Tribute to Barney Rosset


Zarela Martinez


When Jamie Gillis, my long-time companion, met Barney Rosset, who almost single-handedly did away with censorship in the United States by publishing books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Henry Miller’s Tropic of CancerNaked Lunch by Burroughs, it was as if he had met God and he would always sit at his hero’s feet.  When they became friends, it was to him like going to heaven and now they are both gone to Heaven or wherever people like these two special characters go for eternity.

I am embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about Barney and never wondered why one of our servers was named Beckett.  It was Kathleen, Jamie’s first girlfriend, who came to dinner at my restaurant, Zarela, and asked him the origin of his name. Kathleen and her husband Jon immediately realized that he was Barney’s son and could not wait until dinner was finished and rushed down to tell us. I asked Beckett to invite Barney to dinner and that’s all it took. The friendship was hatched. Barney loved Mexican food though he really didn’t each much, a piece of tamale, but he smelled everything and enjoyed it just as much.  Memories of things past: Barney loved to tell the story of his first trip to Mexico at age 16 with a friend and falling in love with the Mexican way of life and the people.

His son Peter lives in Chiapas and is an advocate for the rights of indigenous people so there were lots of points in common, including our love for the folk art of Oaxaca.  Barney collected magical elaborate alebrijes and the magnificent textiles of Chiaas, where a woman cannot get married until she can hand weave her colorful hupil and her husband’s outfit.  In doing so they reveal their soul, and Barney, a soulful man, picked the very best.

Jamie and I tried to spend as much time as possible with Barney and his delightful and beautiful wife, Astrid, with whom I have become very close.  At 88 Barney had a perfect memory and loved to tell fascinating stories about the characters he published and his ex-wives. (Astrid remarked that he always somehow managed to do this and we’d look at each other and smile.)  One main topic of conversation was his soon-to-be published autobiography Subject is Left-Handed that would have been on the stands by now if Barney hadn’t insisted that they include the chapters dealing with his childhood that formed him.  He gave the chapters to Jamie to read and comment and he took his suggestions into serious consideration.

Since I did not know Barney as a legend or hadn’t been there when he started breaking down barriers, I related to him as a man.  I loved his little laugh, almost a giggle that always preceded one of his stories; his forceful yet gentle manner; how he listened intently. I’d look forward to seeing the sparkle in his eye, his perpetual joy at being able to tell his stories to a new and devoted audience of two with his favorite drink; Bacardi rum and coke.

One of the greatest editors ever, Barney, read Jamie’s manuscript and gave him advice which Jamie applied religiously.  Barney also took the time to go through my autobiography.  Taking Orders, that I have decided not to try to get published at this time because agents don’t agree with Barney and me about the direction it should take.

Just like me, Barney was always making something or working on some art project.  He painted the tree of life on the picture above, was forever working on a brightly colored mural, and bought remnants of carpet that Astrid and he put together in a most interesting rug collage on the floor of their loft.

There was no one like Barney–a visionary willing to give up a family fortune to get us the right to read whatever we wanted, interesting and interested in everything, loving and lovable. The last time I saw him he became fascinated by my iPhone and wanted to see Dolores del Rio again and every beauty he had known.  Oh! What fun he had, and I too, seeing him enjoy a new toy with his boyish charm and the twinkle in his eye.  Even at 89, Barney was still sexy!

I loved him so and will miss him terribly.