they put me
in contact with some people in Bolivia. I sent my friend, Joe Liss, ahead of me
and Fred Jordan. Joe didn't know what he was doing. I think Stan took
credence in his letters and notes. Joe was as romantic as Che. Then I lost track of
him, then I thought that I have to go save my friend. Quite unnecessary I soon
discovered. When Fred and I got to Bolivia, we called him on the phone. We
said "Are you alright, Joe?" He said "I'm wonderful. I would like to see you once
again." I said "You will in five minutes." Because we were three blocks away.
We were not the only ones looking for the Guevara diaries, but we met two
wonderful journalists there. We published a book about Guevara. We brought those
two journalists, not particularly left wing, back here to New York. They
procured for us some of the pages of the diary. They actually broke into the
headquarters. They weren't the only ones. BBC was there and broke in the jail and
interviewed the French Writer. What's his name?

AL: Regis Debray?

BR: Regis Debray was in jail and BBC broke into the jail, interviewed him,
and left with the tape. Our friends did the same thing and took some pages of
the diary. We did not get the whole diary.

AL: Has the whole diary been published?

BR: Yes. That is a really weird story. It was taken from Bolivia and taken to
Cuba and given to Castro by a CIA person, not an American, a person from
Bolivia who was in high spot in government. He took it and then came back. He then
disappeared. We didn't get as much as we set out to get. We did get a good
hunk of material.

AL: But about the bombing in New York, how did that go?

BR: We had Che Guevara on the cover of the Evergreen review. It was done by
Paul Davis. The Cubans were caught incidentally. There were about eight or ten
of them. They were Cubans, anti-Castro. They called themselves Omega 7. They
were very angry about the failure of the Bay of Pigs. The CIA had hired them
all then fired them all. They had nothing to do so they went around doing
damage. They bombed us one night on 11th Street near University Place. They also
bombed some other people that same night. They were caught. Front page of the New
York Times. The judge let them off. He said that they were all good guys.
They were reserve officers on the American Air Force. We tried tracking them
down. We had their names and addresses. A foundation actually gave us money to
study them. They sent us an investigator who went to investigate them and found
out that the New York police had positioned a cop in their midst, as their
minister of justice, but he was afraid to talk because he was afraid for his

AL: Was the CIA involved with the bombing?

BR: I think it was a renegade person. You can say it was the CIA. There were
CIA people involved but they were ex-CIA. The CIA were not trying to stop
them, and when they were caught and arrested, and release for committing a crime
against us and the Canadian consulate and a Japanese airline, you could see
that they had protection. They didn't kill anyone. They also tried to bomb the
apartment of the guy who had told us where to go in Bolivia. He was a delegate
of the UN for Cuba. They got the wrong apartment. They must have been CIA. They
were the gang who couldn't shoot straight. They were very young, all in their

AL: Was the CIA following you and what did you find out?

BR: For many years. I spent two years getting information through the Freedom
of Information Act. I sued every head of the CIA from its inception through
Colby, when Colby was the head, for information about me. The General
Accounting of the United States government once complained in The New York Times how
they had spent seven million dollars defending themselves against me. All I
asked for was information about myself, and I got a lot, nothing derogatory. In
the beginning they accused me of being a spy for Japan in World War II. It's
unusual. At the same time I was an officer in the US Army. My whole life from the
age of twelve.

AL: You left Grove Press in 1985 and immediately started Blue Moon Books. How
has it been going?

BR: Blue Moon is not working too well. I started with John Oakes another
company, Foxrock, to publish a Samuel Beckett play, Eleutheria. Now I have taken
that company. Now I have started another company called United Publishers
Group. I'm doing three novels this fall, and this will be different. Not Foxrock.
I'm doing this with Gabriel Morgan, who's Ted Morgan's son.

AL: He did the Burroughs biography.

BR: Right. But Gabriel himself is an extreme talented editor and writer. We
are bringing out three novels under the name Rosset Morgan. Foxrock is now my
imprint. John wanted me to take it over.

AL: John Oakes has been doing Four Walls Eight Windows for ten years.

BR: Dan Simon, who was with John, now has his own company, called Seven

AL: What is Fred Jordan doing?

BR: He's running another company, Fromm International.

AL: Dick Seaver?

BR: Dick Seaver has a company called Arcade Books. It used to be owned by
Little, Brown. Dick brought it back from them. I did a book with Dick Seaver
called Pat Pong Sisters. I really like that book. I did the cover photographs
myself. I have been going over to Thailand a lot with Astrid. I love it. I have
been going over there since 1989.

AL: Kent Carroll still does Carroll & Graf?

BR: Yes he does.

AL: What about Don Allen?

BR: He's still alive in California. I have working on and trying to remember
things for my autobiography. One of the things is about Jack Kerouac and The
Subterraneans. It was a book that we got into a lawsuit over in Italy. Not me
but Feltrinelli. I remember going over there to be a witness in the trail. Don
Allen was very involved in The Subterraneans. Don Allen got the manuscript and
tried to change things and Kerouac got infuriated. Kerouac called us and told
us to put it back.

AL: What Grove books are you most proud of having published?

BR: Authors? Far over the rest is Samuel Beckett. To prove it to you, I have
only one superstition and that's about the number 33. Waiting For Godot was
number 33. One of my sons is named Beckett. There are many authors that I loved
dearly, but if I had to single out one, it's easy.

May 1997