Barney Rosset Turns 80

 

Jim Knipfel

Photos by Regina Cherry.
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 105 in 2002.
 
 

BACK in 1951, a then 29 year old Barney Rosset bought a small publishing concern on Grove St.

By the end of that decade, he had firmly established himself as one of the most important and influential men, not only in American publishing, but in terms of American culture as well.He introduced American readers to Beckett, Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Jean Genet. He brought national attention to the Beats long before they were called "Beats." In 1959, he fought for and won the right to publish the long-banned Lady Chatterly's Lover. He did the same for Naked Lunch and about half of everything Henry Miller wrote. Grove's literary journal Evergreen Review (also edited by Rosset) published everyone from Jean-Paul Sartre to Terry Southern. And throughout the 60s, Rosset was even involved in the film distribution business - focusing mostly on then - shocking European, um, "art" films like I Am Curious(Yellow). He was an iconoclast from the start - but he wasn't simply out to shock and disturb people (though he often did). Things that people found shocking at the time were things he recognized as valuable, important and honest works of art - and the passage of time has proven him right.
 
 
Rosset has long since sold Grove and moved on to other publishing ventures. These days, he's still editing Evergreen Review Online (https://www.evergreenreview.com), and remains a tireless crusader for First Amendment and free speech issues.
 
 
Well, Rosset turned 80 last week, and so a few friends decided to hold a little get-together in his honor at an enormous loft overlooking the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker St.
 
 
Not being someone who frequents parties of any kind, I'm afraid I can't very well provide a laundry list of all the luminaries in attendance. The overcrowded room still had that luminary - rich feel about it, though - no denying that. There was a fellow who looked like Norman Mailer but wasn't, and another who looked like George Plimpton and probably was. Photographer Arne Svenson was there, as was John Oakes, of Four Walls Eight Windows. Matt Dillon was there, too, looking mildly uncomfortable. There was some question as to why, exactly, Matt Dillon might be there, until I remembered his Burroughs connection-as well as the fact that he recently recorded an unabridged audio version of On the Road. With only a few exceptions, most everyone in the room seemed close to Rosset, age-wise.
 
 
Morgan and I and our friend Gary were there because we are all currently involved in the upcoming DVD release of Quiet Days in Clichy - a 1970 Dutch film (which Rosset had distributed in the States) based on a Henry Miller novel (which Rosset had published). We were going to be filming an interview with Rosset for the DVD a week later, and this was to be our official first introduction.
 
 
We worked our way through the crowd to where Rosset stood in the corner, greeting a seemingly endless line of well-wishers. He's a small man, bespectacled, with a great shock of white hair and an enormous - yet still impish-smile. He still seemed to have an awful lot of energy for a man who was turning 80.
 
 
Gary introduced us all, explaining who we were and why we were there. "Ahh," Rosset said as he shook our hands, "I've been thinking about this, and it put my whole life into perspective." You could tell from his eyes that he was about to launch into a story. Rosset, along with everything else, is famous for his stories. "The year was 1970," he began. "Fresno, California..." Unfortunately, before he had a chance to continue any further, someone stepped between us, grabbed Rosset's hand and began talking about something else.
 
 

The three of us worked our way back through the crowd and took a seat on what turned out to be the world's most comfortable sofa. Then we stayed there a while, wondering if we'd ever find out what happened to Barney Rosset in Fresno, CA, in 1970.

---Jim Knipfel