The Walls of Jericho
As I pulled up to the address on Jericho Lane, about the only expectation that I had was that I was about to meet a very interesting and accomplished guy whose summer house was some kind of mansion, the kind you would expect to find near the ocean in East Hampton. I was half right.
It was a Quonset hut; glass and wood… and cinderblocks! There were no shingles anywhere. I noticed that someone had been working on the lovely gardens that surrounded the hut, and that this someone was going into the house as I arrived and did not see me. I also noticed that there were no other cars in the driveway with Connecticut plates, so the person who had invited me here, Edward deGrazia, was certainly not here yet.
I had been invited to the summer home of Barney Rosset, the CEO of publisher Grove Press, a person whose work I had admired since high school. Back then, it was because I had read so many Grove publications, from Samuel Beckett to Bertolt Brecht to Henry Miller. But after my one year of law school, studying the constitutional law of the Warren court, I began to appreciate Mr. Rosset as a champion of free speech, and the most relentless and successful antagonist of censorship. It was June 1973, and I was 22. I had met Ed deGrazia in New Haven, who was doing a post-doc at the law school and who had represented Grove in some of the better-known censorship cases. Ed had suggested that I meet Barney, because there was something that needed to be done on behalf of Grove, something that would be better done by a law student with time on his hands then by a practicing lawyer who would be very expensive. Even though I had absolutely no time on my hands, I eagerly accepted without even knowing what the work involved and whether I would be paid or not.
I walked up through a pathway surrounded by gorgeous flowers and plantings and, not seeing a bell, I knocked on the door. The door was opened by what I first assumed was the gardener, whose hands were covered with dirt. He looked at me with a stare that could be used to freeze fish. He opened the door wide and muttered “you’re early.”
I walked into the truly remarkable interior of that Quonset hut and waited in silence while he washed his hands. He gestured me to follow him out back where we sat at a table and chairs and he started to warm up. He was a small but wiry man about 50, with an obvious intelligence and a striking intensity, both quite noticeable even during our awkward attempt at introduction and lubricating small talk. Later on, as I got to know him, I realized that that cold stare and awkward conversation when we met were signs of an unexpected shyness— he was the only person I have ever known who somehow managed to be very aggressive and very shy at the same time.
Ed finally arrived and we got into a discussion of why I was there. Ed explained that Barney and Grove press wanted to make use of the then relatively new Freedom of Information Act. Of course I asked what we were trying to find, which started Barney on a diatribe that lasted almost a full hour. He explained that he was regarded as a threat to national security by various agencies of the government. He told me that he was being followed night and day. He told me that he was certain his movements and politics had been tracked since he was in the OSS in 1945. He told me that the CIA had bombed the Grove press offices in 1968….
“But I thought that that credit for that bombing was claimed by an anti-Castro Cuban group” I said.
“Well” said Barney, “we were being attacked for publishing Che’s diary; we were just as much the enemy of the CIA as we were of the anti-Castro groups, which were probably all fronts for the CIA anyway.”
At that point it occurred to me that perhaps I had wasted my time. Perhaps this diminutive guy was actually just completely paranoid. Later as I was driving back to New Haven, it struck me that it was in fact much more likely that he was crazy then that the CIA had bombed his offices. On the other hand, I figured that it might be fun to get to know Barney and get to know the Grove Press operation, even if I spent many minimum-waged hours figuring out the Freedom of Information Act and requesting files that almost certainly did not exist. Finally, I decided to go ahead on the theory that 1973 was still the ‘60s, and anything was possible.
I spent the next few weeks in Manhattan learning the statute and writing the required letters of inquiry to several government agencies. The FBI, the office of Army intelligence, and of course that pinnacle of evil, the CIA. The statute prescribed time frames for the agencies to respond, and provided seven (now nine) exceptions to the overall rule that information requested should be disclosed. Of course the most significant of these was the national security exception.
The responses started to come in shortly after classes began in September. I hadn’t been expecting much but when the secretary at Barney’s office called to tell me that I had gotten a package from the CIA, I did feel a certain sense of excitement. I let Ed know what was going on and immediately drove into Manhattan, despite the fact that I would have to miss some afternoon classes. As it turned out, I would miss a lot of classes that fall.
To my absolute amazement, the package was almost 2 inches thick. It has a long coversheet covering each page of the disclosure, explaining why certain expurgations had been made on each page. The CIA had sent me 234 pages of the files that they had kept on Barney Rosset and Grove Press. It wasn’t very interesting reading though, because virtually every word had been blocked out on every page except for articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and a few adjectives. A typical sentence read “On… the subject… but… nonetheless.”
I guess he wasn’t crazy.
Over the course of the next year or two, after going back and forth with many agencies and fighting for every word of disclosure, it was clear that the government had been following Barney Rosset since 1945. In that year, while stationed in China as a member of the OSS, he had made the mistake of writing what could only have been interpreted as a salacious love letter to a Japanese woman in New York who was on “the list” of suspected Japanese agents. That caused the Army to open a file on him, which contained a copy of the letter, indicating that in wartime – or perhaps anytime– the sanctity of the United States mail was highly suspect at best.
In sum, the files we retrieved from the government— literally thousands of pages from half a dozen agencies— proved definitively that it was the government that was paranoid, not Barney. He had been followed, literally as well as figuratively, for three decades. The FBI went so far as to interview many people from his past, including a second grade teacher in Chicago where Barney was born. In reporting his conversation with that teacher, the FBI agent started with the following line: “The subject was left-handed.” This became the working title of Barney’s autobiography, which was published only very recently. Both he and I found that one line to be emblematic of the absurdity of the government’s entire effort– was there anything that could have been more irrelevant to national security?
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Barney and I would spend many hours going through the responses from the government agencies, framing new questions, and comparing results with files that Barney himself had kept. We often did the work on weekends, when I had no classes and he had more time, at the Quonset hut. By this process I came to know Barney intimately, perhaps as intimately as anyone else in his life, and that intimacy provoked wide-ranging discussions on many subjects in the lush surroundings of Jericho Lane.
When that Quonset hut, which was built by Robert Motherwell, was destroyed it was truly a sad day for both of us. I still miss it, and for the last few years I have been missing Barney as well.