A minor investment changed his life, and changed the world. In 1951, he paid $3,000 for Grove Press, a publishing house with only three titles to its credit. Rosset put the books in a suitcase, carried them to his apartment and opened shop. The story of Grove soon became one of turning the obscure and the forbidden into the best-selling and the essential, from Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."
Rosset waged long and costly war on behalf of free expression. When he started Grove, his wish list included two erotic books, both decades old, that had never been distributed unexpurgated in the United States: Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Miller's "Tropic of Cancer."
In 1954 a copy of "Chatterley" was mailed from Paris to New York. Officials seized it and charged Rosset with promoting "indecent and lascivious thoughts," a policy that dated back to obscenity legislation passed in the 1870s. Rosset sued the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and his attorney, Charles Rembar, crafted a defense based on a Supreme Court decision written two years earlier by Justice William Brennan that "all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees."
A federal judge, Frederick van Pelt Bryan, ruled in Rosset's favor. An appeals court upheld Judge Bryan and the government declined to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Post Office's ability to declare a work obscene had effectively been ended.
In 1961, over a game of Ping-Pong, Rosset and Miller agreed to let Grove Press distribute "Tropic of Cancer." The book sold a million copies in its first year, but led to dozens of court cases; Rosset himself was arrested, fingerprinted and taken before a Brooklyn grand jury.
"The district attorney said, 'Do you realize that members of the grand jury have children who are buying that book at newsstands right near their school?'" Rosset recalled.
"And I looked at him and said, 'If that's true and they buy it and read it all the way through, you as parents are to be commended.'"
The jury refused to indict and in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Grove.
"It's hard to remember how puritanical America is and was," Martin Garbus, a First Amendment lawyer and friend of Rosset's, told the AP in 1998. "Barney was the guy who fundamentally broke down censorship barriers in this country. He put up the money. There's a very famous picture of him in the Saturday Evening Post: Barney coming out of the sewer, lifting up the lid — the whole idea of him as this purveyor of filth."
Grove was equally busy defending its film releases. It was sued in the 1960s by the State of Massachusetts for releasing "Titicut Follies," Frederick Wiseman's horrifying documentary about the abuse of patients at Bridgewater State Hospital. The film was kept out of circulation until the 1990s. In 1968, Rosset attempted to distribute the erotic Swedish film "I Am Curious (Yellow)." The movie was seized by the U.S. Customs Office, screened in some communities and banned in others. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 4-4 on this case, with Justice William O. Douglas recusing himself because one of his books had been excerpted in Evergreen Review.
An appeals court later ruled the film could not be banned.
Other Grove books included "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the anonymous erotic classic "The Story of O" and Che Guevara's "The Bolivian Diary." Rosset also attempted an ambitious union of film and avant-garde literature, short works written by Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter. The trilogy was never completed, but the project did lead to one of the movies' most unusual collaborations, "Film," released in 1965 with a script by Beckett and a cast featuring Buster Keaton, just a year before his death.
Rosset only enjoyed limited profits from his legal victories. Although "I Am Curious (Yellow)" made millions and "Lady Chatterley" and other books sold well, he had to cover not only his own legal bills, but those of stores that carried his publications. Grove was also harmed by rival publishers who released cheaper editions of "Tropic of Cancer" and other works that had no copyright in the U.S.