(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence, associate editor Judith Elliston)
Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Barney Rosset
from the Pirate issue
Pataphysics: Did you know much about Pierre Chareau when you moved into the house?
Barney Rosset: I knew nothing about the architect—I’d never even heard of him—but I had very much heard of Robert Motherwell, and I’d read about the house in Harper’s and it described the house a little bit. I think it said he was planning on leaving. So my then wife and I were very taken by it and we decided to go and look at it in East Hampton, where I’d been the year before for one day with my first wife, Joan Mitchell (it was because of her, I think, that I met Motherwell) and all the other people around East Hampton then—Jackson Pollock and de Kooning—they weren’t so well known until ten years later, but because of Joan I was very aware of them. So we got in the car and we found it, and we went to look at this strange looking thing stuck in a pile of sand. When they’d first built it they’d never bothered to cover over the sort of construction pit—it looked pretty ugly—and a few young saplings had been planted. But we loved it immediately!
P: Had you looked at any other houses in East Hampton?
BR: We went around to look at other houses but we were only interested in this one. In order to let us see it the agent had to break a window! Everyone was astounded by this house. We asked him how much it would cost to rent it and adding up the main house, the studio, and the cinderblock it came to eight or nine thousand dollars, and we said, ‘Well, how much would it cost to buy it?’ He said, ‘Twelve thousand.’ So that sounded ludicrous! Later that year I brought my father to look at it and he was stunned—‘You bought that! You paid twelve thousand dollars for that!’
P: When did you move in?
P: What was the house like at first?
BR: It was very difficult when we first went there. It was cold and there was lots of snow and we had a baby with us! And the night we moved out there—you sort of got lost in the snow—there was even snow down to the ocean! I didn’t know it, but that’s highly unusual —I almost drove my car into the ocean by accident!
P: Who were your neighbors?
BR: Leo Castelli, the gallery owner, was one. He lived across the street—I got to meet him soon. De Kooning had previously rented the studio that went with the house and he left behind a lot of his things. Other people began showing up and all of them said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s impossible—so hot!’ And it was, surrounded by all that sand and no trees over it and a metal roof with the paint peeling off!
P: So you wouldn’t have called it a practical home.
BR: Eventually it was, eventually it really was. In the beginning I fixed the heat by putting hoses on the top—soaker hoses—I draped them across the roof and that helped a lot. Then I put a couple of exhaust fans in the roof. Simple, inexpensive things that helped. Later on I put shingles on the roof. And as the years went by it got very nice lawn outside, and the land was cool, and the trees grew right over it and joined at the top. So it got to be very comfortable.
P: Chareau had died by the time you moved in.
BR: Yes, but I did meet his widow, Dolly—she was Scottish, I think. They’d come to the US in 1940. At the time East Hampton was sort of a refuge for a lot of French Surrealists, and people like Chareau. Peggy Guggenheim supported a lot of these people.
P: What made Motherwell want to leave the house?
BR: I think he got very unhappy personally. He was married, I was told, to a Mexican woman and she left him, went off with a local fellow, and then he got married again to a woman who was very stiff, very bourgeois, very conservative—US Army background—just the wrong person to be in that house. He bought a house in New York—a brownstone—and their passion was to play bridge. But they had done things to the house—they’d put a partition toward the end of the room where there was a fireplace and totally knocked out the fireplace’s usefulness. As soon as I got the house and understood that, I ripped it out. But they lived with it—it sort of spoilt the craziness of the house.
P: Did you see much relation between this house and Chareau’s famous Maison de Verre (1932)?
BR: I’ve never been to the Maison de Verre in Paris—I must’ve walked by it a hundred times without knowing it, but I’ve looked at many photographs of it and if you knew that they were by the same architect you could see from the winding staircase or whatever—glass—yes, you could see, but if you didn’t know it, I’m not sure.
P: Had Chareau designed any of the furniture?
BR: No, it was designed by Frederick Kiesler. He was about five-foot and we called him the little genius.
P: You knew Kiesler pretty well?
BR: For a while I knew him very well. I liked him very much, despite making fun of him. He was also like Chareau—he was never able to get anything built in this country. MOMA did a house of his in the museum—a full-scale model of his Endless House. He had furniture that was unique—I’ve often wanted to make it myself. They were made from plywood and they looked like Arp paintings, although in the Endless House the furniture was a part of the walls. You could turn them upside-down and it didn’t matter. A table could become a chair. The living room at the beginning had that stuff in it but Motherwell took it back—he wouldn’t sell it.
P: The studio that he’d used was adjacent to the house?
P: Did you make any changes to it?
BR: I greatly improved it. It had no insulated ceiling and a concrete floor—not really livable. Motherwell painted at night—it only had south light, not ideal. So a friend of mine and I put some corrugated clear plastic in the roof creating more light. Robert Rosenberg, a wonderful architect who lived out there and became our best friend, he designed an addition to it—a little terrace that encircled a tree. We also put in a photolab and a kitchen (Loly, my wife, was a photographer), a bathroom, and a linoleum floor in the main area, and then you could live in it and paint.
P: So it was self-contained?
BR: It was a self-contained unit. With the other unit, the cinderblock one that Chareau had lived in, I took the bathroom and toilet out of the center of the living room and made a pool of water in the middle and it was very beautiful—it had windows on all four sides. But we also put a dome in the ceiling where the toilet had vented out. It had the same floor as the main house—circles of wood cut from tree trunks and embedded in concrete—a great way to make a floor.
P: Was it difficult making these adjustments to the original design?
BR: Yes, we thought for years every time, trying to conform to Chareau. And I had plenty of people to advise me out there. I got a vision of all the Grove people living out there—and we did, or almost! I went and got houses that were abandoned, and we moved them on wheels and rebuilt them. I bought a tiny church and we moved it and made a little theater out of it. We chopped one wall off lengthwise and had it as a stage with a big outdoor plaza and tree around it—it was called Evergreen Theater.
P: Did Chareau have many fans in New York at the time?
BR: A surprising number of people considering that there were no buildings! He and his wife were both known at schools, and I think they had patrons... The house really did impress me. I mean, the texture, the playfulness of it. In one wall was a door and a window opening out onto another room—it was like a balcony. It was funny, and you could play games in it, and I shot movies around that idea. Also, although it wasn’t big, it somehow gave a feeling of space. But without my realizing it, the house happened to come exactly at the moment I’d decided on a major shift in my life—1951. That was the year I bought Grove Press. The autobiography I’m working on at the moment might be in two volumes—before and after ’51.
P: How far have you got with it?
BR: Well, basically my head works like a filmmaker. I have to get all the raw footage, including stuff that you’re looking at there [files on Barney Rosset released from the government] that I didn’t write. When that’s all done, I begin editing. I did actually do one chapter, and it reads alright, but I gave that up because it didn’t lead me anywhere. Right now I’ve gone from ten thousand pages of material from the government, and I’m cutting it down to a hundred, so it’s like one percent. I started that two or three years ago and now I’m back to it—plus all my own material in various stages of completion.
P: All this government material is incredible—do you think it was the beginning of an age of heightened surveillance—times that Burroughs spoke of?
BR: Well, I think Burroughs had a handle on it like nobody else, but it happened earlier, this kind of thing—you know, red scares in the ’20s—terrible. But it did get bigger and richer and more comprehensive. It always gets bigger! But there are periods when it’s worse—McCarthyism was one period. At that time I really got frightened without knowing. I didn’t know how frightened I was really, but I went to live in France, and in France I did write an autobiography—back in 1948. I don’t remember writing it. I found it about ten years ago.
P: What style was it written in?
BR: It related to trying to be very cool, calm. I’d say Hemingway would’ve been a kind of model. And the looser writers like Henry Miller, whatever, but as a writer and stylist, Hemingway attracted me most. I read Henry Miller at quite an early age incidently. But I write the same today, for better or worse!
P: Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press in Paris published quite a bit of Miller—when did you meet Girodias?
BR: I didn’t meet Girodias until probably ’53 or ’54. At that time I knew of him and had corresponded with him, but I had no idea what he was like really. So I met him. Henry Miller had a deep relationship with him, but I didn’t know it then. But when I wanted to publish Miller, it took several years for him to agree. It wasn’t censorship, it was Miller! I said to hell with the censors. The minute I got a contract from Miller I wanted to go ahead. But Henry didn’t really want it.
P: Why was that?
BR: I think he had gotten to enjoy being an outlaw.
P: And he wanted to preserve that?
BR: Yes. He told me, he said, ‘If you publish this book the American Legion is going to attack me.’ I think that was the excuse. He was living in Big Sur on the edge of a cliff and I think he was enjoying himself, and I had to come along and spoil it! And at first he didn’t let me—for a long time. Maurice finally called me one day and said, ‘I’m in Hamburg and Henry is here with his German publisher, the great Ledig Rowohlt—come, now is the moment you can get him.’ But it took quite a long time—I didn’t publish Miller really until 1962. It took a long time. And then a long time after that for Burroughs. I had to wait.
P: When did you first read Naked Lunch?
BR: It was in a manuscript—Allen Ginsberg brought it to the office. But he’d already brought it to Girodias. Maurice told me that this guy just showed up at his office with this big pile of papers and said, ‘Here’s a big masterpiece and you should publish it.’ I saw this stack of paper, and Maurice, to his credit, looked at it and was impressed, but he didn’t know what it was—the pages weren’t numbered and there were pieces all over the floor! Allen came back and Maurice told him that he couldn’t publish this, but he, Allen, could get someone to put it together, edit it, then he could bring it back. Allen did that and he brought it to us in New York also. Maurice had already contracted for it. But it was a mess, even when we got it!
P: How much later was that?
BR: I think maybe a year. So we had both bought it—Grove from Maurice. That changed though, because Maurice forgot to do one thing—passing the money along to Burroughs when he got it! And, you know, Burroughs was really wonderful because he didn’t complain. I was with him and Maurice, and he was perfectly friendly. Maurice did so much for him that it’d just be wrong to complain, Bill said. And he was right. Maurice was impossible but he was great. So Maurice kept complaining to me because he wanted more money from me, but that was different. And finally they made a deal where Burroughs’ money went straight to Burroughs. It wasn’t too bad a figure—it was before it was published. Maurice described Burroughs as being a scruffy looking American, looking like he was a down-and-outer, like he wasn’t dressed very well and was trying to keep up appearances. I showed that to Allen a year before he died and he said, ‘What do you mean? He was getting two hundred dollars a month from his family.’ Maurice didn’t say anything about his behaviour, just that he wasn’t dressed very well. Maurice was a dandy. If he’d been ‘on the road’ with Kerouac he would’ve kept his tie on.
P: What did you think of Brion Gysin’s cut-up method?
BR: I couldn’t understand Gysin, I must admit. I felt he was, rightly or wrongly, leading Burroughs away from writing by cutting everything up. Burroughs tried to convince Beckett of this, and if you’ve ever seen non-comprehension, it was Beckett with Burroughs! ‘Who is this person? What is he doing? He’s doing this?’ And Burroughs is saying, ‘You take a paragraph of Shakespeare, then you put Beckett next to it.’ Beckett was so polite—it was very hard for him to say anything, but as I remember he finally said, ‘That’s not writing, it’s plumbing.’ But in such a quiet voice.
P: How did Beckett get on with Girodias?
BR: Beckett hated him in his mild way. I spent many years trying to convince Beckett that Maurice was a good guy. I think he distrusted him financially. But so what? Maurice published a lot of Beckett in association with Dick Seaver and Alex Trocchi, the Merlin editors in Paris. When he could be, Maurice was honest, and when he couldn’t, well...! So Beckett got that idea of him not being trustworthy financially. And Beckett was still angry at his British publishers too. For him, they really screwed him over—that line in Waiting for Godot when Lucky said, ‘Shattup and Windup’ (instead of Chatto and Windus, his British publisher). Dick Seaver was one of the few people Beckett let translate him. Dick wrote about that experience translating for Beckett, and poor Beckett, you could see just wasn’t happy, but he was so gentle and polite! He’d say to Dick, ‘Oh well, if you just change one word a little,’ and finally Dick said, ‘I realized he’s translating, not me!’ Beckett wrote me a letter saying, ‘I’m never going to have anybody translate anything for me again’ (that wasn’t in relation to Seaver though). See, when Beckett translated, he didn’t follow himself, and some poor other slob is translating Beckett and he wants to be literal. Beckett didn’t have that problem!
P: To go back in time a little... the other day you mentioned the school you went to.
BR: Yes, well it was this idea of progressive education. I think a lot of it probably came out of Germany—sort of cultish kind of schools, very free-forming, like the Rudolf Steiner schools and so on. There was also a lot of political radicalism, and my school was very left-wing. After World War I, and before World War II, as Hitlerism took over Europe, it had this weird beneficial effect on this country, because of the stream of artists, writers, painters, poets who came from Austria and Germany. A city like Chicago, where I was, had the greatest number of these important people, especially in architecture—people like Gropius and the Bauhaus—it moved to Chicago and became the Illinois Institute of Technology.
P: What were your parents’ politics?
BR: Conservative! Irish Catholic from Michigan and Russian Jewish from Chicago. But there was a lot of union organizing going on, and I grew up in the middle of all that, in a school that had few rules—you could pretty much do what you wanted. But later the whole idea of progressive education was put down in this country.
P: Why do you think that happened?
BR: Well, it’s this thing, you know—you don’t learn enough academic trivia.
P: Did you have much religion around you?
BR: The only religious thing I had was through my mother, and I actually went with her to Catholic Church. One day I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? She doesn’t come here any more, and I hate the goddamn thing.’ They scared me, the priests in their black gowns. And one day I told my mother and I didn’t go, and after a couple of weeks she didn’t ask any more. My father’s best friends were priests—that bothered me, it really bothered me. I was afraid he was going to give them his money. And when he died I thought, oh my God, now if my mother dies she’ll leave Grove Press to the Catholic Church! So I made her give part of Grove to my children as a gift—at that time it was really almost worthless. Then the government came and hit me with this huge ridiculous gift tax which I couldn’t pay. Price Waterhouse made an outside evaluation, which was fair, but the government said no. Years went by and they didn’t get paid the gift tax and I kept moving of necessity—to Chicago, to New York, to Chicago—and the government couldn’t figure it out. They’d put an agent on it in Chicago and by the time he got around to it, I was in New York, and when New York got around to it...! Then the interest got bigger than the original amount! And just at the very end, the last day (I think it was seven years), they sent a letter to my accountant thinking he was the executor, and he wrote back and told them he wasn’t, and I never heard from them again.
P: Why did you sell Grove?
BR: We were really hit very hard in the early ’70s. Suddenly, with no unionizing in the book publishing business, there was this big drama—Grove Press had to be unionized we were told. It was a concerted attack on us, an all out and out comedy/tragedy. My own office was occupied. This was instigated or at least abetted, I think, by the FBI, but I’ve never been able to prove it.
P: The covers of the Grove books really stood out. Olympia’s were great too, but much more reductive than Grove’s. What influenced you there?
BR: Well I know exactly where I got my feeling. First of all it was being married to Joan Mitchell and I was very involved in painting. Actually, I always felt much closer to artists than to writers. But I was absolutely visually illiterate before Joan, so everything I got was sifted through her. And then, New Directions—I liked their covers, which were much simpler even than Maurice’s—he had little odds and ends around them, whereas New Directions was plain color, with a cut-out for the type, which I didn’t like because it wasn’t horizontal. I mean, I think type is to be read—that’s the whole idea of it, so if you said ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ or something and if it’s tilted seventy degrees it’s hard to read. I thought it was better if it was just straight across. But that’s all, other than that I thought the New Directions covers were wonderful. So the first books I did were plain yellow jackets with black type. Horizontal. But the guy who ended up doing every book jacket for us for the next thirty years just came in off 9th street and told me he was a designer and he wanted to do book jackets. Roy [Kuhlman] was the first art director in book publishing to ever be elected into the Art Directors Hall of Fame. Back then no-one had ever seen jackets like his. My theory about doing something supposedly erotic or obnoxious is don’t push too hard, the thing will take care of itself. You present it and maybe people get titillated by the simplicity, instead of its being garish... But typesetting never interested me—still doesn’t! Alfred Knopf was obsessed with typesetting. The difference between Alfred Knopf and me was that when he published Lady Chatterley’s Lover he expurgated it! I couldn’t get over that—he slashed it! We had a few lawsuits over that book—supposedly he owned it, but how could he own something that he didn’t publish? It didn’t get far here, but it did in Canada, and I finally paid royalties to Canada. It had been published here by Knopf and then Bantam and New American Library. It was out of copyright anyway, and I tried paying. Lawrence’s widow was alive, Frieda Lawrence, an incredible woman. She was German and her brother was Baron von Richthofen, the great World War I fighter ace of the Germans. She married Lawrence toward the end of his life and she went through the whole Lady Chatterley thing and so on, and when I went to publish it, Mark Schorer, who was the head of the English department at the University of California, Berkeley, went to her house in Taos, New Mexico, to talk to her, and she agreed to it being published, but then she died. And I didn’t have a contract! So I then went to the British agent who wouldn’t sell it. I think he felt a racial, anti-Semitic thing that I really, really felt in my bones more than I ever had before in my life. They just wouldn’t do it. I brought my attorney from the US there. We went as friends and we were going to pay a lot of money. Still it was no, so we said, ‘Fuck you, we’ll pay nothing.’ Later, Random House did a Modern Library version and paid me, which I thought was a noble gesture. They recognized our legitimacy, and that helped in the eyes of the world.
P: Just to return to the Chareau house. After living there for thirty years you must’ve been pretty fond of it. Why did you move in 1980?
BR: I’ve never been able to figure that out. I’d say it was the stupidest single act of my life. I don’t know. Maybe because I’d got divorced and thought a change would be nice. But it was wrong. It was torn down a couple of years later. I’ve never driven past where it was. I can’t stand it. I get physical aversions. It’s dangerous. Don’t do that too often! It’s terrible.
P: You must’ve had so many people visit the house. What were the parties like?
BR: Well there was the film made at the house that Norman Mailer wrote, directed and starred in. It was chaos! Real violence. Norman at the time prided himself on Indian arm wrestling. That was one of the big things in his life then, and punching people. But there were lots of other, more peaceful people. They were fine—wonderful, terrible—depending. I had lots of parties, lots of people coming and going, the most ever in my life.
P: How did they respond to the house?
BR: Oh, they loved it. We had a lot of people come just to see the house—that was good. But, yeah, also regular business people—I think it probably set me back as much as the CIA! This guy lives in a house like that? You’re going to trust him in a business deal? Come on!