Last month saw the publication of iconoclast publisher Barney Rosset’s autobiography, Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship, from OR books, almost three decades in the making. Rosset, as publisher of Grove Press, not only brought the European avant-garde and the Beat writers to the forefront of American consciousness, he fought anti-censorship battles all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. We can all thank him for the freedoms of speech and expression we enjoy to this day. He died in 2012 at the age of 89.
I had the great privilege of working with Barney as his art director beginning in 1986, shortly after he left Grove Press. Over the years he asked me to help on his autobiography, and I did on and off, until working on it full force with him and his wife Astrid, for the last decade. The book Rosset envisioned was vastly different than the one garnering positive reviews from the New York Times, Kirkus and The Guardian and elsewhere. Barney was, after all, a highly visual person, and what he visualized would have perhaps been unique for a memoir: a scrapbook of photos and news clippings that would tell the story alongside the text. Unfortunately the then publisher didn’t agree and the book languished, until thankfully resurrected by John Oakes of OR books.
Barney’s visual acuity most likely dated back to his relationship and marriage to Joan Mitchell, the seminal abstract impressionist, in the early 1950s. Perhaps this is best evidenced in his decades long relationship with designer Roy Kuhlman at Grove and his groundbreaking cover designs. It was always clear to me that Barney was equally at home in the art world as he was in the literary. His and Astrid’s loft was covered in posters and artwork, and the culminating work of his own was a mural, which is the subject of a new documentary, “Barney’s Wall”.
Over the years there were several permutations of the look of the autobiography, originally entitled “The Subject Was Left Handed”, which was a quote from one of his many FBI reports that he accessed through the Freedom of Information Act. Ever mercurial, things were always in flux, new photos replacing old, layouts changing, the large work ever breaking into smaller ones, one now published as well, Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters from the Publisher: The Samuel Beckett File Correspondence, Interviews, Photos from Opus Books.
Here then is Barney’s memoir as he imagined it, a scrapbook of his journey, a ride he deeply enjoyed and wished to take us on, for all to experience through his eyes.
A later cover version, featuring a collage by Lolly Rosset, one of Barney’s wives
Chapter One opener featuring Barney’s grandfather
Joan Mitchell chapter opener
Spread featuring Robert Massin’s “The Bald Soprano” by Eugène Ionesco
Chapter opener with a photo of Rosset’s Hampton home, previously owned by Robert Motherwell
Grove Press chapter
Barney and his mother
The China chapter