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Crusading First Amendment publisher dies

Barney Rosset, the fiery and fearless publisher who introduced the U.S. 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.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barney Rosset, the fiery and fearless publisher who introduced the U.S. 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.

Rosset died at a New York hospital Tuesday night, said Kelly Bowen, publicity manager for Algonquin Books, which was to publish Rosset's autobiography. Rosset had recently had heart surgery.

"Barney was a great, great American publisher," said Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic Books, who called Rosset among the last of a breed of publisher powerfully motivated by social responsibility. "

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.

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.

A minor investment changed his life, and changed the world. In 1951, he paid $3,000 for Grove Press, a publishing house with only three titles to its credit. Rosset put the books in a suitcase, carried them to his apartment and opened shop. The story of Grove soon became one of turning the obscure and the forbidden into the best-selling and the essential, from Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

Rosset waged long and costly war on behalf of free expression. When he started Grove, his wish list included two erotic books, both decades old, that had never been distributed unexpurgated in the United States: Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Miller's "Tropic of Cancer."

In 1954 a copy of "Chatterley" was mailed from Paris to New York. Officials seized it and charged Rosset with promoting "indecent and lascivious thoughts," a policy that dated back to obscenity legislation passed in the 1870s. Rosset sued the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and his attorney, Charles Rembar, crafted a defense based on a Supreme Court decision written two years earlier by Justice William Brennan that "all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees."

A federal judge, Frederick van Pelt Bryan, ruled in Rosset's favor. An appeals court upheld Judge Bryan and the government declined to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Post Office's ability to declare a work obscene had effectively been ended.

In 1961, over a game of Ping-Pong, Rosset and Miller agreed to let Grove Press distribute "Tropic of Cancer." The book sold a million copies in its first year but led to dozens of court cases; Rosset himself was arrested, fingerprinted and taken before a grand jury.

"The district attorney said, 'Do you realize that members of the grand jury have children who are buying that book at newsstands right near their school?'" Rosset recalled.

"And I looked at him and said, 'If that's true and they buy it and read it all the way through, you as parents are to be commended.'"

The jury refused to indict and in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Grove.

"It's hard to remember how puritanical America is and was," Martin Garbus, a First Amendment lawyer and friend of Rosset's, told the AP in 1998. "Barney was the guy who fundamentally broke down censorship barriers in this country. He put up the money. There's a very famous picture of him in the Saturday Evening Post: Barney coming out of the sewer, lifting up the lid — the whole idea of him as this purveyor of filth."

Grove was equally busy defending its film releases. It was sued in the 1960s by the State of Massachusetts for releasing "Titicut Follies," Frederick Wiseman's horrifying documentary about the abuse of patients at Bridgewater State Hospital. The film was kept out of circulation until the 1990s. In 1968, Rosset attempted to distribute the erotic Swedish film "I Am Curious (Yellow)." The movie was seized by the U.S. Customs Office, screened in some communities and banned in others. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 4-4 on this case, with Justice William O. Douglas recusing himself because one of his books had been excerpted in Evergreen Review.

An appeals court later ruled the film could not be banned.

Other Grove books included "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the anonymous erotic classic "The Story of O" and Che Guevara's "The Bolivian Diary." Rosset also attempted an ambitious union of film and avant-garde literature, short works written by Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter. The trilogy was never completed, but the project did lead to one of the movies' most unusual collaborations, "Film," released in 1965 with a script by Beckett and a cast featuring Buster Keaton, just a year before his death.

Rosset only enjoyed limited profits from his legal victories. Although "I Am Curious (Yellow)" made millions and "Lady Chatterley" and other books sold well, he had to cover not only his own legal bills, but those of stores that carried his publications. Grove was also harmed by rival publishers who released cheaper editions of "Tropic of Cancer" and other works that had no copyright in the U.S.

By the late 1960s, the times were outrunning Rosset. When Grove employees attempted to unionize, he was enraged and fired the key organizers. The Grove offices were soon taken over by feminist protesters demanding that a union be permitted, among other concessions, and accusing Grove of treating women poorly. Rosset, the one-time upstart, called in the police. The occupiers left and the union was eventually voted down.

As longtime Random House editor Jason Epstein once observed, Rosset was "a gifted and courageous publisher and a terrible businessman." Using profits from "I Am Curious (Yellow)," he had overextended Grove, moving into fancy new offices the publisher couldn't afford. In 1985, to his lasting regret, Rosset was persuaded by British publisher George Weidenfeld to sell Grove to Ann and Gordon Getty. Rosset was supposed to remain president, but a year later he was fired. Grove, now Grove Atlantic Inc., still owns the list Rosset built.

In his later years, he ran the erotic publisher Blue Moon Books, although legal troubles left him nearly penniless. He worked on a memoir, revived the Evergreen Green Review online and even started a blog. Upon receiving his honorary National Book Award, Rosset reviewed his long history of defiance and stated that the "principal that no one has the right to tell us what we can and cannot read is one that has always been dear to me."

Rosset was married four times, including to the artist Joan Mitchell. He had three children, of them named Beckett.