SEPTEMBER 30, 2011
Image: Evergreen Review Issue No. 25, Courtesy of Barney Rosset, © Grove Press
“YOU TREAT GROVE AS IF it was a real publishing company!”
I’m sitting at a coffee shop in the Farragut neighborhood of Brooklyn with Fred Jordan, Barney Rosset’s right hand man and managing editor of the Evergreen Review throughout the sixties, and his son Ken, publisher of the online magazine Reality Sandwich. I had sent them a draft of the introduction to my book on Grove Press, and they didn’t like it. “If you take a publishing company to be a commercial enterprise, Grove never was,” Fred complains. “It wasn’t a business,” his son interjects, “It was a project driven out of passion, which Barney completely self-identified with.”
If Grove wasn’t a business, what was it? “We just called it Grove. Because it was just its own thing,” Ken replied. Jeanette Seaver had likened it to a family; Morrie Goldfischer had repeatedly used the term “team” to describe Grove’s core group. Nat Sobel told me that Rosset compared the company more specifically to a football team, adding “I’m the quarterback, and I’m calling the signals.” What about a rock band? “It’s more like a band than anything else,” Ken agreed. And then he added, “The relationship was not so much from one person to another. It was one person to Barney, and then Barney to everybody else.” And Sobel confirmed, “If we had any personal relationship, it wasn’t with each other, it was with Barney.”
Grove Press, before Rosset decided to take the company public in 1967, is thus probably best described as what the sociologist Max Weber calls a “charismatic community,” a small group of people who come together out of loyalty to a single, charismatic figure. From 1960 to 1970, Grove Press was run not by Rosset alone but by a cadre of men who were unwaveringly loyal to him, even as he made decisions that put the press at economic and legal risk. Weber claims that “charisma rejects as undignified all methodical rational acquisition, in fact, all rational economic conduct,” and Rosset’s impulsive decision-making style perfectly illustrates this quality, his very irrationality central to his appeal. On the other hand — and this also jibes with Weber’s characterization of the charismatic leader — Rosset was lavishly, if unreliably, generous with his associates, going so far as to provide them with houses on his Hamptons estate.
In addition to Jordan and Seaver, this charismatic community included Sobel, who handled sales, and Goldfischer, who did promotion and publicity. Rosset met Sobel, a native New Yorker, during a late night poker game at a sales conference, and hired him as assistant sales manager under Jordan in 1960. Sobel had paid his way as an English major at City College by working at Berman Brothers paperback bookstore on the Upper West Side, where he had noticed the distinctiveness and popularity of the Evergreen imprint. After college, he spent a year in France and, upon returning to the United States, worked as a salesman for Dell’s paperback division before Rosset hired him away. A one-man sales force from the early sixties until he hired Herman Graf to assist him in 1964, Sobel cemented the circuit of paperback and college bookstores that were Grove’s most important outlet to countercultural readers. Sobel and Graf were well-known to and well-liked by the buyers for all these stores, where the arrival of the new Grove list was always eagerly anticipated. According to Graf, a crowd would gather when he arrived, shouting “The Grover is here!”
In 1961, Rosset hired Goldfischer, a Brooklyn native who had worked with Jordan on a trade journal covering the scrap metal and waste paper market. Goldfischer wrote all of Grove’s press releases in the sixties. He also designed and wrote the copy for the college catalogs and book club brochures, sales from which made up an increasingly important proportion of Grove’s income in the sixties. And Goldfischer was responsible for squiring authors such as William Burroughs (“he looked like a banker”), John Rechy (“he was not eager to be exposed to reviewers”), and Kenzaburo Oe (whom he introduced to Allen Ginsberg) to press conferences, television appearances, and social events around New York City. He frequently traveled with Sobel to conferences and conventions, where Grove’s booth was always well attended. According to Goldfischer, “we were very well received, everywhere. They loved us wherever we went.”
Finally, in 1961, Rosset hired Harry Braverman, a native New Yorker and committed socialist who would be instrumental in expanding Grove’s connections to the New Left. Braverman moved back and forth between Grove and the socialist magazine and publishing house Monthly Review over the course of the sixties, and thus was never as fully integrated into the charismatic community as Jordan, Seaver, Sobel, and Goldfischer. Nevertheless, he was central to the acquisition and design of a number of key Grove publications, especially The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the many Monthly Review titles that Grove reprinted as mass market paperbacks. He acted as a general factotum and jack-of-all-trades and, according to Sobel, was the only person who could say no to Rosset.
These men were Rosset’s core cadre throughout the sixties, a decade in which Grove would grow from a small publisher of quality avant-garde paperbacks to a large corporation with three imprints, a film division, an educational division, a theater, a book club and a bar. It became both an institutional node and a social center for the counterculture. While Rosset commuted from his house in the Hamptons for the entire decade, he would frequently spend evenings and weekends in Manhattan, sometimes staying up all night and returning to work in the morning without sleep. “Was he on speed?” I asked Jordan, partly joking. “All the time,” he replied. And then repeated: “All the time.”
You would have to be on speed to keep up with Grove’s myriad ventures in the sixties. The company kicked off the decade with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Some of Miller’s less explicit writing had been published by New Directions, but James Laughlin was unwilling to bring out any of the Tropic books, which had been published in Paris by Olympia Press but remained banned in the United States. Rosset was determined to publish them with Grove, but Miller initially turned down his generous advance. “I had tried to get Miller and totally failed,” Rosset recounted to me. “I’d gone to California, to Big Sur … and he said no … he said he couldn’t stand the idea. If I published it, it would be read by college students.” But Rosset persisted, and with the help of Olympia Press’s Maurice Girodias and Miller’s German publisher Heinrich Ledig-Rowohlt finally managed to persuade Miller to sign on.
Goldfischer compared publishing censored books to “a military campaign … Before each book we had a campaign to get the credentials that the book would receive, critically and favorably.” For Tropic of Cancer, Rossett armed himself with an enormous arsenal of critical accolades from such figures as Jacques Barzun, Marianne Moore, Lawrence Durrell, Archibald MacLeish, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Vladmir Nabokov, Alfred Kazin, Malcolm Cowley, and many others. He was wise to prepare for battle, as he was immediately engulfed in a firestorm of controversy upon the book’s publication, with over 30 court cases and over 50 instances of extrajudicial suppression across the country. Since he had agreed to indemnify booksellers against fines and court costs, Rosset found himself battling for the very financial survival of Grove.
The first trial was in Boston, where Grove’s lawyer Ephraim London assembled an illustrious cast of experienced expert witnesses, including Mark Schorer, a veteran of the Lady Chatterley trial of 1959. In his cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leo Sontag argued that academics like Schorer were out of touch with the American public, proclaiming that “a rarified atmosphere exists on the campus at the University of California at Berkeley.” “Do you feel he is in an ‘Ivory Tower’ and therefore has no contact with ordinary human beings?” Judge Lewis Goldberg asked. “That is correct, Your Honor. The professor is on a shelf by himself with others,” Sontag affirmed. London attempted to come to the rescue by reminding the court that “[t]he judge’s life is, if anything, more of an ‘Ivory Tower’ existence than that of a college professor,” to which Goldberg crankily responded, “We are on the street just the same as and as much as any ordinary being.”
In the Chicago trial, in which Grove was defended by Elmer Gertz, the demographic alignments of the adversaries were clear. Tropic of Cancer was being illegally suppressed and confiscated across suburban Illinois, and the case pitted Grove against an array of small-town police departments, including Arlington Heights, Skokie, Glencoe, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Winnetka, and Evanston. Here, at least, Grove was on home turf: Rosset’s father had been president of the Metropolitan Trust Company in Chicago, and Gertz surely must have felt reassured when Judge Samuel Epstein opened the proceedings with the claim, “I doubt if any lawyer, who is old enough, hasn’t had some sort of business relationship with Barney Rosset.”
Judge Epstein’s ruling, which affirmed that “as a corollary to the freedom of speech and the press, there is also a freedom to read,” became the basis of a nationwide Grove publicity campaign. Rosset distributed thousands of copies of the decision and published a “Statement in Support of Freedom to Read” on the front cover of the July-August 1962 issue of the Evergreen Review. The statement, which runs over from the front cover into the flyleaf, is followed by a long alphabetical list of signatories, including James Baldwin, Ian Ballantine, Saul Bellow, Richard Ellmann, Arnold Gingrich, Hugh Hefner, Jack Kerouac, Carson McCullers, Marianne Moore, Lionel Trilling, and Robert Penn Warren.
On June 22, 1964, almost three years to the day since Grove had first issued the novel, the Supreme Court exonerated Tropic of Cancer. The sixties became Miller’s breakthrough decade, as Grove was able to publish not only the Tropic books but his Proustian magnum opus, The Rosy Crucifixion. What’s more, they sold well; in June of 1965, Miller occupied the top four positions on the New York Post’s bestseller list, and he remained on best-seller lists and college syllabi across the country for the remainder of the decade.
But Tropic of Cancer was only the beginning. As the litigation over Miller’s book was proceeding, thousands of copies of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch were languishing in the Grove warehouse. Though the perennially impecunious Girodias was pressuring him to distribute it, Rosset wanted to wait until the litigation over Miller died down. Anticipation over Naked Lunch had been growing since the publication of portions in the Chicago Review in 1958 had earned the censure of the University of Chicago administration, prompting editor Irving Rosenthal to found the journal Big Table in order to publish the offending excerpts. Copies of Big Table were impounded by the post office, prompting a trial whose eventual success would inspire Girodias to publish the novel in Paris. Buoyed by Burroughs’s critical coronation at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference in August 1962, Grove brought out its first hardcover edition. In early 1963, a Boston bookseller was arrested for selling the book, and Rosset retained the services of Edward De Grazia to defend him.
Allen Ginsberg’s testimony was the highlight of this landmark trial. By now the author of “Howl” was an international celebrity with prestigious literary credentials of his own, which he simply affirmed by noting, “I am a poet and have published.” On the stand in Boston, Ginsberg claimed that “there is a great deal of very pure language and pure poetry in this book that is as great as any poetry being written in America in my opinion.” De Grazia then asked him, “Didn’t you once write a poem about Naked Lunch?” “Yes, a long time ago,” Ginsberg answered. He concluded his testimony by reading aloud “On Burroughs’ Work” (“A naked lunch is natural to us, / we eat reality sandwiches. / But allegories are so much lettuce / Don’t hide the madness.”).
Despite Ginsberg’s endorsement, Judge Goldberg found Naked Lunch obscene, opining that “the author first collected the foulest and vilest phrases describing unnatural sexual experiences and tossed them indiscriminately” into the book. His ruling would be overturned upon appeal because the United States Supreme Court had, in the intervening months, clarified that a book could only be suppressed if it was “utterly without redeeming social value.” The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was forced to concede that “it appears that a substantial and intelligent group in the community believes the book to be of some literary significance.” With the exoneration of Naked Lunch, censorship of the printed word in the United States was effectively ended. Grove’s campaign was a stunning success. As Norman Mailer affirmed in a 1988 interview with Edward de Grazia, “after Burroughs was printed there was nothing to worry about anymore.
The publication of Naked Lunch marked a turning point both for American literature and for Grove Press, which now had a well-established reputation as a countercultural force to be reckoned with. Eager to expand, Rosset and Jordan in 1964 decided to change the format of the Evergreen Review from a quarterly quarto to a bi-monthly, and then monthly, folio size magazine with glossy (and frequently racy) covers, and a wider diversity of advertisers, emphasizing book, record, tape, and poster clubs, as well as cars, cruises, clothes, and alcoholic beverages. Most issues also included nude photo spreads, and for the rest of the sixties the magazine would be both celebrated and criticized as “the Playboy of the counterculture.” Two years later, Jordan launched a campaign inviting readers to “Join the Underground” by subscribing to the Evergreen Review and joining the Evergreen Club, which Rosset had started earlier that year to distribute Grove’s expanding catalogue of “adult” literature and film. In the opening months of 1966, calls to “Join the Underground” appeared in full page ads in Esquire, Ramparts, The New Republic, Playboy, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The Village Voice, and on posters throughout the New York City subway system. Grove also distributed tens of thousands of free stickers to subscribers which began to appear on public benches and in public bathrooms across the country. The ad in the Times opens by specifying its target demographic:
If you’re over 21; if you’ve grown up with the underground writers of the fifties and sixties who’ve reshaped the literary landscape; if you want to share in the new freedoms that book and magazine publishers are winning in the courts, then keep reading. You’re one of us.
In order to entice readers to join the club and subscribe to the magazine, Grove offered a free copy of one of three titles: Eros Denied by Wayland Young, Games People Play by Eric Berne, or Naked Lunch. The campaign was a big success; as Seaver reported to Harry Braverman: “the response by the Evergreen subscribers to the book club mailing has been overwhelming, and the full page advertisement in the New York Times last Sunday is going to produce at least 1500 members — an unheard of response.”
Buoyed by the success of the “Underground” campaign — circulation for the Evergreen Review nearly doubled from 54,000 to 90,000 in the first half of 1966 — Jordan commissioned Marketing Data Inc. to distribute a survey to Evergreen Review subscribers which established that “the average member of the ‘underground’ is a 39-year-old male, married, two children, a college graduate who holds a managerial position in business or industry, and has a median family income of $12,875.” Jordan promptly mounted a follow-up campaign asking readers, “Do you have what it takes to join the Underground?” The ad displays the survey results and then answers, “You have what it takes if you need what we’ve got: a collection of readers who are better educated than Time‘s; better off than Esquire‘s; and holding down better jobs than Newsweek‘s.” It concludes, “All in all, the Underground magazine looks like it’s going through the roof. Take a look at the charts above taken from our recently completed reader survey.” The first survey statistic reveals that the Evergreen Review’s subscriber base was 90% male.
It would be to these well-paid, well-educated, and predominantly male readers that Grove would market much of its catalog in the later sixties, a catalog in which avant-garde drama and literary fiction was increasingly ballasted by pornography and erotica. Rosset’s sources for this material were many. He continued to plunder the Olympia backlist, reissuing the “Traveler’s Companion” series and an Olympia Reader edited by Girodias. He bought out the entire stock of two antiquarian booksellers, the New York Bookstore in Manhattan and J.B. Rund in Brooklyn. And he purchased many titles from Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, sex therapists and erotica collectors with whom he worked closely in the late sixties (and who were affectionately known around the Grove offices as “Syphilis and Everhard”).
The crowning achievement of this campaign to legitimize the pornographic underground was Grove’s massive three-volume edition of the works of the Marquis de Sade, translated by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. In the June 1965 issue of the Evergreen Review, Seaver laid the groundwork for the publication of the first volume with an essay entitled “An Anniversary Unnoticed,” juxtaposing the much-publicized 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the unacknowledged 150-year anniversary of Sade’s death. Sade, Seaver argued, is as important an author as Shakespeare, and the essay places him in the company of other great writers whose books have outlived their initial condemnation to become literary classics like Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola, Joyce, Lawrence, and Miller.
Seaver succeeded in getting Sade’s anniversary noticed in the terms he intended. One month after his article, a review by Alex Szogyi of the first volume of Grove’s edition of Sade in The New York Times opened with the following paragraph:
One hundred and fifty years after his death in 1814, it is perhaps ample time for the Marquis de Sade to be welcomed into the public domain. For a world conscious of its own absurdity and the imminence of its possible destruction, the intransigent imaginings of the Marquis de Sade may perhaps be more salutary than shocking.
Szogyi concludes with the question: “May we not see his work as an immense plea for tolerance in a false and antiquated society?” This juxtaposition of absolute evil and absolute liberty epitomizes the contradictory image of Sade that was propagated by Grove. He was simultaneously a symbol of the evil of which humanity had recently proven itself capable and the freedom toward which it purportedly aspired. Seaver thought this paradox could only be resolved through making the work widely available: “Which is [Sade]: devil or saint? Or perhaps both?” he asks. “Obviously, it is impossible to know until the doors are at last flung open and his works made available to more than the fortunate few.”
Grove followed their edition of Sade with an entire catalog of underground pornographic “classics” under a series of new imprints such as “Venus Library,” “Zebra Books” and “Black Circle.” Between 1966 and 1971, Grove published such titles as My Secret Life (“the anonymous autobiography of a wealthy Victorian who lived for sex alone”); The Boudoir: A Victorian Magazine of Scandal, Forbidden Fruit; Gynecocracy, by Viscount Ladywood; Harriet Marwood, Governess; The Lustful Turk; A Man With a Maid; New Ladies’ Tickler, or The Adventures of Lady Lovesport and the Audacious Harry; and a complete reprint of The Pearl, “the Underground Magazine of Victorian England” which “flourished on the subterranean market until December, 1880, when it vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.” Most of these titles were offered at a discount in hardcover through the Evergreen Club; many were prominently reviewed, and a number of them became paperback best-sellers. Indeed, on June 29, 1968, Man with a Maid and The Pearlwere numbers two and three, respectively, on the New York Post bestseller list.
By the late 1960s, the Evergreen Club had abandoned any pretension to literary value and became a source for anything sexually explicit that Rosset could acquire, including sex manuals, gay porn, stag films, and erotic art catalogs. Many titles were bundled, including the “Olympia Five,” originally penned by the Merlin Collective as part of the “Traveler’s Companion” series, as well as such imaginatively titled series as “Wild Nymph Flesh” (10 titles including The Missionary’s Daughter, Flesh on Fire, and The She-Slaves of Cinta Vincente) and “Strange Passionate Hungers” (another 10, Lustmaster, Sorority of Submissive Girls, and A Hunger in Her Flesh among them). At this point, Dick Seaver (who, according to Ken Jordan, had a “puckish sense of humor”) was openly parodying the expert testimony Grove had deployed in its earlier campaigns, quoting such pseudo-professionals as A.M. LeDeluge and G. Howard Guacamole, MD, who says of one title, “On the whole, I found this book instructive and entertaining. It is absolutely stuffed with redeeming social value and is a lot of laughs.” The testimony Grove had solicited for its earlier battles had been so successful that it was no longer necessary; its form so conventional that it was susceptible to parody. Grove had brought pornography into the mainstream.
Pornography was not the only underground genre that Grove championed in the sixties. Hewing more closely to the original military meaning of the term “avant-garde,” Grove also became a conduit for the distribution of revolutionary literature. As Civil Rights gave way to Black Power, the Vietnam War radicalized the New Left, and independence movements and student uprisings swept the globe, Grove issued a series of pocket-size paperbacks billed as “handbooks” for revolutionaries. These included Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?; Che Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War; Robert Lindner’s The Revolutionist’s Handbook; David Suttler’s IV-F: A Guide to Draft Exemption; Tuli Kupferberg and Robert Bashlow’s 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft; Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book!; and The Bust Book: What to Do Until the Lawyer Comes by SDS radicals Kathy Boudin, Brian Glick, Eleanor Raskin, and Gustin Reichbach.
The classic in this ad hoc canon was Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Like the Algerian revolution upon which its conclusions are based, its publication was understood as a signal event in the proliferation of anti-colonial wars and independence movements that were transforming the map of the world in the fifties and sixties. Billed as “the handbook for a Negro Revolution that is changing the shape of the white world,” The Wretched of the Earth entered a literary marketplace in the United States that was deeply divided along racial lines. For the white readers who made up the bulk of their constituency, Grove offered Fanon as a source of insight into subaltern psychology, a tactic that was particularly evident in the ad for Black Skin, White Masks on the back cover of the June 1967 Evergreen Review, which features a photograph of Fanon with a white mask, underneath which are the questions: “Why the white mask? What is he hiding? What does he fear?” The copy underneath promises that “BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS by Frantz Fanon, available at last in English, gives the answers.”
If Grove’s primary audience was the predominantly white counterculture, Rosset and his colleagues were nevertheless aware of a growing African-American market for revolutionary literature. In addition to Fanon, Grove published Herbert Aptheker’s Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, Turner Brown Jr.’s Black Is, Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo, Paul Carter Harrison’s The Drama of Nommo and Kuntu Drama, and plays, poetry, and fiction by LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). These, along with a variety of other titles, were promoted in full page ads as “The Black Experience in Grove Press Paperbacks,” and they sold well in the African-American-owned bookstores that were springing up all over the country in the late sixties.
Grove’s most popular title in this genre was, without question, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was originally to have been published by Doubleday, and was already in galleys when Malcolm’s assassination and the subsequent violence gave them cold feet. Rosset, according to Goldfischer, said “full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes,” and published the hardcover in the fall of 1965 and the paperback in the fall of 1966. Grove put its full promotional efforts behind the book, which was widely reviewed, discussed, advertised and read, despite Malcolm’s overwhelmingly negative image in the mainstream white press. By 1970, Grove had sold over a million copies, making Malcolm’s image and story familiar to millions of Americans, both white and black.
The Autobiography‘s emphasis on education and self-determination enhanced its popularity in universities, colleges, and high schools. Its educational sales were further boosted when it was adopted by the Scholastic Book Club. In order to capitalize on and enhance this popularity, Grove issued a discussion guide “as an aid to a meaningful exploration of the reality of life in America.” Brought out in the watershed year of 1968, when the Autobiography was its most widely adopted book for course use, this study guide confirms the degree to which Grove was in the vanguard of the curricular revisions that would transform American education.
Grove not only published many texts that were instrumental in the transition from Civil Rights to Black Power, it also tracked and encouraged this transition in the Evergreen Review. Initially the writer responsible for reporting on African-American issues (and Movement politics more generally) was the prolific journalist Nat Hentoff. In November 1965, in “Uninventing the Negro,” Hentoff reported on the three-day conference held at the New School on “The Negro Writer’s Vision of America,” and in the following year, he contributed “A Speculative Essay” more practically entitled “Applying Black Power.” In 1969, Evergreen took on civil rights veteran Julius Lester as its first African-American editor, and for the next few years he would be a regular contributor, providing additional credibility to its reporting on African-American issues. Lester’s contribution to the canon of revolutionary handbooks was Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, issued as a Black Cat paperback in 1969. In it, he affirms that “Black Power is not an isolated phenomenon. It is only another manifestation of what is transpiring in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.” Citing Fanon as his authority, Lester prophesizes that “the concept of the black man as a nation, which is only being talked about now, will become reality when violence comes.” The rhetoric of the title is prelude to the revolution it presages.
The short-lived hope for a revolution on American soil was encouraged by the fact that one had successfully occurred some 100 miles off the coast of the United States only a decade earlier. Far more than the Algerian war, the Cuban revolution and its charismatic leaders inspired radical activists in the United States, and Grove became a conduit for the dissemination of their words and images. Visits to Cuba, forbidden by the State Department but frequently possible by way of Mexico or Spain, became de rigueur for committed activists during the sixties (including Dick Seaver and Barney Rosset who, being left-handed, had to work a separate plot in the fields so as not to injure anyone with their machetes). The Evergreen Review frequently published accounts from Cuba, starting with LeRoi Jones’s “Cuba Libre” in the November-December 1960 issue.
After the revolution itself, the central event in the idealization of Cuba was the execution of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. Che’s death was instrumental both in galvanizing his image as a romantic revolutionary and in affirming Grove’s position as one of its key promulgators. As Michael Casey affirms in Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, the cover of the February 1968 Evergreen, which featured a painting by Paul Davis based on Alberto Korda’s photograph, provided the now famous image of Che with “its first widespread appearance in the United States.” Grove promoted the issue heavily, distributing posters throughout New York City and the rest of the country announcing that “the Spirit of Che lives in the new Evergreen.”
Che kept a journal during the failed Bolivian campaign and rumors circulated that it was in the possession of the Bolivian military, sparking what Publishers’ Weekly called “The Che Guevara Sweepstakes,” in which a variety of publishers, both mainstream and underground, scrambled to get their hands on at least some of what was briefly one of the hot literary properties of 1968. As Fred Jordan recounted to me, “everybody wanted to find the diaries, everybody. We wanted it, too.” Working on a tip he received from the Cuban mission to the U.N., Rosset sent Joe Liss to Bolivia with $6,000 in small bills. Liss called Rosset from Bolivia and, according to Jordan, they “had arranged a code between them, so that they wouldn’t know what they were talking about. According to the code, he had found something, and we should come.” Jordan and Rosset flew to Bolivia and, as Jordan recounts, “we arrive in La Paz, and Barney disappears … I was furious.” Nevertheless, they eventually managed to purchase a portion of the diary.
The risks involved in such ventures were confirmed on the night of July 26, 1968, when a fragmentation grenade was tossed through the window of Grove’s University Place offices. Credit for the bombing was claimed by the Movimiento Nacional de Coalicion Cubano, but Rosset was convinced, although he was never able to prove it, that the CIA was involved. Grove continued to receive bomb threats in the ensuing months, and for a time fire engines mysteriously blared their sirens outside the offices on an almost daily basis. Rosset, undeterred, published the diary excerpts in the August Evergreen Review, supplemented by a two-page guide to “Who’s Who in Che’s Diary,” illustrated with drawings by Carlos Bustos, the Argentinian artist arrested in Bolivia with Régis Debray.
Starting out as a student of philosophy at the École Normale Superieure under Louis Althusser, Debray first visited Cuba in 1961, where he met with both Che and Fidel Castro. He traveled throughout Latin America in the early sixties, after which he returned to France, where he wrote a number of articles on Cuban revolutionary strategy and the “Latin American way.” In 1965, Debray returned to Cuba as a professor of philosophy at the University of Havana. In 1967, he went to Bolivia to join Che’s campaign where he was arrested shortly before Guevara himself was captured and killed. The Bolivian government sentenced Debray to 30 years in prison and he became a cause célèbre around the world until his release in 1970.
Although Debray was arrested for aiding the insurgency, Grove claimed that his real crime was composing Revolution in the Revolution?, originally written in Spanish and published in Havana as the inaugural volume in the Cuadernos series of the Casa de las Americas. Grove’s English translation was widely reviewed, and in terms which suggest that the idea of a “revolutionary handbook” had become an established generic category for the mainstream press. The New York Times called it a “guerilla blueprint”: The Nation, a “primer for revolutionary guerillas”; and Newsweek, “a primer for Marxist insurrection in Latin America.”
The conceptual core of Debray’s book is the military “foco,” the small group of guerillas who make up the seed bed of the revolution. The inaugural model of this utopian group is the 82 members of the 26th of July Movement who joined Fidel and Che on the “Granma” for its famous voyage from Veracruz to Cuba. The purpose of Debray’s book is to prove that this model is appropriate to all Latin American countries under dictatorship. While the empirical referent of the “foco” was specific, its potential for imaginary replication was vast, enabling any small group with enough radical fervor to consider itself in the revolutionary vanguard. Indeed, one could argue that Grove Press was perceived by members of the counterculture as something of a “foco” itself: a small group of leftists loyal to a charismatic leader and committed to modeling and fomenting a revolution. Not only did Grove have a revolutionary reputation but its offices were a social nexus for movement intellectuals. Every year idealistic young people would migrate to New York City in the hopes of being able to work for the company.
By the second half of the sixties, Grove had become profitable, partly through its well-established connections to the booming academic market and the burgeoning counterculture, but mostly through its highly successful campaigns to legitimate and popularize sexually explicit writing and film. In 1967, Rosset decided to take the company public, with an initial public offering of 240,000 shares at $7 each. The prospectus circulated for the IPO, issued by Van Alstyne, Noel, and Co., on July 25, 1967, provides a fairly complete profile of the company on the eve of its cultural and economic apotheosis. Grove had published over 1,000 titles and the prospectus affirms that many of these titles “have been adopted as text and supplemental course materials at college, university, and high school levels” accounting for “approximately 35% of net sales.” As “other operations,” the prospectus lists the Evergreen Book Club (which, supplemented by the membership of the recently purchased Mid-Century Book Club, claimed 52,000 members in 1966), the Evergreen Review (claiming a circulation of 75,000 copies per issue in 1966, the first year in which it posted a profit), and the recently purchased Cinema 16 Library. Grove also owned 85,000 square feet of office space at 80 University Place; 30,000 square feet of warehouse space at 315 Hudson Street; and a 162-seat theater to be used as “a showcase for Cinema 16.”
The purchase of Amos Vogel’s legendary experimental film library was only part of Rosset’s ambitious plan to achieve for the cinematic avant-garde what he had already accomplished with the literary avant-garde: disseminate it from the exclusive culture capitals of Europe and the US out into university towns across the country. But the logistics of film distribution were expensive, and did not align with the circuits Grove had already established for books and magazines; the film division ended up being both a distraction for Rosset and a significant drain on the company’s finances. As Kent Carroll affirms, the film division, which he was hired to run, “was like a giant sponge soaking up everything, and detracting from the publishing side of the business.”
In the end, Grove made money on a single film: Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious (Yellow). Rosset had read about the film by the Ingmar Bergman protégé in the Manchester Guardian during his annual trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1967. Intrigued by its purported combination of sexual frankness and political critique, Rosset asked the president of the Swedish publisher Bonnier to put him in touch with the film’s producer. He went to see it, liked it, and promptly purchased the rights to distribute it in the United States. I Am Curious (Yellow) was seized by U.S. Customs in January 1968 and Grove had to arrange for critics to view it at the United States Appraisers Stores in New York City under an agreement that they would not “publicize the contents.” These same critics were expert witnesses at the subsequent trial in May. A jury found the film to be obscene, but the Court of Appeals overturned the decision, and for the rest of the year it was shown to packed houses by reservation only at the Evergreen Theater on East 11th Street and generated lines around the block for its continuous showing (seven times a day) at the Cinema Rendezvous on 57th Street. It was widely reviewed and discussed, and Rosset aggressively pursued screenings across the country, going so far as to purchase an entire theater in Minneapolis when he couldn’t find an exhibitor willing to show it. By September of 1969, the film had made over $5 million across the country, with Grove remunerating local lawyers who defended against obscenity accusations with a percentage of the box office receipts. Grove’s stock soared. According to Herman Graf, “In ’68 and ’69 we had a stronger bottom line than Bantam; we were making money hand over fist.”
And Barney Rosset was now a celebrity. He was prominently profiled twice in 1969, first for The Saturday Evening Post in an article called “How to Publish ‘Dirty Books’ for Fun and Profit” and then for Life magazine in an article called “The Old Smut Peddler.” Both pieces border on the hagiographic and reveal a certain paradox in Rosset’s public image: If his reputation for impulsiveness and irrationality was becoming legendary, these profiles prove that he was in fact shaping his public biography — from the Francis Parker School to the Army Signal Corps to the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover — with shrewd purposefulness. As Albert Goldman notes in theLife article: “Rosset wants to be famous and he knocks himself out to cooperate with the press.” But although Goldman claims “Rosset treats the intimate recesses of his private life as if they were public record,” both articles are remarkably reticent and respectful about Rosset’s private life, representing him as settled and satisfied with his third wife, Christina, pictures of whom are prominently featured by both magazines.
In Rosset’s actual private life, he had a reputation as a womanizer: By all accounts, he cheated on his wives, and his nighttime escapades at sales conferences and book fairs were legendary. Nat Sobel confided in me that, when Christina was pregnant, Rosset got another woman pregnant at the same time, and “the two women met with their big bellies on the street and Christina knew that the child was Barney’s.” Graf assumed that the two were swingers, stating with a big grin, “he had a great sex life,” adding, “hookers appealed to him.” According to Sobel, “all the juicy stuff about Barney will never appear in print.”
Rosset spent money as fast as he made it, investing Grove’s profits in a variety of reckless ventures that would bring the company to the edge of bankruptcy. In addition to indiscriminately investing in foreign, avant-garde, and pornographic films, Rosset in 1969 bought a massive six-story office building on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker streets and embarked on an ambitious series of architectural renovations that would cost over $2 million. Riding the elevator one day, Jordan noticed some employees he didn’t recognize. Turning to Rosset, he said: “There are people in the elevator I don’t know. How can we function?”