Tribute to Barney Rosset


David Schlesinger


I met Barney Rosset in New York in the summer of 1991.  I remember the year because he had just turned 69, a fact that seemed to amuse him very much.  This first encounter took place in my partner Puchong’s East Village photo shop, not far from Barney’s 4th Avenue duplex.  Intending to sell the original, Barney was picking up photographic prints of a painting by Henry Miller that the author had given to him.  Impressed, I made a comment alluding to Arthur Miller, revealing my ignorance of American literature.  Barney took my dimwitted remark with amused nonchalance.

Somehow, despite this awkward introduction, we and our significant others became close friends over the ensuing fifteen years.  He didn’t care that I was an engineering nerd who (like most Americans, still) had never heard of him before.   We shared a love of pool and puns and dry martinis.  We loved hanging out in the East Village.  We loved the night.

And so we became buddies, drinking and playing pool and discussing politics and popular culture.   One of my favorite memories is the time we went to a fetish club in the meat packing district where Terence Sellers was doing a reading from The Correct Sadist.  Barney, who had recently had eye surgery, was wearing an eye patch.  Seeing this, I (an avid cyclist at the time) decided to wear my “third eye,” a tiny rear-view mirror that clips to one’s eyeglasses.  Thus we had four good eyes between the two of us.  Off we went – a septuagenarian Cyclops and his 40-something, backward-looking pal – strolling the darkened, subterranean corridors surrounded by video screens of women’s feet rubbing chubby men’s genitals and posters advertising 12-inch high-heeled platform shoes.

These were the years after Barney’s publishing heyday and not long after he had regrettably sold Grove to the Gettys.  These were also the years of new horizons – the resurrection of Evergreen Review and forays into Internet publishing.  It was a time to celebrate Barney’s achievements – I was lucky enough to be present at the reception for Kenzaburo Oe at the Tenth Street Lounge in 1994, the year the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and at the award ceremony in 1999 when the French Ministry of Culture bestowed on Barney the title of Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, where he received a prolonged standing ovation.

But my relationship with Barney was personal and social, and while we took interest in each other’s professional endeavors (I was of course enthralled by his history and accomplishments, and he appreciated my work with the Army Corps of Engineers – often noting he had only two employers in his life – himself and the US Army), our time together focused on activities outside the office – weekends in East Hampton, first at his estate and later at Astrid’s house, where I volunteered to help with the “gardening,” unwittingly committing myself to hours of strenuous landscaping, pruning and hauling debris (a labor of love rewarded with Puchong’s gourmet meals, cocktails and rounds of pool in the basement).

In the mid-nineties we made trips to southeast Asia, where Puchong (a native of Thailand) introduced Barney to Bangkok’s forbidden pleasures.  Together we hungrily explored Bangkok’s straight and gay nightspots as well as the natural beauty of Chengmai ‘s riverside and hillside environs (the four of us – Barney, Astrid, Puchong and I – spent New Year’s Eve of 1999-2000 in a remote mountain village which Barney discovered and explored on his own).  We also traveled together to Cambodia, where we had cocktails at Phnom Penh’s Foreign Press Club, and Vietnam, where we rented small bicycles and pedaled around Hanoi wearing Ho Chi Minh-style army hats.

Back in New York, we established “pool night,” meeting at Barney’s apartment every Tuesday for many years, where he regaled us with stories from his illustrious past – encounters and relationships with authors, artists and historical figures from Che Guevara to the Beat Poets and his beloved Samuel Beckett.  Barney’s life was never routine: one pool night was delayed because he was being interviewed by George Plimpton (while I killed time at a pizza shop on St. Mark’s place).  Being around Barney and being his friend was always a vicarious experience because of his links to the most famous literary figures of the twentieth century.

In January 2002, Puchong and I moved to Seoul, Korea, where I had accepted a new job after living and working in Manhattan for 23 years.  We kept in touch with Barney and Astrid in the following years but sadly had a falling out in July 2006.  Despite hurt feelings on both sides, every July since then I thought about writing, to offer an olive branch, to reconcile.  I had a recurring dream where I was in New York and ran into Barney or Astrid on the street and we embraced and made up.  Now it’s too late to act on those thoughts and dreams.  I knew this day would come and I feel very sad.  The last thing I said to Barney that fateful night in 2006 – the last time we saw each other or spoke – was I love you.  Since I learned of his passing in February, I’ve been reading the myriad on-line obituaries and tributes.  They remind me of his tenacious spirit and complex personality but most of all, the many great times we shared.  In the end, I feel grateful both personally for having known him as a friend and confidante, but also for his enormous achievement and contributions to humankind over a lifetime filled with experiences most of us only dream about.