Rosset became a film distributor, screening the explicit Swedish flick I Am Curious (Yellow) across the country before the Supreme Court banned it in a landmark case. But his decision to publish a trove of Victorian erotica under the Black Cat imprint made him feminist enemies, and the business couldn’t sustain his ambitions. Anti-Castro activists firebombed Grove’s offices. A union fight further damaged Grove. Rosset suspected the CIA was behind both.
But by the time Rosset sold Grove to heiress Ann Getty in 1985—he was fired shortly thereafter—most people were blaming Rosset. Neil Ortenberg, co-director of Obscene and founder of the now-defunct Thunder’s Mouth Press, was among a group of publishers who tried and failed to buy back Grove with Rosset a few years later. One of his first meetings with his publishing idol—“my shining example”—was in a place Rosset calls “a small-town bar” and which Ortenberg names as the dearly departed strip club Billy’s Topless on Sixth Avenue. Ortenberg later took him to a swankier “gentlemen’s club,” but Rosset found it too fancy.
Ortenberg thinks Goldstein was only half-right about Rosset’s downfall. “Being a self-destructive person is somewhat different from being a bad businessman,” says Ortenberg, who can easily envision a world where Rosset wouldn’t have receded into the nostalgic haze. “He was a major cultural impresario, and that’s an amazing legacy,” he says. “People know about Hugh Hefner … but to me [Barney’s] the much more significant cultural figure.”