The Fifties, from Beckett to Rechy
ON OCTOBER 4, 2009, I flew from Iowa City to New York to conduct interviews for a history of Grove Press. Everyone I contacted had agreed to meet with me except Barney Rosset. In a series of emails, his fifth wife Astrid Myers had firmly but politely resisted fixing a date, telling me that it all depended on how Barney was feeling. I had made all my travel arrangements, set to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebration of the publication of William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, without knowing whether I'd be able to interview Rosset, the legendary owner of Grove Press - which had published Burroughs's masterpiece along with an entire canon of post-war avant-garde literature - and editor of the Evergreen Review, the premiere underground magazine of the sixties counterculture. I was eager to meet the man who bought the fledgling reprint house for $3,000 in 1951, built it up into one of the most influential publishers of the post-war era, and then was summarily fired after selling it to Anne Getty for $2,000,000 in 1986. I checked into my room at the Chelsea hotel, called Astrid, and succeeded in scheduling an interview for the following day.
Taking my cue from the Mad Men-era photos I'd seen of Rosset with a martini, I bought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin at a liquor store around the corner from the East Village walk-up he shares with Astrid. Well into his eighties, Rosset remains spry and loquacious; though his body is bent over with age, his motions are animated and he speaks with assurance. He emerged from behind the glass brick partition separating the kitchen and living quarters from the long, narrow front room, and when he saw the blue bottle of gin it seemed, madeleine-like, to immediately evoke the past. Without preamble or introduction, he launched into a lengthy memory of shipping out from New York through the Panama Canal and around Australia to Bombay. His ultimate destination was China, where he'd received a commission, through his father's government connections, as a Photographic Unit Commander for the Army Signal Corps. At the opening of the voyage he'd been given a blue plastic canteen, which he filled with gin instead of water. By the time he arrived in Bombay, the plastic had melted into the gin, turning it blue. He drank it anyway. It took over ten minutes for Rosset to mention Grove, and when he did it was in order to dismiss everything that had been written about it. "Something you have to understand about how Grove Press came about - nothing like what seems to be written down," he said. "It's really a big problem. People write about Grove - they think I came out of an egg or something."
Barney Rosset did not come out of an egg. He was born and raised in Chicago, the only child of a wealthy Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother, and he attended the progressive (and private) Francis Parker School, which he credits with instilling in him the passionate left-wing convictions he would maintain throughout his life. At Parker he made his first foray into radical publishing with a mimeographed newsletter called the Sommunist (a mash-up of communist and socialist), soon renamed Anti-Everything. His favorite writers were Ne...read more