When I was a girl, my father often warned me of the dangers of the wayward life. One could take a wrong turn, go down the wrong path. “And,” he always ended his admonitions, “end up like your cousin, Barney.” My father warned me about Barney the way fathers in fairy tales warn their children about paths that lead to the edge of a cliff or wolves that might wish to befriend us. Barney, born Barnet Lee Rosset Jr., was, in my father’s eyes, the black sheep of the family. The renegade, the ne’er-do-well, the ungrateful son. He’d purchased a failing publishing company called Grove Press. He was squandering his father’s fortune. He was a Communist and a pornographer.

Growing up, I actually never knew my cousin Barney. Our grandmothers were sisters, and after Barnet Sr.’s mother died when he was just a boy, my grandmother took him in, raising him and my father as brothers. Then Barnet Sr. left the fold: he married young, to an Irish woman, causing a huge scandal in our Jewish household.

I never gave Barney much thought. Though we were second cousins, Barney and I were born a generation apart. I went east to college and after graduation, instead of returning to Chicago, took a job in a publishing house in Boston, then quit two years later and enrolled in graduate school. I knew I wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how. My life was in turmoil, though I hid this from my family.

Then one hot summer afternoon I fell asleep and dreamed I was walking down a street in Paris and came to a cafe. The name of the cafe was Leave Behind All Hope Ye Who Enter Here (I’d been studying Dante), and Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein were sipping Campari and soda at the bar. I knew I had to go inside.

I woke from this dream and decided to move to New York, where I became my father’s worst nightmare. I lived on the Upper West Side and hung out at the West End, where I was introduced to the Beats. I read Beckett and Burroughs. In a class on Lawrence I read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which contained a lengthy explanation of the legal struggle by Grove Press to publish the book in the United States. Soon after, I read “Tropic of Cancer.” It was beginning to dawn on me that all of this literature I was devouring was published by Grove. Grove, which was owned by my cousin Barney. And now I wanted to meet him.

I met him and his wife at the time at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. It was 1974. I was a fledgling writer and he was a legend, though most of his greatest achievements were behind him. He had already published “Waiting for Godot.” He had published Kerouac and Burroughs. He’d won his Supreme Court case, reversing a ban on “Tropic of Cancer.” I was in awe.

I’m not sure what I was hoping for from our dinner. Guidance perhaps, interest in me as a writer. Curiosity about the family. I was certain we could find common ground. But I found little to none of this. Though he was interested in my father, Barney didn’t seem to grasp our connection, and I’m not sure I entirely understood it either. My questions sent him into a cycle of anecdotes about himself or snarly opinions about the publishing world. By the end of the meal, I thought him cantankerous and self-absorbed, clearly not interested in an aspiring young woman writer.

But I persevered. Over the next several years I saw Barney when he would allow it. I had published a few stories and was hoping Barney would read my work, give me some pointers. But that was not to be. What Barney wanted to talk about was Barney.

In the end, I settled for his stories. When I mentioned I was going to Mexico, he said, “I went to Mexico with Joan in the 1940s” — Joan being his first wife, the painter Joan Mitchell. “I drove her there, but she didn’t like Mexico so I drove her back.” My greatest pleasure in Barney became drawing him out. He had opinions about everyone and everything. Henry Miller: great writer. Though Miller was a difficult man to do business with, Barney wasn’t bothered by all the sex stuff, and Miller was anti-American, and that Barney liked. He didn’t really like “Naked Lunch,” but he admired its risks. He liked that nobody else wanted to publish it. I don’t think I ever saw him more thrilled than when he acquired his F.B.I. file under the Freedom of Information Act and found the sentence “The subject is left-handed.” This would become the title of Barney’s autobiography, which was contracted for but has never been published. (It is tentatively set for publication this year.)

My favorite story — and I never tired of hearing it — was about how Barney met Samuel Beckett. Barney had read “Waiting for Godot” and wanted to become Beckett’s American publisher. He sailed to France to meet him at the bar of the Hôtel Pont Royal at 6 p.m., at which time Beckett arrived and announced that he had only 40 minutes. That night they closed the bar and staggered off in search of another. By dawn they were friends for life. Barney named his second son Beckett “in Sam’s honor.”

In time I grew to love Barney. We would sit for hours at his house over rum and Cokes. I loved leafing through his archives — all the letters and manuscripts his wife, Astrid, had so meticulously organized. Wild letters from Joan. Gentle, patient ones from Beckett.

It wasn’t great literature per se Barney was after — it was the subversive. Fortunately, these often went hand in hand. Barney forced us to look honestly into the mirror. He was, to me, the embodiment of the famous quotation so often attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.”

Opinionated, pugnacious, acerbic, passionate, dedicated, uncompromising. At a party once when I mentioned that I was Barney’s cousin, a man turned to me and said, “He is the most unpleasant man I’ve ever met.” He could be that. But he could also be, as my daughter Kate said, “the only person I’ve ever met who lived his life to the fullest.”

The last time I saw Barney, he was sitting alone at his daughter Chantal’s wedding while guests milled about, getting drinks and hors d’oeuvres. When I approached to say hello, he pointed to a bookshelf across the way. “Get me that big thick book, will you?” I looked around until I found a tome entitled “Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia,” published by the Office for Contemporary Art, a foundation established by the government of Norway.

“Look at this,” Barney said. “It’s dedicated to me. This is the most important thing ever to happen in my life.” Given everything that had happened to him, I was incredulous and asked why. “Because a government has dedicated a book to me.” When I asked why he thought they’d dedicated the book to him, a foolish question really, the old Barney flared up and snapped, “Read it and you’ll find out.” Those were the last words he ever said to me.

I can’t say I loved Barney because he guided me as a writer. I can’t even say he was particularly interested in me. And I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who felt this way around him. But this was never the point. My cousin Barney was the maverick, the “amoeba with a brain” as he once referred to himself. An outlaw with the conscience we all wish we had. He broke the rules, and he changed the game.


Mary Morris is the author, most recently, of the memoir “The River Queen.” This piece was originally published in the New York Times May 4, 2012, shortly before Barney Rosset’s memorial service.