I first met Barney in 1986, soon after he left Grove. I was working as a designer at New American Library in the bullpen. The photographer Anthony Loew took a liking to my work and told me he had a freelance art directing gig for me, which was to be my first. I was shocked when he told me who it was for, having grown up in the 60s and 70s on a steady diet of the Beats, Beckett and the Evergreen Review, and in awe of Barney’s legacy of championing free speech.
As we approached Barney’s apartment building on 25th Street and Park Avenue South Tony said, “there he is.” We walked up to the door in front of the apartment building, where Barney stood, shaking his head. “I’ll be right back.” He then walked over to and entered the corner bodega, exiting shortly afterward with a full key ring in hand and opened the door. We rode up silently in the elevator, and Barney said, “wait here” as we entered the kitchen. There stood a freelance designer I recognized, but did not know, from work. He was summoned by Barney into a back room and emerged shortly thereafter and left. It was then that Barney come over to us and invited us to sit and talk about his new line of books, Blue Moon. I found out afterward that the other designer was the first to work on Blue Moon but Barney was unhappy with the results. This was the beginning of my over 25-year friendship with Barney Rosset.
We would meet regularly in those early days. Barney would explain that his plan for Blue Moon was the same as it was for Grove, that these Victorian Anonymous books could support the foundation for important works of literature. Indeed, he continually reinvented himself through various independent publisher imprints, Fox Rock, Rosset and Morgan, North Light, the revitalized online version of Evergreen Review, publishing Beckett, Duras, Ōe along the way. I looked forward to these meetings mainly to be in his presence, as he regaled me with his stories of Beckett, Ginsburg, Keroauc, Henry Miller, Joan Mitchell, Maurice Girodias, the bombing of Grove, how he followed Valerie Solanas to stop her from following him in the days before she shot Andy Warhol, all told in the voice of a master storyteller without a hint of self-importance, despite being someone who had transformed our culture.
At the same time I had gotten my first full time job as art director in Secaucus, New Jersey, working for another renegade publisher Lyle Stuart. Lyle and Barney had a love/hate relationship that went back decades and had collaborated on and off many times over the years. Lyle was backing Blue Moon and they had a falling out. Lyle’s reaction was to launch his own Victorian Anonymous collection Red Stripe[ER1] . I was in the unenviable position of designing two competing lines of paperbacks. Barney was away on a trip and I feared breaking the news to him upon his return. When I did he simply shrugged. “I think competition can be a good thing,” he said, letting me off the hook.
I first became aware that Barney was working on his autobiography in the late 80s. Somewhere along the line I came on board as designer. As of last fall the work was still ongoing. It wasn’t simply that Barney keep rewriting, putting photos and text in and taking them out, I came to realize it was that he was still living his life. How could he add a coda to the book and wrap it up when he had more to tell? When his book is finally published readers will enjoy the same privilege I was so fortunate to experience for so many years: to spend some time in Barney’s presence listening to the stories of his life.
[ER1] Possible rewrite: Red Stripe, his own Victorian Anonymous collection.