The Good, the Bad, and the Obscene. By: Angus Carroll.

Reproduced here courtesy of the author. Originally published in Fine Books Magazine July 2010.

When my father died in 1995, I found a half-dozen green paperbacks in his office, his own book included—Bottoms Up—all volumes in the now infamous Traveller’s Companion Series. Not realizing what I was getting into, I thought it would be fun to collect the set. Thus began my ten-year odyssey with the Olympia Press.

From a handful of “greenies” to editing the definitive bibliography by Patrick Kearney, it has been a fascinating adventure—one day poring over obscure French laws, one day tracking down an unknown variant of Lolita. And one day opening a newly arrived package at the kitchen table. It was White Thighs by Frances Lengel (one of Alexander Trocchi’s pseudonyms). Of course, my wife Susan came into the room at that very moment. She looked at the book and then at me. I said, “It’s part of the series.” She turned and walked out of the room. “It’s part of the series,” I called after her, but she was gone.

The Olympia Press was founded by Maurice Girodias in Paris in 1953. Continuing his father’s legacy as a fearless, avant-garde publisher (his father, Jack Kahane, had published James Joyce, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller), Girodias (who took his mother’s maiden name during the war) was the first to publish The Ginger Man, The Naked Lunch, and—most famously—Lolita.

Girodias attracted the attention of the French authorities long before he founded the Olympia Press. Although he started his publishing career innocently enough in 1940 with a weekly directory of Paris theatres, Paris-Programme, and followed that with a number of high-quality art books published under the Editions du Chêne imprint, in 1946 he published a French edition of Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn that was immediately banned, the first time the French government had moved against a book since Flaubert’sMadame Bovary a century before. He won that battle, but then published (in English) Miller’s Sexus in 1949 under his father’s resurrected imprint, the Obelisk Press. That book was banned outright in all languages. Thus, by 1950, he had established a reputation as a publisher of the risqué if not the pornographic.

In 1951, Girodias lost control of Editions du Chêne (and thus also Obelisk Press) to Hachette, the largest publisher in France. Over the next few years he did very little (his own words) before launching the Olympia Press, named after Manet’s scandalous painting.

It was not long before he was once again in hot water. Indeed, the first book off the press was Miller’s Plexus, which more or less set the tone for the new enterprise. From the pornographic to the experimental, from first English translations to modern classics, Girodias published a bizarre mix of the good, the bad, and the obscene.

Ironically, Girodias was, to some degree, a victim of his own success. Once censorship laws in the U.S. and U.K. were repealed, the market for “dirty books” was never the same. Girodias moved to New York in the late 1960s to capitalize on new publishing freedoms in the U.S., but the company went bankrupt in the early 1970s. He published his last book in 1974 and died in Paris in 1990 at the age of 71

The Good, the Bad, and the Obscene

In 1998, having collected about half of the titles in the Traveller’s Companion Series, I arranged to meet Patrick Kearney, widely recognized as the bibliographic expert on the Olympia Press. I called him when I was planning to be in San Francisco—he lives in Santa Rosa. When I arrived at his house he immediately gave me a tour of his collection. That’s when I realized I knew next to nothing about the Olympia Press. I had not even heard of some of the books he showed me. And beyond books, there were catalogues, booklets, and magazines, to say nothing of cancelled dust jackets, freaks, and piracies.

It is safe to say, from a bibliographic standpoint, that no one knows more about the Olympia Press than Kearney. He has been collecting Olympia since the early sixties when he was a “runner,” smuggling copies of the Traveller’s Companion Series into England from France. He would sell them to “Sammy,” his London connection. Kearney recalled their meetings were like a scene from a bad spy movie. They would meet in an underground coffee shop and Kearney would hand over the goods in a brown paper bag. Sammy—who actually wore dark glasses for the exchanges—would slip the money across the table in a used window envelope for the North Thames Gas Board.

His most anxious moment as a runner came when he was travelling from Paris to London with his parents and he couldn’t fit all his contraband into his jacket. He had nowhere to put the seven-volume set of Juliette by the Marquis de Sade. “My father stuffed them in his pockets,” Kearney told me. “He was fine with it, but my mother nearly had a nervous breakdown. She was sure we would get caught.”

But they crossed the border without incident. In fact the only time Kearney was ever stopped by customs was on his way into France in 1960. “I was reading a book called La Gangrene,” Kearney recalled, “which was very critical of the French government and the role it played in Algerian affairs, up to and including torturing suspected terrorists. I had the book under my arm when I came to customs, the man there literally snatched it away from me. He said, ‘That’s not allowed here.’” If only he had known what books Kearney usually carried across the border between France and England.

Kearney met Girodias several times in Paris in the early eighties. Once, when Kearney mentioned he was having a hard time finding a copy of L’Affaire Lolita, Girodias gave him a signed copy the next time he saw him. “He was a real gentleman,” Kearney said. “Sadly, by then he was down on his luck and living in an awful, run-down government apartment. I remember he had scotch-tape on the cuffs of his jacket to keep them from fraying any further.”

Fortune would smile on Girodias one more time, though not for long. In 1990, after publishing the second volume of his autobiography—Une journée sur la terre: Les jardins d’Eros, which covered the period of the Olympia Press—Girodias was once again in the spotlight. Sadly, he died shortly thereafter during a radio interview.

Kearney published a checklist in 1975 and a short bibliography in 1987, but he had learned much since then. He showed me the updated version on his computer when I visited him in California. It was much more detailed than the 1987 edition and included a significant number of new titles, printings, and variants. I told him, “We have to get this published.”

Sex sells, but books about books that sell sex, don’t. Few bibliographies hit the bestseller list. We figured we would have to publish it ourselves. Print-on-demand services are rarely the way to fame and fortune for works of fiction (marketing and distribution being critical success factors), but they are well suited to reference works, where sales potential is limited, and—a bonus—the work never goes out of print.

Thus, we set up the work as a document to be published with a print-on-demand (POD) provider, formatted the materials, and discussed cover designs. The main shortcoming with a POD solution was that we could not have a color section illustrating the books. Nevertheless, we thought it our only option.

Over the next few years, literally thousands of emails went out to collectors, libraries, and booksellers. No fact was too small to be run down (“Does the tail of the ‘R’ in BEDROOM extend below the text on the title page of your copy of The Bedroom Philosophers?”). At the same time, we continued to make new discoveries: an issue of Merlin published by the Olympia Press; two large, coffee-table books on architecture published by Girodias in 1955 (Sicile Grecque andSaint-Philbert de Tournus). FedEx packages went back and forth between Kearney and Steve Mullins, a leading collector in London, and details were checked with John de St. Jorre, the author of Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press and its Writers.

We were just wrapping up when our luck changed. Through the grapevine we heard Liverpool University Press was planning to publish a book on the Obelisk Press. A quick email to Liverpool resulted in a contract. They thought the Olympia Press bibliography the perfect companion to the Obelisk bibliography.

Our publishing problem solved, we focused on finalizing the manuscript. The bibliography covers hundreds of titles, printings, issues, and variants and every entry had to be double-checked. When the galleys came, we went over every word again. As any author or editor knows, it is impossible to catch every error. Because everyone was focused on the text, no one read the blurb on the back cover, which states Kearney is the author of A History of Gothic Literature, which, of course, should be Erotic Literature.

The Paris Olympia Press finally came out in early 2008, ten years after my visit to Kearney’s house in 1998. For Kearney, it was the culmination of a lifetime of collecting and study, a capstone to his career as an Olympia runner, collector, and ultimately, bibliographer.

Still, there was one last chapter to be written. Having completed his labor of love, Kearney put his collection up for sale at Christie’s. On Thursday, June 12, 2008, Lot No. 206—Kearney’s entire Olympia Press Collection, comprising over 400 volumes (it took eight full pages to describe)—went under the hammer.

The collection was bought by Princeton University Library. It is now part of Princeton’s rare book collection, not to be broken up and sold piece by piece, but kept together as a collection, a focal point for the study of censorship in the twentieth century.

In point of fact, it is only because it was a bibliographer’s collection that it caught the attention of Stephen Ferguson, curator of rare books at Princeton. “When a collection formed by a bibliographer, rather than by a collector, comes on the market, I take special notice,” Ferguson said. “The chief reason is that bibliographers tend to be more aware of what research libraries are interested in supplying to the scholar: variant issues, special issues, items in original condition, publishers’ catalogs and ads, etc., all of which are vital aspects of publishing history.”

No. 86 in the Traveller’s Companion Series was Bottoms Up, by Jock Carroll (the author’s father). The heroine of the book, Gloria Heaven, was based on Marilyn Monroe. Carroll, a photojournalist, had met Monroe on the set of the movie Niagara in 1952 while on assignment for Weekend Magazine.

Unable to get Bottoms Uppublished in Canada or the United States, Carroll turned to Girodias as a last resort. Unlike North American publishers who thought the book had too much sex in it, Girodias didn’t think it had enough. He asked Carroll to spice it up, which he did.

Princeton is no newcomer to the history of publishing. The University’s special collections include the archives of G.P. Putnam and Sons, Henry Holt, Charles Scribner’s Sons, D. Van Nostrand, Harper & Brothers, and many others. But the Olympia Press collection represented a special opportunity. “Civil authority versus individual liberty is an on-going conversation,” Ferguson said. “This collection helps document a fascinating chapter in that dialog, and as such can help support important future research.”

As the (self-proclaimed) Publisher Who Defeated Censorship, I think Girodias would have been happy to know that future scholars will use the Olympia Press collection to understand the history of censorship—and the role he played in it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s