Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One Touch of Venus (Library): Odyssey of an Imprint Part 2

The story so far: In One Touch of Venus (Library): Odyssey of an Imprint, Part I we find Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset on the ropes, desperate for money, and, in a deal with his paperbacks distributor, Kable News, establishing Venus Library. Venus Library flounders, Kable News' chief John Hayes seizes the imprint from Rosset, it becomes Venus Books, loses a a small fortune, and Hayes seeks a way out.

Enter Maurice Girodias.
John Hayes, who had been distributing Olympia Press - New York through his Kable News, was obviously aware of Girodias' troubles; he'd lost OP-NY for distribution when it entered bankruptcy. He offered to give Girodias Venus Books if he'd just keep it alive to feed Kable's distribution maw. With this distribution contract Girodias established Freeway Press. Apparently contractually obligated to maintain the Venus imprint, Girodias released as Venus-Freeway Press. And, apparently contractually locked by Kable into issuing at least six titles per month  and desperately scrounging for material, Girodias immediately began to reissue, yet again, some Olympia Press - Paris titles as well as many reissues of Olympia Press - New York books, and a host of the most unlikely titles: a paperback edition of Sax Rohmer's [Arthur Sarafield Ward] only work of non-fiction,  The Romance of Sorcery,  a survey of the occult originally published in 1914; seven books in a series entitled K'ing Kung-Fu by Marshall Macao [?Leonard Mears]; two dreary dirty books, Mama Liz Drinks Deep  and Mama Liz Tastes Flesh  anonymously written by Howard Reingold, ostensively part of "The Acid Orgy Trilogy"; An Astrological Guide to Living in the Age of Aquarius; The Office Worker's Manifesto; Pyramid Power; two reprints of novels that originally appeared in the pulp magazine Operator 5 in 1934;  a bio of Mohammad Ali, Ali: Fighter, Poet, Prophet,  and Springtime for Hitler (the title "borrowed" from Mel Brooks' film, The Producers) both co-written by Über-literary agent Andrew Wylie prior to his rise to power.

It had come to this for Maurice Girodias: He holds the dubious honor of being the only porn publisher in history to have his writers organize a strike. Bearing picket signs reading "Give Us Our Dirty Money," and "Pornographers' Kids Need Clothes, Too," in June, 1971 sixteen male and female Olympia Press -  New York scribes demonstrated outside his offices on Park Avenue South under the rubric Dirty Writers Of America. The DWA demanded royalties and was  upset that Girodias, the champion of literary freedom, now had forbidden humor in their books; he now had to issue trash to maintain his contractual commitment to Kable News; and the two hundred dollar check he wrote to Wylie as down payment for Springtime For Hitler, the seventy-third Venus-Freeway release and the last book that Girodias would ever publish,  bounced.

But in the meantime, Venus-Freeway Press' President Kissinger. (Double-take). No need to re-read the last sentence; you had it right the first time: President Kissinger.

It was a collaborative effort amongst Girodias, acclaimed erotic novelist Marco Vassi, Monroe Rosenthal and Donald Munson, and an as yet unidentified woman. The book's forthcoming release was the subject of a story in the June 12, 1974 issue of the New York Times; the novel was causing no small degree of consternation within the government. It seems that the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturization branch received an anonymous complaint, investigated, and discovered that Girodias had allowed his resident's visa to expire. Girodias was ordered to be deported.

The book itself? Printed and sent to the Kable News warehouse,  the entire shipment vanished within a day of its delivery. John Hayes, owner of Kable News, disingenuously reported to Girodias that he had absolutely no idea what happened to it. There is evidence implying that the complaint to the Justice Department came from Hayes himself, who may have a bad case of the willies: the legal climate vis a vis obscenity had, by 1974, turned distinctly chilly and Hayes no doubt recalled what had happened to Greenleaf Classics when they screwed with the government by publishing a brilliantly conceived and subversive, wild, lavishly and graphically illustrated edition of the U.S. government's Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography: Greenleaf's publisher and editor went to jail. Hayes also, apparently, objected to certain passages in the book.

I think it fair to assume that the objectionable passages were probably the ones that featured Henry Kissinger "having an affair with a German girl in whose closet he discovers an S.S. uniform. She confesses to him that her brother had been in the Gestapo and in their subsequent sex scene has her wearing the uniform and Henry a frilly French maid's outfit, with him walking around on his hands and knees while she straddles his back and whacks him with a riding crop," as Marco Vassi related in an unpublished autobiographical snippet provided to Olympia Press - NY bibliographer, Patrick J. Kearney; his intimacies with a Radcliffe girl at the Paris Ritz-Carlton, and "a strapping Prussian noblewoman in a Heidelberg inn." John De St Jorre reports that after Kable News refused to distribute the book, Girodias decided to distribute it himself and had friends and staff affix stickers to each copy reflecting the new situation but the book has disappeared off the planet; find a copy, you're an Antiques Roadshow winner.

With deportation, court cases, debts, and a long list of simmering antagonists plaguing him, in 1974 Girodias, yet again, entered bankruptcy with Venus-Freeway Press' failure. With a gift for self-destruction, and a "sometimes kama-kazi approach to his business" (Kearney), Girodias was the only major publisher of pulp-porn during the era to have lost money. That required special talent. The times had passed him by; his brand of provocative publishing had become commonplace as the freedoms he had fought so hard for had been won. And a great, if deeply flawed publishing genius and champion of literary freedom faded from the scene. He died in 1990.

As for Barney Rosset, still alive, he "wasn't the only publisher who took risks, but he was one of the most visible and uncompromising. Not everything he published was high-minded. Some of it aimed below the belt, and he was uncompromising about that too. His stubbornness made his achievements possible, but it also helped to undo him. At the end of the '60s, Grove moved into fancy offices, into film, and, to some extent, away from books. The repression of the '50s and freewheeling openness of the '60s were over, and other houses, now free from fear of censorship, took more chances. The left splintered. The feminist movement attacked him. Grove began to drift...Grove bought a six-story building and installed air conditioning, an executive elevator and a front door in the shape of a 'G.'

"The renovation was completed in 1970, and that was the year that Grove began to fall apart. Prompted by the success of I Am Curious,Yellow, Rosset, who had always wanted to be a filmmaker, bought foreign films as fast as he could find them. 'Barney was buying the entire output of Czechoslovakia, Poland, God knows, whatever,' [Grove editor Richard] Seaver said. 'None of them worked. Suddenly, all the money we'd made on Yellow was down the drain.'

"There was the growing sense that Grove had lost its mission. 'Things were already beginning to go into a tailspin,' said [Grove executive, Nat] Sobel, who had resisted the new emphasis on film and was fired. 'I almost think that Barney fired me to spare me from watching the company that I helped build fall apart.' The '60s had ended, and the hope was turning sour. Peaceniks gave way to militants. Grove's move from an upstart house to a media conglomerate made its anti-establishment posture seem more like a contradiction. The feminist movement gained strength, and Grove became a target.

"...The real-estate market collapsed, and by the end of 1971, Grove was deeply in debt. It sold its new building at a huge loss and suspended Evergreen. Meanwhile, other publishers were taking advantage of the more permissive environment, and there were fewer untouchable manuscripts. 'They had such a distinctive position, particularly in the '60s, as the countercultural publisher,' explained Morgan Entrekin, who merged Atlantic Books with Grove's backlist to create Grove/ Atlantic in 1993, several years after Rosset had left. 'As they moved into the '70s and '80s other publishers started to occupy the same ground.'

"Finally, in 1985, Rosset was forced to sell to the oil heiress Ann Getty and the British publisher George Weidenfeld. Rosset believed he would remain in charge. But a year later, on a snowy evening, he walked into the Bar Americain in Paris, where a group had gathered to celebrate Beckett's 80th birthday, and announced he'd been pushed out," as Louisa Thomas reported in Newsweek.

Barney Rosset's last hurrah would involve a return to the pulp-erotica (he HATES the term "pornography") of Venus Library to start a new line of paperbacks, Blue Moon, to reprint early erotic classics and publish new , original works in the same literate but sexually charged style.

And so ends the saga of Venus Library, a forgotten imprint significant for reprinting otherwise lost original American erotica of the clandestine era, publishing a few new books of true literary value, and issuing many volumes that were just plain weird, yet whose ultimate importance lies as an imprint whose ownership was bookended by the two greatest publisher-champions of literary freedom during the twentieth century, two men who had known - and tangled with - each other when Girodias originally came to New York and sought Rosset out as a partner.

"After intense negotiations... [MG's lawyer Leon] Friedman produced a draft contract that he thought was fair to both sides. Both parties agreed to the terms but at the last minute Girodias, according to Friedman, 'changed the numbers,' and the deal fell through. 'It was a good contract,' Friedman said, 'and Maurice would have made good money out of it. But his attitude was if the other guy wants to sign a contract, it can't be a good deal.' Girodias saw it differently. After it was all over, he wrote to Friedman: 'It's all like a bad dream, concocted by the Superman of sadism, Barney Rosset.'

" 'It's just as well we didn't get together,' said Rosset, who laughed when he heard the Superman epithet again. 'It wouldn't have worked.' " (De St Jorre, pp. 270-271).

The two publishers, though both geniuses quite different in the details, were possessed by the same fateful demons that assured their rise and guaranteed their fall.


Part 2 is based upon Patrick J. Kearney's Introduction to his Bibliography of the Olympia Press- New York (Privately Printed, 1988); John De St Jorre's Jorre's Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press (Random House, 1994); The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing by Louisa Thomas; and sources cited in Part I.

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