Notes from the Underground

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 106 in 2003.

Waiting for Barney

Irish Independent Weekend, Saturday, 15 February, 2003

Frank Shouldice meets Samuel Beckett's American publisher and friend, a legendary champion of literature and free speech who fought the law, and won. This, the 50th anniversary of 'Waiting For Godot' is Barney Rosset's first visit to Dublin...

HUNTER S. THOMPSON once titled a novel after rum but I tend to think that when mixed with Coke it's more a Barney Rosset trademark. The last time we met was in New York when he wished me a safe trip home, bestowing his blessing with a cocktail glass in his hand. When we meet five years later in a Dublin hotel lobby Rosset arrives holding a pint glass of rum and Coke. I suggest to him there's a certain continuity about all of this and he laughs that familiar laugh, a swift combination of head-back dry chuckle followed by a shrug-foward intake of breath. Now aged 81 but looking little different to when we first met in 1988 Rosset was invited as a guest speaker at the Samuel Beckett Week in Trinity College Dublin. Known worldwide as Samuel Beckett's American publisher it was his first time in Dublin; in fact his first time in Ireland apart from a Shannon airport pit stop in 1948.

However Rosset's connection with Ireland began long before he ever met Beckett. Both his maternal grandparents -- Roger Tansey (Galway) and Margaret Flannery (Mayo) -- met in the U.S. where they married and settled in Marquette, Michigan. This journey, a deferred homecoming for Rosset, has been a long time coming. "I've put this trip off for 81 years," he joked half-seriously, itching to get out of Dublin and head west.

He actually set about excavating his Irish roots twelve years ago. Having produced the relevant documents to prove his genealogical connection he received from New Yolk's Irish Consulate the passport to which he was entitled. Ironically by the time he got around to using it the passport had expired. He applied for a new one and asked immigration officials to stamp it as a keepsake. Notary evidence of an emotional crossing.

Beckett has been part of that transatlantic equation for half a century. Last month the Gate Theatre commemorated the 5Oth anniversary of Waiting for Godot by staging a limited run. On the evening Rosset gave his talk at TCD the revived Gate production was booked out. A line of punters perched on the theatre staircase in the hope of cancellations. Not bad for a writer whose work repeatedly extols the utter inconsequence of man.

Meanwhile at Trinity Barney Rosset feels the emotion return in waves. He produces his Irish passport from an inside pocket. He's here, at last.

His mother Mary Tansey worked in a Chicago bank where she met Barnet Rosset, a man of Russian-Jewish extraction. They married and produced their only child, Barney. He relates with glee how his mother once "won a piano in a beauty contest."

For a time Barney lived in Marquette and he recalls his grandparents conversing in Irish. His grandfather Roger Tansey, a labourer-turned-contractor, made quite an impression on the young boy. "The story was he had left Ireland under threat of death by the British;' says Rosset, neither certain nor perturbed about its veracity. "He was loved in the neighborhood even though it wasn't an Irish neighbourhood. He was just a marvellous person."

Encouraged by his parents and by teachers at the highly progressive Frances W. Parker School Rosset developed an outspoken confidence and a belief in the rights of small voices. It was also where he met his first wife Joan Mitchell, a painter who would later become one of Beckett's closest friends in Paris.


Politically Rosset was already finding tides to swim against, fuelled by an anti- establishment ethos he credits to his grandfather. He was also attracted to Communism until he discovered that its advocacy of free love was all talk and little action. After a year at Swarthmore College he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and was dispatched to China as a cinematographer in 1942. "China was a dumping ground for people the Army wanted to get rid of," he smiles.

On return he resumed studies at the University of Chicago and set about producing Strange Victory, an anti-racism feature film. "It was a failure," he says without remorse. "It took over two years to make and in the end I didn't even like it."

After moving to post-war France with Joan Mitchell they split up and he returned to New York looking for fresh beginnings. Fed up by his experience with filmmaking he turned his attention to publishing. In 1952 he got wind of a fledgling company up for sale and with $3,000 he bought Grove Press, an unknown publishing house "with three suitcases of books" in Greenwich Village. Little did he know that Grove would prompt all upheaval in American publishing with reverberations around the English-speaking world. Typically, Rosset's justification for getting involved was that "it was interesting."

"I didn't know what was good or bad," he admits. "I knew nothing about publishing, so there was no problem. It was a gentleman's profession."

Showing a willingness to learn the ropes the rogue publisher took up a publishing course at Columbia University in New York. A classmate Donald Allen became an important co-editor of Grove's Evergreen Review attracting beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. For such a motivated individual, publishing in 1950's America became a symbiotic match of personality and opportunity. Although he began by reprinting Henry James's The Golden Bowl the real story began when Rosset decided what books he wanted to publish. Somewhat inevitably he took the hard road, choosing D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly¹s Lover; which had been banned in the U.S.

Grove deliberately pitted itself against the U.S. Post Office because the postal authorities deemed the book "obscene" and "unmailable." The strategy went according to plan "almost like we'd written out the scenario perfectly."


THE BAN was duly lifted and the book, uncut, went on general distribution. Even at that stage however Rosset had a pre-set plan to publish Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer: "On Lady's Chatterly's we contained the battle to relatively few opponents but with Tropic of Cancer it went berserk. We were arrested all over the U.S. hundreds of times! "It was a fantastic time," recalls Rosset, who continues to oppose censorship of any kind. "For me, the high point was taking it to the State of Illinois court in Chicago which was the only time during the whole thing I personally appeared in court. It was like coming home and we won."

The legal wrangle over Tropic of Cancer continued for four years by which stage he and Beckett were already good friends. Their relationship began when Rosset read a couple of submissions the Paris-based Dubliner had contributed to Transition magazine. Then he read in the New York Times that Beckett's play En Attendant Godot had opened at the Babylon Theatre in Paris. "I was intrigued."

Having paid a $150 advance on the American rights he boarded a liner in New York and sailed for France on honeymoon with his second wife Loly Eckert. They met Beckett at the bar of the Pont Royal hotel and a long night ended with the author buying champagne for the newlyweds.

Although Beckett downplayed his involvement with the French Resistance as "boy scout stuff" he was impressed to discover that German-bom Loly Eckert was known by surviving Resistance fighters for her anti-Nazi sympathies in Paris during the war. Rosset's marriage to Eckert did not last but the trio's rendezvous was the beginning of an enduring friendship with Beckett.

Following discussions Rosset wrote from New York on June 13, 1953, advising, "We will do what we can to make your work known in this country. The first order of business would appear to be the translation. If you will accept my first choice as translator the whole thing will be easily settled. That choice, of course, is you."

Beckett replied on June 25. "I will send you today or tomorrow my first version," he wrote.


In its first year Godot sold 341 copies. "It wasn't a big smash hit," says the publisher. "We didn't expect anything different. The money part was quite irrelevant because it cost us more to get to see him in Paris. We went to tremendous trouble to make it a handsome book in hardback and there was no way we expected to sell it in a big way. But it was a good play -a great play -so I thought, don't worry about it!

"When I signed for the rights I remember showing it to a professor of mine - Wallace Fowlie at the New School in New York - who was someone whose view I really respected. He read it and said, "I think it's a great play and without doubt Beckett will be considered one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century." That meant a lot to me.

"When we released it in paperback it was our 33rd book- I had waited for my favorite number to come up -and it began to sell. We worked to make it famous on university campuses in America and it must be one of the best-selling plays in the history of American publishing." By now 'Godot', regarded by many as a timeless classic, has sold close to two million copies worldwide. Rosset had other notable successes with Grove, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1968) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (Hubert Selby Jr., 1969) as well as cultivating voices like Brecht, Behan, Ionescu, Genet, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Duras, Havel, Rechy, Pinter and others.

Many writers felt that Rosset and Grove became more a champion than just publisher. "Yes, absolutely!" he replies enthusiastically. " And we were."


He got Beckett to script a film starring Buster Keaton called, typically enough, Film -- which Rosset produced. It failed commercially but he laughs at the memory of a $500,000 offer for the film rights of Waiting for Godot.

"I got it all screwed up,² he admits. "Steve McQueen was going to be the lead and Beckett asked me what McQueen looked like. I didn't know who Steve McQueen was -- I got him mixed up with James Garner --so I told him he was a big, husky, heavy-set fellow.

"And Marlon Brando was supposed to be in it and I said he was also very big and heavy. And Beckett said, 'Oh no, my characters are shadows.' So he turned it down in one minute . Later I thought I'd made a terrible error and if I'd known I'd have told him they were both short and skinny guys..."

He overturned U.S. film censorship laws in 1970 by distributing a sexually explicit Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow). It was a highly lucrative move which subsidised other ventures. However the publishing world had changed with Grove finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the new giants. It led to an acrimonious takeover in 1985. After 35 years on Houston Street Rosset was out. Characteristically, he set up Blue Moon Books and started again. Beckett, after whom Rosset named one of his four children, refused to write for Grove and handed Stirrings Still to Blue Moon, dedicating it to the lone publisher: It was Beckett's last work.

Blue Moon has since gone into bankruptcy after getting mired in a virus-like lawsuit that originated with third parties in Las Vegas. Bouncing back once more he set up Foxrock Publishing, named after the birthplace of his "first and foremost" author. Rosset's visit to Ireland would have meant little had he not gone west. Travelling the road with Astrid Myers, his partner of 15 years, the fearless defender of small voices grew quieter as we closed the distance. Crossing the Shannon at Athlone seemed like a delivery into some sort of folk memory, framed by stone walls and windbent trees. Barney watched it all in silence. "You got the camera Astrid?" he checked nervously, as though concerned these images might slip away.

Arriving at Ballyforan in Co. Roscommon we were surprised to see a village pub named 'The Big Apple. ' Marquee evidence of a homecoming. We pulled in for a few minutes, awaiting Barney's welcoming relatives to bring us to Roger Tansey's original holding on the Galway side of the River Suck. A young boy turned the corner to find three strangers waiting aimlessly on the side of the road. "Are ye lost?" he asked, echoing a line from a now familiar play.