Thursday, February 23, 2012 — 11:45pm
Remembering Barney Rosset
New York Times Obit | Los Angeles Times Obit
It was a surreal and sad moment to hear that Barney Rosset passed away this week. One of the great joys of my life was being able to work on Evergreen Review for nine issues; and in that process I got to know Barney and the wonderful people that still surround him fairly well. So this is a memory piece about that experience.
The majority of conversations with Barney were on the phone. He was extremely sharp-minded and had endless stories that were maddening in how much life experience they conveyed. He would comfortably discuss Beckett, Burroughs, the obscenity trials, and then would shift, in the same iconic voice, into discussing the weather or local politics. What was always present during these talks was an easy and warm laugh (he loved humor) and THE SOUNDTRACK: a clattering and clinking rum and coke nearby in his hand. It was a beautiful sound. When I visited him in New York, I loved seeing a glass in his left hand, and the nice clinking of ice, rum, and coke, always punctuating silences with a gesture that made a little noise. I liked this detail so much, I would greet him or end a conversation with "Rum & Coke!" to a chuckle.
A Life-Long Worker:
When I took over design of Evergreen Review at issue 118, Barney informed me that he considered the magazine to be functionally "dead." It hadn't been updated online in close to a year. He was decidedly moribund about the prospect of continuing with Evergreen in its current format ... but worse, even at age 85, the thought of not working was even more disastrous for him to consider. That's what I learned quickly: Barney needed to be working. And once it became clear that the new version of Evergreen was suitable towards presenting content in new ways, he became increasingly more enthusiastic and demanding about producing more work. Often as soon as an issue was completed, he was quickly discussing plans for the next issue. I say this as a positive virtue; the value of each issue we worked on together got better and better as a result.
I think it's perfectly fitting and beautiful that issue 129 of Evergreen was posted not even a week before Barney passed away. (My last issue with the magazine was 126.)
His work as an Editor and Curator:
The submission pile for Evergreen, even in 2011, was packed with new and eager authors, and a regular roll of rejections. Every single piece of writing or art that made its way into Evergreen was the decision of Barney. And if you look at the entire history of the magazine you do see a wonderful single vision that, to me, is a mix of both classical and experimental prose, heavy subject matter, a little kinky this or that, political agenda, and strong thought.
(I'd be remiss if I didn't also thank Barney for publishing two pieces of my writing, a piece of political reporting on Bush's first outing as a motivational speaker, entitled A Day Spent In Hell, and a long profile of Dallas-based spoken-word label Paris Records)
There was a shift in our creative relationship, I think on the second or third issue together, where I suddenly realized Barney and I were collaborating on the issues .... or communicating with each other creatively, and sharing tasks.
I brought to the table a lifelong love of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, and a desire to make the online magazine as much fun to look at as the original print publication. Barney, in turn, provided more enthusiasm and ideas, by the issue. And he gave me more challenges as a designer, including his personal writing and difficult presentation riddles involving odd poetry that had not run before in Evergreen online ... that kind of thing.
I think the peak of this was in the Beckett pieces (including, a highpoint of my role as a designer, the first-ever publishing of Barney's last photos of Beckett ... followed closely by Barney's challenge to present EMBERS as a webpage, fully acknowledging Beckett's formatting) and in personal work like Barney's recollection of Kunming, China. I'd say we made some damn good work together.
Eccentricities & Humor:
Before I share two humorous memories of speaking with Barney, I need to indicate the real hero in his life was Astrid, his longtime companion of many decades, and wife. Astrid is incredible; a cultured, funny, intelligent, and caring person. Much of Evergreen was handled through Astrid helping to communicate for Barney (especially once he started having to visit the hospital with some frequency) And during these experiences, once he returned home, I called Barney to hear him tell me "I'm working on a painting!" — He was extremely excited. The walls in his East Village loft had just become barren and an empty wall suddenly presented an opportunity. As far as I know, Barney worked up until his final days working on a large multimedia mural.
But my favorite piece of humor is Barney's fascination with rugs. One day I spoke with Astrid and she was laughing about Barney hollering "Rugs! More Rugs!" — He had become obsessed with the idea of decorating the entire loft space with pattern samples of rugs. But he had a reference, "Like the inside of a Persian tent!" and would spend the entire day rearranging the rug patterns around the loft, and sending Astrid out to procure more samples. And you know what, it kind of looked great when it was completed. I'm not sure about the inside of a tent, but damn wonderful.
"Barney likes to work on things", Astrid once joked in the back room, opening a self-made wooden box, which Barney had made a few decades before, showing different chambers and lids. A kind of wonderful wood contraption. Time had made the box a bit rackety but it was clearly distinctive and hand-made. In the background, Barney suddenly hollered, "We need more rugs for this corner by the television!"
It was on this rug visit that I enjoyed one of the best privileges of my young life. I got drunk at the Rosset's and walked around their bookshelves. This doesn't sound like much, but to explain myself:
Barney and I were drinking and talking and I looked up and saw all these three-ring binders. HUNDREDS of three-ring plastic binders, with little names like "Henry Miller Letters" or "Naked Lunch documents" or one simply called "Beckett" and Barney, with a jingle of rum and coke saying, "Go look around." Astrid encouraging me, too. And boy oh boy, What a room!
This huge archive of correspondence would later be sold to Columbia University, and it represents one of the weirdest and most intoxicating moments of my life as a document archivist. Sure enough the folder, "Henry Miller letters," would open up to contain pages of Henry Miller's letters. The "Naked Lunch" documents were exactly what they said they were on the tin—a complete correspondence and chronology of the books publication, salaries, trial, publishing, and personal correspondence with Burroughs and Barney. Etc. These are very personal memories, but here's a photo:
Don't drop it, buddy! You break it you buy it.
(the shelf there is the Burroughs wall, of course)
Just for fun, here's another one, the Henry Miller wall:
Suffice it to say, every time I visited I would further dig into this treasure of documents and history, and I barely ever got through it. Can you imagine living it? I'll die knowing this was one of the best experiences of my life, punctuated by Astrid's welcoming mood, "Have another bourbon!"
I'm so fond of my last visit with Barney, and I'd like to share it. I was leaving on a plane back to Austin at 7pm and had arranged to visit Barney and Astrid on the way out of town at 3:00.
At noon my phone rang, it was Astrid mentioning they'd forgotten about a dentist appointment for Barney, so maybe this last visit couldn't happen at 3:00. I was about a half hour away at a sandwich shop and hollered, "I'll be right over!" Enjoying a very fun hurried cab ride where I squawked about being in a hurry and to step on it, etc. Those are the best New York cab rides.
I arrive at their loft, and Astrid had just gone out to get the mail, and Barney and I small talked and I shared my egg sandwich with him (we'd been out to dinner the night before, a great bunch of hollering and laughter at a local Asian restaraunt nearby - a place that Barney claimed to hold a lot of memories of friends, many now dead.)
I can't explain it, but quietly sharing the room with Barney for a minute while we waited for Astrid to return felt so warm and kind; maybe I knew ... or he knew ... this was the last time Barney and I would talk in person, who knows. Astrid came in with the mail, and said with great humor, "I found you some more rugs!" And then informed Barney his dentist visit was soon, and she made me a nice cup of warm green tea.
I walked them out of the building, and Astrid looked up to flag a cab, which to all of our surprise drive right up immediately.
I think Barney had said goodbye to people a lot in his life. Because the way he said goodbye to me that day was so dear, and real. It started with the cab driving up.
Barney smiled, "Now THIS doesn't happen very often," acknowledging the sudden cab service. He was smiling in an inclusive way.
I joked at how much good fun the visit had been. "It just kept getting better," he said, continuing warmly.
"Let's stay friends" I said in a half-sarcastic sound but with as nice a smile as I could provide.
Barney then twisted the sarcasm into a phrase that still breaks my heart for its warmth: "CLOSE FRIENDS" he intoned, smiling with a kind of real feeling that still affects me when I think back to it ... it was a direct and very unfiltered kindness, and it threw me off balance for a moment. I helped shut the door, and stepped back from the cab to Astrid and Barney smiling and waving their hands as it drove off. It started to snow lightly, and smiling, I realized my eyes were watering. I walked back to the West Village where I was staying with a friend.
Thank you Barney - For the life memory, and the experience, and for everything you did in publishing.
February 2012 - Ethan Persoff
(permanent link to this entry)