Thursday, March 5, 2009

One Touch of Venus (Library): Odyssey of an Imprint Part I

In a recent post, I mentioned one of Canadian poet John Glasscoe's novels, Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer, originally published in 1972 by Venus Library, and noted that Venus Library "evolved from Olympia Press- New York."

This is sort of true but far from the whole story. The history of Venus Library is much more tortured and I'll have to get on the rack and stretch out a bit to tell it.

Grove Press, a small hardcover imprint, was dying when Barney Rosset bought it for $3000 in 1952. Over the next decade, he built it into the premier publisher of avante garde literature in the United States. By 1962, Grove Press had become the "Little Giant of Publishing" according to a contemporary trade journal, whose mission was "to do things which stimulate people, to help them see new things, to broaden and irritate them, to give them pleasure and always to keep probing." Barney Rosset had become the leading exponent of literary freedom in the publishing world. It was said of him that "he has made more contributions to the cause of literary freedom than any other publisher of our day." Rosset had a simple publishing tenet: "If you feel a book has literary merit, you publish it. If you get arrested in the process you fight it." By being the first to publish in the U.S. the work of Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Ionesco, amongst other literary luminaries, including Sade, and "Pauline Reage," as well as publishing the country's first literary journal of the contemporary avant garde, Evergreen Review, Rosset set a standard for American publishers that to this day few can match. His commitment to literary freedom had paid major dividends - by the mid-late Sixities he was rolling in dough.

But this kind of success can turn heads, and Rosset's was now spinning on its axis like the child's in The Exorcist: he was possessed by dreams of grandeur that diabolically undermined his fortune. He spent profligately, sinking small fortunes into ill-fated movie projects: he set up a film distribution unit to release I Am Curious-Yellow and a film adaptation of Henry Miller's  Quiet Days In Clichy in the U.S. He was in the big-time but money was now cascading out at a greater rate than it was coming in. And he now had tax problems. Releasing editions of his fine erotic and otherwise hardcover titles since the beginning through his Zebra and Black Cat paperback imprints, now he decided to establish a mass-market paperback line devoted exclusively to  erotica to mine the motherlode that had become the pulp-porn marketplace.

It was strictly a money-making idea, literary standards taking a back seat to the urgent need for cash flow. It was a scheme to provide Grove's paperback distributor, Kable News, with eight titles a month - John Hayes, Kable's owner, had been urging Rosset to get in on the porn bandwagon - and provide Grove with a transfusion of green at a time when it is bleeding red and in mortal danger. Kable wanted the deal and Rosset needed it: Grove's Black Cat and Zebra imprints were not issuing enough titles per month to satisfy their contract with Kable News, and Kable was threatening to drop the lines unless Rosset could fill-in with other titles.

Venus Library is born.

The original idea was to reprint vintage clandestine American erotica of the 1920s and 1930s in well-designed and printed paper editions. The imprint's original wrapper design was clean and simple: well-wrought, distinctive lettering of the title, subtitle and author against a plain, single color background with thin white margins, at the head Venus' elegant signature vignette - a highly stylized, abstracted Venus figure in black, a stemmed round form over an inverted heart sitting atop a goblet, whose shape clearly suggests head and neck above full breasts atop full hips. The paper used was high quality and acid-free, the typography excellent; no cheesy offset photo-reprinting of the original source edition. Grove Press' name appeared along the spine below the Venus logo and as copyright holder. The overall look was of reserved class.

Among Venus' early releases were the only open editions of the obscure American original erotic novels, M. Fontaine's Establishment and John Kruge, and a very nicely produced edition of La Tarantula, another American original, from 1934. La Tarantula was the second title in Venus' catalogue, and provided an inauspicious omen of things to come: two editions of La Tarantula had already been published by others in the prior year, 1968. And, too, it was late 1969 and the market for quality pulp-erotica was giving way to the demand for raunchier material with overtly sexual wrapper designs.

And so, by its twentieth release Venus Library had evolved. That twentieth title was Corporal Punishment by "Dr. Gerda Mundinger," a S/M-themed "case history" sexumentary. Gone was the understated elegance of the original wrapper design; now, though still very nicely designed the covers were photo-illustrated to grab the fickle porn-public's attention.

That they did. The photo-cover for Dr. Mundinger's pseudo-study depicts the back of a nude woman from knees to shoulders, a man's forearm entering the frame from the right, his hand wielding a whip. The quality of the paper had declined to the typically low industry standard. The vintage material was now photo-offset from the source editions. The whole affair must certainly have been an embarrassment to Rosset and sales were not the B-12 shot Grove so desperately needed. Additionally, and of primary significance, Grove owed Kable a fortune: According to Fred Jordan, who was then working as an editor at Grove, Kable News had been, as was customary for distributors with all their contract publishers, advancing money to Grove/Venus to cover printing costs but Grove/Venus had been collecting these advances far in excess of the number of books they were actually delivering to Kable. It was so bad that Rosset was forced to cede Venus Library to Kable to cover what he owed the distributor. This method of Kable News, to "help" out and allow  publishers to get in way over their heads then seize the imprint or magazine, was not exclusive to them; periodicals distributors (who controlled the paperback book business) were (and remain) a tough lot using many legal if ethically questionable strategies to advance their business interests.

Venus Library may not have been the financial savior to Grove that Rosset hoped it would be but its sales were still respectable enough for Kable News to want to keep the imprint in its distribution mix. Hayes, according to those who knew him a very likable salesman in the best sense, apparently, needed and wanted a "prestige" imprint to distribute - they had a way of lending respectability to a distributor and providing convenient "cover" for the less respectable material. Kable News had been distributing Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press - New York catalogue as its "prestige" line but Girodias was sinking and Hayes may have felt the need to hedge his bet if Girodias went under. Apparently part of the deal with Rosset was that Grove Press would continue to advertise Venus Library at the rear of copies from its Zebra line of paperbacks, an ad for Venus appearing at the rear of its sixth printing dated December, 1972 of Pierre Loüys Trois Filles et leur Mere, Mother's Three Daughters.

And so, in early 1972, Venus Library became the property of Kable News. The books looked exactly as they did under Grove's ownership, the only difference being that the name Grove Press was no longer to be found anywhere on the wrapper, and the copyrights were now under Venus Library with no location site provided. But based on appearances, it was quite reasonable to assume that Grove still owned Venus Library.

It remains unknown who ran and edited Venus Library for Kable News but the line  went into overdrive, releasing well over one hundred titles in 1972. At some point during 1972, though, Venus Library became Venus Books, it lost the imprint's original, distinctive logo, and its mail-order was handled by Irval Distributors in Long Island City, Queens, New York City, which appears to have been connected to Al Druss' G.I. Distribution, a shady operation. The imprint was sinking, financially as well as editorially.

It reprinted at least thirty of hack pornmeister Paul Hugo Little's "A. Granamour" flagellation fiestas, most of which had already been released by Greenleaf Classics, the era's leading publisher of pulp erotica; and a few retitled and reauthored Olympia Press - Paris titles. It had, in the main, become  a publisher of S/M-themed material that was generally not very well-written, though a few notable exceptions managed to be issued. Fanchon's Book by "Zane Pella" (the pseudonymous author of many above average soft-porn novels during the '60s under the name "Dallas Mayo;" the copyright for Fanchon's Book held by Gilbert Fox, the true author - why use a pseudonym when you out yourself on the copyright?), is a fine little contemporary original novel of lesbian dominance and submission. It published the only open edition of The Mistress & The Slave, a reprint of the Athens [London], Erotica Biblion Society [Leonard Smithers and/or H.S. Nichols], 1905  English translation of the French clandestine original, La Maitresse et L'Esclave  issued in Paris, ca. 1903, the story of the systematic sexual subjugation of an older man by a young girl reminiscent of The Blue Angel, an uncommonly sensitive and perceptive view of a man's dark fall into eros. Venus Library also issued the only reprints of two  novels by the infamous "Aime Van Rod" (a house pseudonym for Parisian publisher Roberts et Darallion's erotica imprints Editions artistique and Editions Parisiennes) - Our Fair Flagellants by Jeremy Hornell, an early translation of Nos Belle Flagellantes originally issued in 1907; and The Coming of Age of Françoise Cocteau,  the original edition in French and source translation yet to be identified - who in the first two decades of the twentieth century was responsible for over thirty-five fiercely sadistic novels noteworthy for their often complete lack of overt sexual behavior, that subject being too indecent for the modest female protagonist/victims to narrate, the scenes of viciously ferocious, unrelenting corporal punishment, however, just fine, thank you.  The best books in the Venus Library catalogue are 60s activist and key counterculture figure David Danziger's Hard Life, his memoir of sex and sensibility from St. Marks Place in New York's Greenwich Village to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and poet John Glassco's Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer. How and why these little treasures wound up in Venus' line is a mystery but one we should be thankful for. The simplest explanation is that these two titles were likely leftovers from when Grove Press owned the imprint; they have the aroma of quality.


By the end of 1972, beginning of 1973, Venus was in disarray and Kable News' John Hayes was looking to unload the imprint. Perhaps the editorial was to blame. Perhaps the recession of the early 70s had negatively impacted sales, as it had for so many others: Venus' print runs appear to have fallen into the 7K-10K range; just a few years earlier, the average print run for a pulp erotica title had been upwards of fifty thousand copies. Perhaps Kable News' John Hayes, a distributor and not a publisher, couldn't provide the leadership necessary. But the most likely reason Hayes was seeking to rid himself of ownership, according to Kent Carroll, who worked as an editor at Grove and though not directly involved knew of the Grove-Kable deal for Venus Library, is that "he [Hayes] lost about a million on the arrangement." Rosset found a sucker in Hayes; now it was Hayes' turn.

Enter Maurice Girodias.

                                                                                                        to be continued...

I am thankful to Barney Rosset, Kent Carroll, Fred Jordan, and Gilbert Fox who were kind to share their memories with me during of series of telephone, snail-, and e-mail interviews conducted between 2000 and 2002.

Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

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