The Next Man to Go
An Interview with 'Accursed Publisher' Maurice Girodias
by Mike Golden
If Maurice Girodias' timing was not always perfect, it never lacked flair, as the rogue genius and so-called "accursed publisher" proved one last time on July 3, 1991, when he managed to pass away live on the radio in his beloved Paris, at the age of seventy-one, while plugging the recently published second installment of his memoirs, and talking about the battles he fought against censorship.
Born April 12, 1919, Girodias was brought up in a privileged artistic and intellectual atmosphere. By the time he was fourteen, he had not only read Tropic of Cancer in manuscript, he had been commissioned by his father, publisher Jack Kahane, to draw the cover for the groundbreaking publication. Before Miller, Kahane had published Haveth Childers Everywhere-the first printed portion of Finnegans Wake-and The Life and Loves of Frank Harris, so the tradition Girodias would follow in was firmly established.
After living through World War II in Paris, Girodias started Olympia Press in 1953, releasing books in English that couldn't be published in America or England. From Beckett's first novels to Nabokov's Lolita to Donleavy's The Ginger Man to Burroughs' Naked Lunch to Southern & Hoffenberg's Candy, he set a standard few have approached even today.
A strikingly handsome man with snow white hair, Girodias' comic timing gave him a strong resemblance to Peter Seller's brilliant but bumbling Inspector Clouseau, a characteristic that probably had more than anything else to do with the fact that he was, in his own words, "a second generation Anglo-French pornographer."
You began publishing in 1939?
Right. I succeeded my father. My father was British, and came to Paris, and then in the thirties decided to publish books in English that could not be printed in America or England because of censorship. I picked up the idea later, in the fifties, after publishing art books in French during the war, because German censorship made it difficult to publish novels.
Was Henry Miller being published by anyone besides your father then?
No, only by Obelisk. Three of his things were bought by New Directions, but New Directions was the most conservative, cautious publisher ever. They wouldn't touch the Tropics-that was the whole issue. Before the war, not even two thousand copies of Tropic of Cancer had been sold, you know. It was absurd! But on the strength of those two thousand copies, the tradition was already solid.
That was before you went out on your own?
I started in that two or three months between the Declaration of War and when the Germans arrived. Nothing was happening. I got into publishing with a German refugee, who had a small distribution house in Paris. We started a paperback house for English books which were to be printed in France. There was a German outfit who was publishing a paperback series mostly for British and American tourists traveling in Europe. But those could not be sold in France, so the idea was to take that market over and publish English language paperback books, but not for the tourists, you know, for the troops. And so we started the project but it never came to be because the war was on before we had our first books out. My partner went to America and tried to convince me to go with him. I was just twenty, and I decided to stay in France; my fate was settled then, because I was half-Jewish. At that time, I had a British passport and it was pretty crazy to stay in Paris during the occupation. I had my French family, and there was actually no money at all, and I just couldn't leave them like that. So I changed my name, and took my mother's name. And had a fake identity card. I spent the entire four years of occupation straight in the middle of the German operations.
So I created out of nothing this French art book publishing house, Les Editions du Chene, which was very successful. It was a bit of a miracle. Of course, the biggest miracle was that I went through the four years of occupation and nothing happened to me. So I knew that I was lucky, I was a lucky man, I could do anything I wanted, I just had to decide.
After the war, things started to change and I enlarged my activities to novels, fiction, political books as well. I ran into trouble with the government, the first socialist government after the war because I published a pamphlet denouncing the economy. I had a huge court case where the government came in as a witness against me. I won that case, I won that law suit, which was very bad for my future.
Why was that?
I was marked, I was the next man to go. But I didn't care, because I knew then that luck was on my side. I could dare anything I wanted. A charming, youthful delusion. Which I kept till, you know, pretty late. Because then things started getting very tough. My distributors were Hachette, which is the biggest trust for publishing, book distribution, newspaper distribution, one of the big powers in this world. They had the control, they controlled everything. After the war, they offered me a partnership arrangement. To turn my art book publishing house into something very big, international. I signed an agreement and I found out they didn't mean it. They wanted to take over my firm without giving me anything. And what I had signed was, you know, not well worded. There were loopholes in it. I discovered that I made a very bad blunder. So I was totally dispossessed from my ten-year-old publishing firm. I was expelled from my own company, unable to understand or resist that piece of classical capitalistic maneuvering. So I was completely despondent, there was no money.
When was this?
1949-50. For three years, until 1953, when I decided to do what my father had done. I was still in communication with Miller and on very good terms with him. So he gave me Plexus to publish. George Bataille had two or three books he gave me to publish. Then a book by De Sade, The Bedroom Philosophers, translated by two young Americans, Dick Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse, who were part of a group of British and American would-be writers-poets who had started a magazine called Merlin. Alex Trocchi was the editor. Seaver, Wainhouse, Patrick Bowles, Philip Oxman, Baird Bryant, Alfred Chester, John Stevenson, and John Coleman were all more or less directly connected with Merlin, as was, at a prudent distance, George Plimpton. Iris Owens became an important addition, and Marilyn Meeske. Some of them contributed to the Olympia Press novels, which were usually violently extravagant and outrageous. I usually printed five thousand copies of each book, and paid a flat fee for the manuscripts which, although modest, formed the substance of many an expatriate budget. My publishing technique was simple in the extreme, at least in the first years: when I had completely run out of money, I wrote blurbs for imaginary books, invented sonorous titles and funny pen-names, and then printed a list which was sent out to our clientele of book-lovers. They immediately responded with orders and money, thanks to which we were able to eat, drink, write, and print. I could again advance money to my authors, and they hastened to turn in manuscripts which more or less fitted the descriptions.
These people had come to Paris in the belief that it was still Paris in the thirties. They had heard all the stories of the wonderful life in the thirties, but when they got here they didn't find any trace of the city. The war had changed it completely. And there were absolutely no English or American writers except them. Those kids, you see, had never written anything, but they all had talent, see, they were all very interesting. They had gotten together because of a similar taste for literature. I mean, they were the first English speaking people to discover Samuel Beckett.
Actually, Beckett was first published in English in Merlin. And they had bought the rights of his only book in English, called Watt, but they couldn't publish it, so I published it. And then I published the rest of the Beckett novels, for which I've never been credited in any book. So that really got me started, you see. I had absolutely no money to start a thing right. But I was used to doing things without money. And it was an instant success. It worked like magic once again.
It all happened in five, six years. Naked Lunch was my last big book. Published in 'fifty-nine. In between, I published Genet in English, people like Chester Himes. The publication of Lolita in 'fifty-six was the event. I had my biggest litigation with the French government over that. And once again, I won the case-but it really finished me completely. After that they harassed me until I was forced out of business. But in the meantime I had made a fortune with Lolita. It was the only book I ever published which made me temporarily rich, because it was the only book I had a solid contract which the author couldn't break when he became famous. He had to live up to the contract, which gave me one third of the income of the reprint in English or sale of foreign rights.
What happened with Donleavy, with The Ginger Man? When did you publish that?
You didn't make money from that?
No, no. The story of The Ginger Man is fabulous. Much better actually than the book. I published the book, I had a contract which was sort of badly worded, made up of several letters of exchange-contracts were too boring to write up. Really at the time I didn't expect things to turn out the way they did. I didn't expect censorship to fall so fast. Censorship was really done in by the publication of Lolita in America.
As for The Ginger Man, basically what happened was that I had world rights in the English language and translation rights. The same as Lolita, but a very weak contract. I mean, you know, Nabokov insisted on certain things because he was more professional and older-he insisted that he wanted a proper American contract. So that was my lucky break. The year after I published The Ginger Man, Donleavy sold the rights again to an English publisher thinking that I was viewed by the English courts as a satanic character, and I would never sue him in England where he lived. But I was so angry that I did. And I got caught in the English legal system. It's quite incredible. It starts in a very mild way-they offer you a cup of tea, you know. It looks very innocent, very friendly, and then you end up having to pay thousands of pounds anytime anything happens. And little things happen all the time. But the case never goes to court. So after six years the case hadn't come to court.
Did you have any personal dealings with Donleavy?
He came to Paris after The Ginger Man was published to talk to me. I gave a party for him, and gathered all the literati I could find who might be able to speak to Donleavy-not one of them had read the book, but I had talked to them about it-so he would feel like he had a big readership in Paris. But he got very drunk and he left the next day. During the party he spoke to my younger brother, who had translated Lolita, and he thought that my brother was me, you see. Or he pretended he thought my brother was me. I had to carry him home bodily on my back-fortunately just around the corner. And that was all the conversation I had with him. When I brought him in that drunken state to the hotel he said to me, "Are you Girodias' brother?" Which I think was a ruse. I don't think he was that drunk. The whole scene was contrived. And the whole trip had one purpose, to convince me that we had had a definite talk about my relinquishing English rights to him. Which never happened. But in his correspondence after that, he repeated the fact time and again in order to build up the assumption that I had returned the rights to him. Which is typical Ginger Man technique, you see. I mean the whole story is quite beautiful because it is very inventive. After the English publication, he broke his contract with his first publisher, sold it to another publisher, then a third publisher, and in time another publisher, each time exercising a mixture of very interesting gifts he has, you know... his power of wasting time, of confusing people. Which is a special gift he has. He has a good knowledge of law, but a better knowledge of human character.
That happened in 1956. How did the situation end up being resolved?
Well, there is a sequence to the story. It is 1970 when I'm about to win the case against him-I've been bankrupt several times in France, but I'm in New York with a remake of Olympia Press. Which is not terribly inventive, but for the first time in my life I'm comfortably installed in the situation of a millionaire publisher. I go back to Paris from time to time, but I cannot recognize the city as my own. I'm a big American publisher-I'm not big really, but I have money and I can buy anything I want when I come to Paris. I can stay in the best hotels. I'm totally deluded by this American thing.
This is New York Olympia ?
No, no, Free Way-Olympia doesn't exist anymore. It's been bankrupt for years. But in spite of the bankruptcy I've managed to keep the case against Donleavy going through a receiver who I've bribed every time I come to Paris. I deliver a big handful of banknotes to him; it's not quite legal but Donleavy can do nothing against it. Donleavy is being sued by a phantom company which does not exist anymore.
Legally-because legalities are essential-we've reached the point where we're going to win the case, but the company which doesn't exist doesn't belong to me anymore. And I have to get back the phantom assets of the bankrupt company from the receiver, to buy them back, in order to benefit from winning the case against Donleavy. You understand the intricate situation.
So I bribed the receiver to organize a public sale of the assets of the bankrupt company, to be the buyer of the company, and to do it in such a secretive manner that at this public auction I should be the only one to be there, nobody else should know about it. It is done in such a way that the legal publicity for it is immediately torn down from the walls. So when I go to the auction after lunch with my legal advisor, there are a group of people there who I didn't expect to find. I think they are tourists who have lost their way at first, but then these people start bidding against me! I wasn't prepared for that, you know. I could only go as far as the money I had on me. That was $8,000. So I had to stop bidding. I looked at the group of three people which were bidding-the man was obviously a Paris lawyer, and the two women were obviously crazy American ladies. I couldn't understand who would do this, you see. I thought it was a silly rich American girl who wanted to have the name of the company and then make an offer to me to run the company-an Ann Getty situation-I didn't know. So I started thinking about it and looking for answers, accusing some people of being behind it. And then I discovered through the lawyer that the woman who had bought it was Donleavy's wife. I think it is one of the most beautiful, romantic legal stories of all times. Donleavy bought it. And I respect him for it. I have heard he is writing a book about it. That was ten years ago, but in ten years he has not found a way to bring out the story. I am willing to write the story with him as a dialogue, but I'm sure he won't do it. The Ginger Man is a good story, but this is a better story.
Speaking of stories, what about Candy?
Oh, Candy! That's a stab in the heart! It was a disaster. But in much bigger proportions. For everybody. Terry, Mason, myself... And of course, Mason is dead... Not that dead, but he is dead. He is legally dead.
Mason was my baby, you see. We had a particular father-sonny relationship. Mason brought Terry in, who was an innocent living in Geneva, which he at first thought was Paris. Mason and Terry were buddies-Terry was the first one to try to express himself in writing. Poor Mason was a jealous man, you know. He was born jealous. Jealous of other people's talents. That was what was wrong with the Candy business. Mason did it, not Terry. Why Candy took two years to write was Terry was living in Geneva, and Mason in Paris, and communication was difficult. So the book moved very slowly.
Did you pay them an advance or a salary to write it?
I paid them an advance. It was piddling money. The rate for dbs (dirty books), as we called them, had reached at that time $1,200 to $2,000, which was not so bad. With most of the writers I worked that way because that was the only way to get the pages, you see. To the end. The contract was that I was to protect their anonymity completely because they were taking big risks doing what they were doing. They would have been kicked out of the country immediately if they had been found out. So I was supposed to have been the author of all those books. A set of them. Twenty books a year. When I went to court, I had to claim that I made them. Very simple-and they would threaten me with three months in prison for every book.
Did you actually ever go to prison for any of this?
Twice I was caught, and I thought I'd had it, since I carried this total of so many sentences over my head. If I was in prison by the end of the day, then I was there for six years, you see. It was quite serious. But I managed to get out by the end of the day. By the one telephone call allowed me. I had a very good lawyer in those days.
So what happened with Candy?
Candy was a story having to do with the law, the copyright law in particular. And the American copyright law, and that particular clause of the American copyright law called the Manufacturing Clause. Candy was under copyright of Olympia Press. That copyright could have been enforced in America, if the fiction of the situation was lived up to by the writers, that they were writers for hire. The real author was the publisher who invented the story. Millions of dollars depended on whether Mason and Terry understood that fiction. Had they agreed to it we could have protected the copyright in America. But they couldn't accept even in theory that I would be considered the author of the idea of Candy. At this point, I was getting into a dispute with Walter Minton, the young president of Putnam. He had bought Lolita after Rosemary Ridgeway, who was a dancer at The Latin Quarter, told him to. She had apparently read a copy of my edition in New York, and was bright enough for a dancing girl to find it a great book. And got Minton interested in it. He was more interested in her than the book, but he bought the rights from me.
So after the book was published and it became a best seller for Putnam, Minton came to Paris for the first time with Rosemary to consummate a piece of business with her. He was a married man with kids. I asked them when they arrived where they wanted to have lunch. Rosemary picked the most expensive place in Paris. I didn't have the money, but I was forced to do it. It was a totally grotesque lunch, when she forced Minton to admit he had never read Lolita; the ultimate humiliation scene. In the evening, we met again, and I asked Iris Owens to come with us to help control the situation. We went to a lesbian nightclub where Walter and Rosemary continued fighting. At one point it came to fisticuffs. Walter tried to punch Rosemary. Rosemary took Walter's glasses and threw them on the dance floor. And the next day Walter left, and Rosemary was in my bed. I made Walter a rich man, as I usually do to people. He was not very good at publishing, but he listened to that girl for other reasons, and it paid off immensely.
And Mason, well Mason... he was in Paris, you know, and I had this fantastic nightclub, and he would stand on the sidewalk across the street for hours and hours and hours looking at the people coming in and out. You know, watching the place, and hating me for the fact that I was displaying all those things which he felt that he contributed to. That was before Putnam but after the publication of Candy in Paris. One day, he walked into the nightclub. There was a bar at the entrance where I was usually sitting getting drunk. And he sat down next to me very quietly. I said, "Hello, Mason." And he said, "Do you have a pen?" So I gave him my pen, and I turned around to the woman I was talking to, and when I turned back to talk to Mason, he had gone. I asked the bartender, "Where's that fellow with my pen?" And he said, "He just walked out." Well, this is just what I imagine, but at that point he signed a contract with Walter Minton. And I think he needed my pen to sign that contract. So that is the story of Candy.
You've published one volume of memoirs and are working on a second. Do you have any inclination to finish it?
No... No. I have to be quite honest about it. I'm just a broken-down ex-publisher. I've known it, I've seen it, I hate having to write about it. I can do it in a funny way, but that doesn't do justice to it.
Maybe I don't have the distance to do it yet. What I've written is okay. Some funny stories. The entire paraphernalia about bribing the receiver in the Donleavy case, for instance. There was a trip to Holland with the money concealed in my shirt. There was a huge amount of French money on me, you know, and I had to go to Holland from Paris, but I'm still a French citizen, and there's a law about getting out of the country with any sum of money more than a pittance. I had this fortune on me, and I'm totally drunk as usual. I'm in the taxi on the way to the train, and I realize I have this money in my pockets, and at the customs I am going to get into trouble, as usual. So I stuck it under my shirt. And I reached the train just in the nick of time. I sit down, totally exhausted. And I feel a bowel movement. A nightmare. I sit down and there's an immense relief of being seated, and at the same time letting your bowels express themselves. I am sort of dazed, and looking behind my thighs, I see the Sistine Chapel with shrapnel explosions. I don't understand what I am seeing, what I am looking at, and I discover it is all those banknotes which have fallen down the shirt. When I understand this, I break into immense laughter, and wake up from my daze. I try to get up, you know, and there is a washing thing there, and so I take my pants down and wash my dirty bank notes. You know, my dirty money. Which I do as best I can, and I wrap it in a bunch of Kleenex and put it in my pocket. I have an extravagant experience in Amsterdam, and get right back to Paris. The next day I am sitting in front of my receiver who I always bribe when I come to Paris. And the next step is the Olympia auction sale. So this last time, I bribe him with the notes I have in my pockets. And those bank notes are still smelly... I don't know where cause and effect combine in the prodigal incident.
Maurice Girodias, c. 1926