NEW YORK CITY— Barnet Lee "Barney" Rosset, Jr., founder of the New York-based literary house Grove Press and of what today would be described as an "alt literary magazine," the Evergreen Review, died Tuesday after a double-heart-valve replacement operation failed. He was 89.
Though born to rich parents, Rosset himself was a staunch progressive, and in his senior year at the liberal Francis W. Parker [High] School, he was the class president, star of the football team, held the Illinois state track record—and petitioned the U.S. government to pardon gangster John Dillinger. In 1948, he produced Strange Victory, a documentary about racial bias in post-World War II America that used dramatized recreations of events together with excerpts of news reel footage and imagery evocative of the rampant prejudice that was common in both the South and North.
But Rosset's main claim to fame began in 1951, when he purchased a small printing house on Grove Street in Greenwich Village and renamed it "Grove Press"—and almost immediately became embroiled in controversy for publishing an unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which in June of 1959 was banned from being mailed by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who opined that the book was "replete with descriptions in minute detail of sexual acts engaged in or discussed by the book's principal characters. These descriptions utilize filthy, offensive and degrading words and terms. Any literary merit the book may have is far outweighed by the pornographic and smutty passages and words, so that the book, taken as a whole, is an obscene and filthy work."
A swift legal battle ensued, with Rosset represented by famous First Amendment defender Charles Rembar, and by the end of July, Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan of the Southern District of New York had overturned the ban, ruling that, "What the Postmaster General seems to have done is precisely what the Supreme Court in Roth and the courts in the Ulysses case said ought not to be done. He has lifted from the novel individual passages and language, found them to be obscene in isolation and therefore condemned the book as a whole. He has disregarded the dominant theme and effect of the book and has read these passages and this language as if they were separable and could be taken out of context... But the sincerity and honesty of purpose of an author as expressed in the manner in which a book is written and in which his theme and ideas are developed has a great deal to do with whether it is of literary and intellectual merit. Here, as in the Ulysses case, there is no question about Lawrence's honesty and sincerity of purpose, artistic integrity and lack of intention to appeal to prurient interest. Thus, this is an honest and sincere novel of literary merit and its dominant theme and effect, taken as a whole, is not an appeal to the prurient interest of the average reader."
Rosset, buoyed by the district court's decision, moved ahead with publication of another allegedly obscene work, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer—and again, Summerfield tried to ban it but rescinded the ban before it was challenged in court. However, 60 legal challenges filed in 21 states tried to stop its distribution, and the attempts were only halted after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 reversed the ban enacted in Florida, thus clearing the way for the book to be sold in the entire United States. Similarly, when Rosset published William S. Burroughs' autobiographical tale of drugs and sex, Naked Lunch, the volume was immediately "banned in Boston" until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated the ban in 1966. Still fewer lawsuits met Rosset's publication of Pauline Réage's novel of sex and submission, The Story of O, and the book had little trouble being widely read.
But controversy continued to dog Rosset's free speech choices. In 1968, he bought the rights to the Danish film I Am Curious (Yellow), which besides its themes of class struggle contained a fair amount of nudity, a scene of penis-kissing and explicit-but-subtly-depicted sexual intercourse. The film was banned in Massachusetts, and after a journey up the legal ladder to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued an opinion divided 4-4—Justice William O. Douglas recused himself since an excerpt of one of his books had appeared in Rosset's Evergreen Review—leaving the Second Circuit to find the film not obscene on remand.
According to the obituary in the New York Times, when one theater refused to play I Am Curious (Yellow), Rosset bought the theater from its owners, screened the movie, then sold the theater back to them after the film had completed its run.
But Rosset didn't just publish sex. Some of his more famous releases include Eric Berne's psychological self-help book Games People Play, which spent two years at the top of the New York Times bestseller list; Samuel Beckett's iconic existentialist play, "Waiting for Godot"; and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Meanwhile, Rosset's Evergreen Review, founded in 1957, was perhaps the most widely-read magazine on the New York literary scene, in part because it published works by popular "underground" authors such as playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, including Albee's first play "Zoo Story"; "beat" authors Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg; Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones (Amirari Baraka), John Rechy, Richard Brautigan, Hubert Selby, Jr., Gunter Grass, Norman Mailer, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Nabokov, Susan Sontag, Tom Stoppard and Terry Southern.
Evergreen Review was also the site of the first American publication of the sexy French comic strip "Barbarella," which actress Jane Fonda used to break out of her typecasting as an "ingénue," and later, the even sexier and kinkier "Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist," penned by famed Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue and illustrated by popular DC Comics artist Frank Springer. (Surprisingly, no-one's thought to turn the latter strip into an adult movie.)
Rosset sold Grove Press in 1985 to oil heiress Ann Getty and British publisher George Weidenfeld, and several years later began an online edition of Evergreen Review. He also sold Grove's catalog of prior publications to Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993.
A documentary of Rosset's life, Obscene, was released in 2008—the same year he received honorary citations from both the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Book Foundation—and Algonquin Books is scheduled to release Rosset's autobiography, tentatively titled "The Subject Was Left-Handed," sometime this year.
Every member of the adult entertainment community owes an invaluable debt to Rosset, who literally paved the way for that community to exist. Though his more recent accomplishments have been few, the United States (and possibly the entire world) would not have been the same without him.
Pictured, l-r: Barney Rosset, Norman Mailer