Remembering Barney Rosset, Malcolm X's Publisher

Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 05:02 PM

The boundary-pushing publisher Barney Rosset died on Tuesday. He was 89. Rosset was the founder of Grove Press, where he made a name for himself publishing titles no one else would touch. In the 1960s, he won consecutive court cases that allowed him to print D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He also gave us Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

But we at Studio 360 know Barney Rosset as the brave publisher of another ground-breaking work: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We visited him in his East Village apartment a couple of years ago for our American Icons show. Rosset recounted the unlikely story of how he became The Autobiography’s publisher in 1965.

“I heard on the radio that Malcolm had been assassinated,” Rosset said, “And in the papers Nelson Doubleday said, ‘I don't want my secretaries to be killed because of this book,’… I thought, ‘My God, maybe we can get it.’

Over the previous couple of years Malcolm had been visiting journalist Alex Haley’s West Village apartment (on Grove Street, as it turns out), to collaborate together on his autobiography. But now that the controversial black leader was dead, the original publisher Doubleday got cold feet. The enterprising Rosset scooped up the manuscript for $20,000 and published it to great acclaim.

It was Rosset who came up with the book's explosive cover: “He rose from hoodlum, thief, dope peddler, pimp to become the most dynamic leader of the black revolution. He said he would be murdered before this book appeared.” Rosset is due to have his own memoir published soon, but sadly he also won’t be around when it appears.

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