Barnet Lee Rosset Jr.

Barnet Lee Rosset Jr.
Arne C. Svenson

   Rarely does someone in the arts or letters live a life as newsworthy as Barney Rosset. Obituaries have been running into three and four pages online and The New York Times began his obituary on its front page. They recount his multiple publishing ventures, the landmark censorship cases he won, and his association with some of the most significant writers of the 20th century.

     As the owner of Grove Press, which he purchased in 1951, he published D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," both of which were banned in this country. Successfully challenging the law, he made literary history.

     Grove Press released other novels by Lawrence and Miller, as well as works by Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., Jean-Paul Sartre, Tom Stoppard, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Duras, Marshall McLuhan, Che Guevara, Vaclav Havel, Kenzaburo Oe, and Malcolm X, among many others, either at Grove or at Evergreen Review, a literary journal he founded in 1957 and published until 1973. Evergreen has continued online  since 1999.

  Mr. Rosset, who lived in New York and East Hampton, died in New York City at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center on Feb. 21 at the age of 89 after heart valve surgery.

     Barney Lee Rosset Jr. was born in Chicago on May 22, 1922 to Barnet Lee and Mary Tansey Rosset and grew up there, attending the progressive Francis W. Parker School, which would shape much of his approach to life and higher education. He attended Swarthmore, Vassar, and the University of California at Los Angeles before joining the Army in World War II, during which he was stationed in China as a photographer. He eventually received bachelor's degrees from the University of Chicago and then the New School of Social Research in 1952.

     His first marriage, in 1949, to the artist Joan Mitchell, whom he knew from Chicago, ended after three years, but the couple enjoyed a friendship that continued for most of their lives. They first came to East Hampton in the early 1950s. In 2008, Mr. Rosset told The Star that he nearly "drove into the ocean in a snowstorm" during his first winter here. In 1952, he bought an eccentric Quonset hut on Georgica Road, which had been built by Robert Motherwell in collaboration with the French architect Pierre Chareau. His plans to move Grove Press there never materialized.

     Later, he bought land off Springy Banks Road, where he often entertained, and developed Hampton Waters. David Myers of East Hampton, a friend, recalled the venture. "He sold the houses specifically to people who were artists, although that quickly evaporated and a lot of people who weren't artists but were sympathetic ended up living there. Ray Parker [an Abstract Expressionist] bought one of the first sites for $40,000."

      "Real estate wasn't as simple a business as I thought," Mr. Rosset had said. Still, he left his mark on East Hampton. Peter's Path was named after Mr. Rosset's son, and Albertine's Lane after his cat.

     It was in 1959 that he published Lady Chatterley, which was banned by the postmaster general as obscene and therefore ineligible for shipment. An ardent free speech advocate, he challenged the censorship. A federal appeals court found in Mr. Rosset's favor, stating that the sexual acts contained in the text were not pornographic as defined by the law.

     In 1961, "Tropic of Cancer" was released, but banned in 21 states. Mr. Rosset's appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided it was not obscene. The landmark decision set a new standard and allowed the freedom of expression that marked the cultural revolution in the years that followed. Although books such as Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" were still banned in some states, the courts again found in his favor and attempts to stop such works ebbed. In later life he would receive numerous awards for his efforts as his authors garnered awards of their own including several Nobel Prizes in Literature.

     Beginning in his youth, Mr. Rosset was a photographer and filmmaker, which led him to distribute a number of films later in life, including "I Am Curious (Yellow)" from Sweden, which launched a new slew of obscenity charges in the late 1960s. Although the Supreme Court was deadlocked on its 1971 decision because one justice recused himself, it was shown in states that did not have bans and gained him notoriety. 

     After bomb threats and an actual explosion of a grenade along with a death threat by Valerie Solanos (the woman who infamously shot and almost killed Andy Warhol) after he refused to publish her manuscript, all in the 1960s, the following decades were relatively quiet. In 1985, facing financial challenges, Mr. Rosset sold Grove and then unsuccessfully sued to get it back. He continued publishing under the imprints Foxrock Books and Blue Moon Books and Grove was eventually acquired by Atlantic Monthly Press.

     A documentary on his life called "Obscene" premiered in 2007 at the Toronto Film Festival and had a theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles. Mr. Rosset told The Star he was ambivalent about the film and had hoped that it would be titled instead "The Subject Is Left-Handed." This was a reference to his F.B.I. and C.I.A. files, which contained that "most insightful" observation, he said. An autobiography with that title has been submitted to Algonquin Books, which has plans to publish it in the future, according to The New York Times.

  Mr. Rosset was married and divorced three more times before marrying Astrid Myers in 2007, who survives him. His previous wives were Hannelore Eckert, Cristina Agnini, and Elisabeth Krug. He had no siblings. He is also survived by his sons Peter Rosset of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, and Beckett Rosset of New York City, and his daughters Tansey Rosset of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Chantal R. Hyde of Boston. He had four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.

    A memorial service is planned for May.  

Editor's Note: Due to a production error, a different version of this obituary ran in the March 1 edition. This is the correct version.