By Karl Grossman
A giant in the publishing field — and a man who loved the East End — died last week. Barney Rosset, as his Page One obituary in the New York Times said, “changed the course of publishing in the United States, bringing masters like Samuel Beckett to Americans’ attention under his Grove Press imprint and winning celebrated First Amendment slugfests against censorship.”
Barney also published little me — and, characteristic of Mr. Rosset, it involved an uphill challenge: a book investigating the dangers of the Shoreham nuclear power plant and laying out the overall scheme to build many nuclear plants on Long Island.
The telephone call came at night from his home in East Hampton. It was 1985 and Hurricane Gloria had hit Long Island. The Long Island Lighting Company had failed to restore electricity (and wouldn’t for more than a week). “And this company would run a nuclear plant!” exclaimed Mr. Rosset, sitting under the light of a kerosene lantern, he related.
He proposed I write a book for Grove Press on the Shoreham plant. A few days later, he provided its title. In his living room in East Hampton, I explained that LILCO intended not only to build Shoreham — then nearly completed — but two more nuclear plants at the Shoreham site, four more at Jamesport (two of these received U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval) and still more in between, also along the Long Island Sound.
“‘Power Crazy’ — that’ll be the title!” said Barney.
When people pass away, not infrequently it is said that they were “one-of-a-kind.”
Barney Rosset was truly one-of-a-kind.
He divided his time through the years between Manhattan and East Hampton. He relished eastern Long Island — indeed, his spread of about 40 acres in East Hampton was a world unto itself: with trees and other foliage Barney planted himself, and a large pond. Among his great pleasures was caring for it all.
But he would lose his East End Shangri-La — it would be foreclosed upon as he underwent severe economic difficulties — a crisis I observed because it came as “Power Crazy” was being published and I was in regular contact with Barney. He attributed his fall from the Grove Press helm, which led to the rough financial times, to an extension of the pressures he long faced because of his groundbreaking, courageous publishing.
Grove for decades was a trail-blazer in publishing. Barney published figures like Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht. He tested the limits of censorship with books like Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and films he distributed such as “I Am Curious (Yellow).” He published political books such as “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” He launched Evergreen Review, in which Grove Press authors and others, including poet Alan Ginsberg, appeared. As a result, he was targeted through the years by the FBI and CIA, as was confirmed in voluminous FBI and CIA documents he later obtained.
In 1985, he sold Grove Press to people, as he told me, that he thought he could trust. They would provide, at long last, he said, a solid financial base for Grove while he would remain in charge. Instead, in 1986 he was thrown out as president and chief executive officer.
He connected his ouster to the work he published, especially, in 1985, “The Pied Piper: Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream” by Richard Cummings of Sag Harbor. The book was about the assassinated Long Island congressman having long been a CIA operative including when he was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements. It hit a raw nerve in exposing the covert life of Mr. Lowenstein, a liberal Democratic icon.
After losing Grove Press and his East Hampton home, Barney kept coming out to East Hampton. His marriage also broke up, but then he met and later married retired Southampton Elementary School teacher Astrid Myers, a former East Hampton Town Democratic chair. They stayed at what had been Astrid’s home in East Hampton where Barney replanted some of the trees from his old spread.
Barney had a full, highly-productive and active life. He died at 89. He was, as the Newsday obituary put it, “a First Amendment crusader who helped overthrow 20th Century censorship laws in the United States and profoundly expanded the American reading experience.”
Barney had guts, intelligence, a great sense of humor, honesty and high ideals.