Tribute to Barney Rosset

Kathy Kiernan

 

While working as a Book-of-the-Month Club editor in the late 1980s, I desperately wanted to buy rights to a book I love, Maurice Girodias’s The Olympia Reader, a Grove Press title from 1965. The people at Grove couldn’t help, but someone suggested I contact Barney Rosset. I sent him a note, and he phoned to say he would arrange a deal with Girodias. It happened quickly, as I learned most things associated with Barney did, and the book club edition of The Olympia Reader sold well for almost twenty years.

 

Barney didn’t suggest lunch or a drink to celebrate our deal, as is usual in publishing, and my timidity prevented me from extending an invitation. Like so many, I had been enamored of Barney’s Grove Press. When I moved to the city in 1985, I gushingly wrote him to ask about openings (Lisa Krug, Barney’s wife at the time, let me down gently in her reply).

 

But Barney proposed other projects, and we continued to publish books together. I finally met him in June 1993, when I received an invitation to a party at his home. Years later, while looking through Astrid’s photo albums, I thrillingly discovered my introduction to Barney had been captured on film. Toward the end of the party, Barney witnessed a skirmish with my ex-boyfriend. I think that’s when he started to like me.

 

We made a lunch date, then more lunch dates. I began to spend evenings with Barney and Astrid. We published more books together. They hosted a book party for me. I met and became close to their friends and family. I attended their wedding. The years sped by. Barney’s e-mails were animated, witty, sometimes enigmatic. He signed one “Love, Susie—I mean Barney” for no apparent reason. Every time I arrived at his home, he shared something fun or surprising. Once he told me about seeing Borat “by mistake,” after confusing it with another film. “But,” he grinned, “I really liked it.”

 

All did not go smoothly. Our liveliest quarrel occurred when Barney formally began his autobiography and his editor asked me to make an outline to tempt foreign publishers. By this time I knew Barney’s stories by heart, and I innocently added the entry “Met Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1940” to the outline. “You don’t understand anything about me,” he bellowed when he saw that. “I drove to Mexico to see Diego Rivera, but he wasn’t there. I didn’t care about Frida.” I told him not many people in 2002 could say they once met Kahlo. That made him madder. We didn’t see each other for months, until his eightieth birthday party. I arrived with a present, a tiny Kahlo self-portrait pin. Afterward, Barney sent a lovely e-mail: “I have Frida in my hand . . . maybe I should wear her to a reception at the Whitney on Tuesday for Joan’s show.” Could a dispute end more gracefully than this?

 

When I left my job a few years ago, Barney hired me for the finishing stages of his boundless autobiography, and I came to know him in a different way as we worked together daily (famously uninterested in food, he once asked me to go look for fresh brussels sprouts.) He turned out to be a sensitive, respectful employer, taking care to see I received prompt payment and making sure I stopped to eat during the long hours. Somehow, I felt we had come full circle.

 

Thank you, Susie—I mean Barney, for the gift of your company. A friend like you comes along once in a lifetime, and only to a lucky few.