Nobody pigeonholes Barney Rosset—longtime owner of Grove Press, anti-censorship crusader, countercultural icon. Not Screw founder Al Goldstein, who in a 1989 interview addressed him as “the worst, most fucked-up businessman in America.” Not the CIA, whose voluminous case file calls him left-handed (which, he points out, is only partly accurate). Not the publisher friends who made the new bio-documentary Obscene (displeased with the movie at first, he’s coming around). Not the National Book Foundation, whose Literarian Award this fall threatens to domesticate him.
And not his fifth wife, Astrid Myers, who tends to the 86-year-old Rosset in an airy apartment on the fourth floor of an otherwise grim walk-up near Astor Place. (His last business venture went bankrupt a decade ago.) Rosset, small and somewhat frail, sinks into a plush sofa with his signature rum-and-Coke and argues with Myers about what kind of organism best describes him. “He’s like an amoeba,” she says. “No,” Rosset retorts, “a many-legged animal. A spider.” “No, an amoeba,” she says. “A spider’s web,” he counters. Myers relents. “You have to be good at picking where you put the web,” Rosset adds.
Rosset had the usual bad habits in the sixties, but publishing was his most debilitating compulsion. “A word has never been written or uttered which should not be published,” he’d said, and like any decent addict, he was canny about feeding his habit. Winning a court battle to sell an uncensored version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959 (eight years after buying fledgling Grove) was only an opening gambit in Rosset’s Great Game. “I didn’t do that to save humanity,” he says in Obscene. “I did it to save Tropic of Cancer.” Henry Miller’s novel was the next one he forced past the censors. William Burroughs and Malcolm X followed. (Less contentious were Pinter, Ionesco, and his good friend Samuel Beckett.) Then came Evergreen Review, a seminal radical magazine that combined stunning Pop Art, groundbreaking writing, and soft-core photography. The Che Guevara T-shirt image began as an Evergreen cover for a chapter from Che’s diaries. Controversy boosted sales just enough to cover the lawyers’ fees.