I’ve always been a collector of controversial books and in particular of early erotic novels, so in the end my researches tuned into a rather pleasant process.
So pleasant in fact that I decided to dedicate an entire essay to French publishing house Olympia Press.
I'm going to dedicate to it today's post first to continue the thread about censorship I started yesterday with the Guy Bourdin post, second because I wouldn’t mind seeing the iconic and legendary Olympia Press covers being used as prints for luxurious scarves (imagine an Olympia Press collection - maybe featuring also the artwork taken from my favourite Olympia Press title, Paul Ableman’s I Hear Voices...). So let's start from the beginning.
In 1931 the Girodias settled down in Paris. Here they soon realised that the post-War years hid two dark aspects, puritanism and censorship: Joyce's Ulysses was banned in the States while in England books were burnt.
Thanks to some kindled spirits, literature kept on flourishing breaking from its traditional forms and techniques: Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company Bookshop's owner, bought the rights for Ulysses and published it, giving the inspiration to Robert McAlmon, Edward Titus, Nancy Cunard, Water Lowenfels and Gertrude Stein to fund their own imprints and start publishing challenging texts.
After striking a partnership with Marcel Servant, Kahane founded The Obelisk Press, whose symbol, an obelisk on a book, probably suggested a lingam and yoni. The aim of the Obelisk Press was to be a haven for "English and American writers who had something to say that they could not conveniently say in their own countries," as Kahane explained in his biography.
One of the titles listed in the Obelisk Press catalogue was written by Kahane himself who, under the name 'Cecil Barr', published Suzy Falls Off, Bright Pink Youth and Daffodil. Kahane also published the controversial The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, a lesbian novel that was put to trial in Britain in 1928.
Generally, Kahane intervened to acquire the rights of a book when it had been condemned for obscenity in England and America and when its publishers had to pay all the court expenses and lost all the money invested in the book.
Kahane got the rights for the books at a little cost, bounded them with the Obelisk Press cover and sold them. The sales of the books went well since they usually received good publicity from the courts that, with their bans, aroused the curiosity of the readers.
A few titles published were Storm by Peter Neagoe, a Romanian author who wrote in English whose novel had been declared obscene by a US court; Norah C. James' Sleeveless Errand, another lesbian saga also banned in Britain; James Hanley's Boy and The Young and Evil, the joint product of Parker Tyler and Charles-Henri Ford, a homosexual novel, and Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool, a decadent story.
Kahane also bought Harris' biography My Lives and Loves: its four volumes came out while Harris promised a fifth to be in the works, but Kahane was still waiting for the one and only manuscript which would have brought to the literary world a new star.
Fortunately, he soon found it when the literary agent William Aspenwall Bradley sent him the work of an obscure American writer, Henry Miller. The book was entitled Tropic of Cancer and its author was defined by Girodias as "a middle-aged American, unknown, stranded in Paris, apparently living off the land, a sort of literary clochard."
Servant thought that publishing Tropic of Cancer would have been a risk, since it had never been banned, nor prosecuted, hence it wasn't gullible from the gourmands of solid erotica.
Miller on the contrary thought that Kahane wasn't keen on publishing his book because of its sexual content. In the end Tropic of Cancer was published two years after the contract had been signed, in 1934, when Anaïs Nin, Miller's mistress, gave Kahane the money to pay the printing bill.
In 1937, Tropic of Cancer had sold 600 copies and Miller's fame was growing in the States. In the same year The Obelisk Press separated from Servant and, in the late '30s, a friend of Kahane, Michel Bogouslawsky, aroused in Jack the first fears of the spreading tentacles of censorship in France by telling him, “I'm surprised that you haven't given a thought to the importance of censorship (…) but it's enormous. It's always discussed as something alien from us, as if it were a monstrous invention of Hitler's but it has existed everywhere for a long time. (…) What are the benefits of censorship? First of all, the preservation of government authority! The citizen, reads what he is told to read by the State or by its newspaper. Then you have sexual frustration organized on a national scale (…) The spirit of independence is cut down to its lowest common denominator. The State needs censorship to maintain itself alive.”
Kahane's publishing house kept on selling books, turning into a safe harbour for those "who wanted to write freely, outside any censorship parameters." The Obelisk Press started the Villa Seurat series with three titles, Miller's Max and the White Phagocytes, financed by Obelisk, Winter of Artifice (1939), written by Anaïs Nin and financed by Larry Durrell, and The Black Book (1939; published in 1959 by Olympia Press) written by Durrell and financed by Anaïs Nin. The list of the Obelisk books also included fragments of Finnegans Wake and Pomes Pennyeach by James Joyce.
Soon, Girodias who re-christened his father "a latter-day Zorro of the literary world," sadly witnessed things changing, not only for the Obelisk Press, but also for the whole world. Hitler occupied Prague on 15 March 1939, Daladier got to the power while Georges Duhamel became chief of the Hitlerian propaganda in France and his first job, as Girodias acknowledged, was "to organize censorship over all books and newspapers printed in France."
On April 1939 a French censorship law passed, what Daladier called law for the protection "of the French Family and National Birthrate." The dark shadow of censorship reached Obelisk Press and its representatives: Jack Kahane died on 2 September 1939, while Miller had run away from Paris long before, and Jack's family was seriously thinking of leaving the French capital.
Girodias took on the job of his father and, after getting in touch with the editor Hachette, started publishing pocket editions in English of various best sellers. It was in this period that Maurice finally decided to adopt his mother's name, Girodias, after the Germans entered Paris in June 1940, since Kahane was a Jewish surname.
Thanks also to André Lejard, Girodias started in 1941 a publishing house dedicated to art books, Les Editions du Chêne, a new venture that established his fame at twenty-one as "the youngest publisher in Paris."
It is while Girodias was working at Les Editions du Chêne that he had to fight the first battles: the title Le Pain de la Corruption (The Bread of Corruption, 1947) by Yves Farge was put under trial by the minister for food who was attacked in the book. Girodias won this first battle in the same way he won the second crusade, what became known as "L'Affaire Miller".
The French government prosecuted Girodias under a law against obscene publications passed in 1939. The whole thing took two years to be discussed, but in the end the government dropped the case.
A funny story about Miller's book appeared on the New York Herald Tribune in the late 1940s, recounting the experience of a schoolteacher in Paris. The schoolteacher was highly pleased to see wherever she went in Paris, young people reading copies of Jane Eyre. Her complacency ended when, happening to find an abandoned copy of Jane Eyre on a deck chair, she picked it up and discovered inside Henry Miller's twin volumes Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn: to escape censorship Girodias had indeed reprinted Henry Miller's works putting the title "Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte" on their cover instead of the true title and name of the author.
Exit Les Editions du Chêne, enter Olympia Press, founded in Paris in the Spring of 1953. Its editor took its name bearing in mind his father's publishing house and also being inspired by Manet's painting, Olympia, which, hung in the Salon of Paris in 1865, was highly criticised for portraying a courtesan staring at the audience in their eyes.
Olympia, based at 13 Rue Jacob on the Left bank, aimed at publishing English texts which were subjected to be banned if published in Britain or in the States.
Olympia had its equal in the States in the Grove Press, founded in 1952 by Barney Rosset and responsible for publishing D.H.Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959. Rosset also bought the rights of Miller's books, writing to the publisher Hachette saying that he was "personally anxious to publish the books [Cancer and Capricorn], both because I have always admired them, and because I have started with Lady Chatterley a battle against censorship which I would like to carry on."
Olympia's debut was marked, in the summer of 1953, by the publication of Miller's Plexus in two volumes, the first publication of the translation of the Marquis De Sade's La Philosophie dans le Boudoir (The Bedroom Philosophers), Guillaume Apollinaire's Mémoirs d'un Jeune Don Juan (Memoirs of a Young Rakehell) and Georges Bataille's L'Histoire de L'Oeil (A Tale of Satisfied Desire), published under the pseudonym Pierre Angélique.
It is in this period that Girodias met the group of writers, translators and editors connected with the Merlin magazine.
Merlin, financed by Alice Jane Lougee, was interested in creative writing and one of its founders, Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, saw it as a ”means of combating the rigidity of opinion.”
Trocchi, American writer and translator Austryn Wainhouse, American translator Richard (Dick) Seaver, British poet Christopher Logue, writers John Coleman and Baird Bryant (the former British, the latter American) and British journalist and writer John ('Steve') Stevenson were all part of the Merlin fraternity and Beckett used to call them "Merlin juvelines".
The Merlinois, as Girodias called them, were responsible for having discovered Samuel Beckett, for publishing an extract of Watt on their magazine and later for publishing the whole novel under their own imprint, called Collection Merlin with Girodias as its manager.
Watt came out in July 1953, while Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable were translated by Paul Bowles and published in 1959.
In return Girodias used the Merlinois to translate French novels into English and put the Collection Merlin books on the Olympia list.
Later, Girodias suggested the Merlinois to start a series of erotic novels and the Merlinois accepted: Trocchi, who "relished the opportunity which erotic writing gave him to raise two fingers to the bow-legged of the establishment," turned into 'Frances Lengel' (an FL was a common name for condom also called at the time 'French letter' in Trocchi's native Glasgow ) and wrote a modern version of Fanny Hill, Helen and Desire, then as 'Carmencita de Las Lunas' produced Thongs, as 'Oscar Mole' did a few translations and also collaborated in producing what was meant to be the fifth volume of Frank Harris's biography, An Irreverent Treatment (reprinted as What Frank Harris Did Not Say); Christopher Logue turned into 'Count Palmiro Vicarion' and produced Lust and Count Palmiro Vicarion's Book of Bawdy Ballads; John Coleman wrote as 'Henry Jones' The Enormous Bed and as 'Stephen Hammer' produced The Itch; Baird Bryant became 'Willie Baron' and wrote Play My Love; John Stevenson became 'Marcus van Heller' and wrote Rape, followed by The Loins of Amon, Roman Orgy and The House of Borgia, all of the three erotic tales based on different historical periods; Austryn Wainhouse and Dick Seaver limited their activities at translations.
The books, published in the 'Traveller's Companion Series', appeared in plain green covers, with the title and the name of the author in black framed in a double border. The titles came out in 5,000 copies and the author was paid a flat fee.
John de St Jorre, author of the book The Good Ship Venus: the Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press, recounts the story of how what they called in code DBs, dirty books, were produced: "When he (Girodias) ran out of money, new titles and blurbs for imaginary books would be invented, printed up in a brochure and despatched around the world to the faithful clientele."
Sometimes Girodias himself wrote the blurbs for the books and then a proper plot was developed. Wicked Salomes were evoked out of the imaginations of the Merlinois engaged in finding first class erotica characters in their minds. "I usually printed five thousand copies of each book, and paid a flat fee for the manuscript which, although modest, formed the substance of many an expatriate budget," Girodias wrote, “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, tempting them with such titles as White Thighs, The Chariot of Flesh, The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe, With Open Mouth, etc. 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.”
Olympia moved to new premises in the rue de Nesle in 1954 and, amazingly enough, readers started going on pilgrimages there just to meet their idols, imaginary heroes and heroines of the erotic literature world such as ‘Frances Lengel' or 'Harriet Daimler'.
As the publishing house expanded, Girodias founded new imprints such as Ophelia Press, Ophir Books and Othello Books, while new writers and new titles were added to the list: Norman Rubington, better known as 'Akbar Del Piombo', wrote Who Pushed Paula, followed by Skirts, Cosimo's Wife and The Double-Bellied Companion, though he is probably better known for his cut and paste absurd collages Fuzz Against Junk: The Saga of the Narcotics Brigade or The Hero Maker and The Boiler Maker; Mason Hoffenberg and Terry Southern wrote Candy; Iris Owens, or 'Harriet Daimler', wrote Darling, The Organization and The Woman Thing and co-wrote with Marilyn Meeske, who went under the pseudonym of 'Henry Crananch', The Pleasure Thieves and wrote Flesh and Bone while editing Girodias literary review, Olympia; Tender Was My Flesh was written by Denny Bryant, Baird's wife, under the pseudonym 'Winifred Drake'; Diane Bataille, Georges' wife, was the author of The Whip Angels signed as 'XXX', while the mysterious 'Ataullah Mardaan', probably a Pakistani woman, wrote Kama Houri and Deva-Dasi.
Austryn Wainhouse, who used the pseudonym 'Pieralessandro Casavini', translated De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, Justine and Juliette, and Bataille's Madame Edwarda; Alexander Trocchi translated, under the pseudonym ‘Oscar Mole’, Apollinaire's Les Onze Mille Verges (The Eleven Thousand Rods) changing the title into The Debauched Hospodar. Genette's works, The Thief's Journal and Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs (Our Lady of the Flowers) were also published together with the classics by Restif de la Bretonne L'Anti-Justine, ou les Délices de l'Amour, translated by Wainhouse as Pleasures and Follies of a Good-Natured Libertine.
Other titles were the anonymous Le Livre Blanc (The White Paper), illustrated by Jean Cocteau, Michel Gall's The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe signed as 'Humphrey Richardson' and House of Joy by Sinclair Beiles who duped Olympia by selling Girodias this revisitation of Psi Men and His Many Wives, a Chinese classic, under the pseudonym of 'Wu Wu Meng'; The Chariot of Flesh by 'Malcolm Nesbit', or rather Alfred Chester; The Whipping Club, The Whipping Post, Whips Incorporated, Whipsdom, There's a Whip in My Valise by the mysterious 'Angela Pearson' and 'Greta X' two of the most successful names of Olympia Press which were actually pen names used by an Englishman who later pursued a respectable career; Pinktoes by Chester Himes, The American Express by Gregory Corso and I Hear Voices by Paul Ableman.
The heydays of the Olympia Press, the mid-1950s, were for Girodias "great fun," as he later recalled: "the Anglo-Saxon world was being attacked, invaded, infiltrated, out-flanked and conquered by this erotic armada. The Dickensian schoolmasters of England were convulsed with helpless rage, the judges' hair was standing on end beneath their wigs, black market prices in New York and London for our green-backed products were soaring to fantastic heights."
Olympia expanded opening branches in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and the UK, while generally sales on a local basis were carried out through local bookshops such as Gait Froge's English bookshop or Brentano's which dedicated a section to the Olympia books. But, as fame spread, the news about a publishing house printing fine erotica books reached the French authorities and La Brigade Mondaine.
"Books were taken away", John de St Jorre writes, “banning orders issued, and lawsuits initiated and contested. Girodias also adopted other tactics. Knowing that the wordliness of the police did not extend to an understanding of the English language, he played tricks with his books' titles. When the government put Trocchi's first DB, Helen and Desire, on it proscribed list, Girodias swiftly reissued it as Desire and Helen. The book successfully avoided detection - the vice squad were apparently moving alphabetically down Olympia's list - and sold briskly.”
But, in the same way as his father Jack waited for the next Joyce to come and knock on his office door with a manuscript under his arm, Girodias faithfully waited for a new author to arrive to Paris with a fresh manuscript. Maurice didn’t have to wait for a long time: soon he received two manuscripts, the first was J.P.Donleavy's Sebastian Dangerfield.
Donleavy's book had already been rejected in the States by Charles Scribner on the basis that it was obscene, and when its author sent it to France, it was held by the French Customs and then released. Girodias thought it was publishing material, but suggested to change its title. Donleavy submitted as new title The Ginger Man, and Girodias gladly accepted it. Assuming that Olympia was going to publish his book under the same imprint that produced Watt, Donleavy didn't choose a pseudonym to sign his book with, but insisted on publishing the book under his real name.
The Ginger Man was published in Paris in 1955 and when Donleavy received his copy he was highly disappointed to find that his precious manuscript was no.7 on a list of the most disparate erotic titles. Offended, Donleavy tried to sell his book to the British market, working out a contract with Neville Armstrong, agreeing to cut an episode in Chapter X to avoid the British laws against obscenity.
From here on a bitter battle over the copyright of the book started between Donleavy and Girodias, a battle that intensified when the book was going to be turned into a film in the mid-1960s, and which lasted from 1956 till the late 1960s when The Olympia Press went bankrupt. The dispute finally concluded in the spring of 1970 when Donleavy bought at an auction the publishing house.
The second manuscript was recommended by Madame Doussia Ergaz, it was written by a Russian émigré, Vladimir Nabokov, who had become an American citizen and who was teaching at Cornell University. The manuscript – already rejected by many publishers – was entitled Lolita.
Those were terrible years in the States for what concerns censorship and most of the American publishers had explained Nabokov that they would have published his work under his real name, but Nabokov insisted on publishing it under a pen name. Lolita came out in September 1955 in Paris, published in two volumes and not under a nom de plume.
The response of the audience wasn't that great, at least until Graham Greene, noticed it thanks to Donleavy. Interest started being aroused and Lolita became more famous as days passed, so famous that the French government noticed it and banned it.
"One day a police inspector of the Vice Squad …visited me,” Girodias recalled, “He wanted some reading copies of a number of books listed in our latest catalogue. I obliged (…) The policeman made no difficulty in explaining that the British government had requested information about The Olympia Press, and that it was his job to build up a file on us."
By signing an official decree on 20 December 1956, the Minister of the Interior banned twenty Olympia Press books, among them there was also Lolita. The truth was that France had banned these books being under pressure from the UK and the whole thing resulted in a series of controversies since Henry Miller and Frank Harris, banned on the Olympia Press list, were already available in France in French editions and J.P. Donleavy's Ginger Man, also banned, was freely published in England. Lolita, banned in English, was in the process of being translated into French. Girodias sued the Ministry of the Interior and asked Nabokov to give him some help in what Nabokov himself mythically came to call "lolitigation". According to Nabokov, his defence of the book was the book itself, so he never tried to help Girodias in the various trials and cases.
In early 1958, all the banned Olympia books were released, but when General de Gaulle took over, censorship was strengthened, the Minister of the Interior appealed to the tribunal's decision and the English version of Lolita was banned again, while the French version was published by Gallimard.
Maurice had another idea: “since the French version of Lolita had been authorised while my own English edition was still under a ban, I had yet another way open to me: to sue the government for damages, under the pretext that an unjust application of the law had been made, and that the republican principal equality between citizens had been violated. Surprisingly, that worked. I was called to the Ministry of the interior, and a compromise was proposed to me: the minister was willing to cancel the ban if I agreed to withdraw my request for damages. I agreed and the ban was finally abrogated on July 21, 1959, signed by…(the minister) himself.”
In the States the situation was still critical, though books with a particular artistic value were put under the First Amendment of the Constitution and saved from being considered obscene. Girodias had discovered that one or two copies of Lolita sent from Paris to the States had been confiscated by the Customs, but then released, so he thought that Lolita could have been printed legally in the States as well. But war broke out between Girodias and Nabokov over the copyright of the book, over payments due to the author and over the fact that Girodias had reprinted a new edition of the book with his own introduction. Putnam finally published Lolita in 1958: though it was never prosecuted in the States, many libraries refused to put the book in stock.
In Britain the book was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1959, after a war was sedated between the defenders of Lolita and the conservatives. Nigel Nicolson, Weidenfeld partner and a conservative MP, lost his seat in the Parliament for having insisted on publishing Lolita.
Both Girodias and Nabokov anyway gained enormous amounts of money from the release of the book: Nabokov retired from Cornell University, Girodias opened a personal Disneyland, La Grande Séverine, a three floor fantasy, comprehensive of two Parisian nightclubs, a Russian cabaret room, a Brazilian club, a jazz club and a theatre.
Girodias' income was increased also by the publication of other titles: in December 1956 the American writer Mason Hoffenberg arrived in the French capital. Hoffenberg was already known by Girodias as he had published for Olympia Until She Screams under the pen name of 'Faustino Perez' and Sin For Breakfast under the nom de plume 'Hamilton Drake'.
Together with Terry Southern, Hoffenberg had written a modern version of Voltaire's Candide. Candy, signed under the pen name of 'Maxwell Kenton', came out in October 1958 and was n. 64 in the Olympia Traveller's Companion Series. Candy fell victim of The Brigade Mondaine as soon as it was published, so Girodias reprinted it again under the title Lollipop, managing in this way to escape censorship.
Candy was published in the States in 1964 and another bitter war about the copyright of the book started and lasted till the novel became a film (featuring Ringo Starr, Richard Burton and Charles Aznavour among the others - the Italian version of the poster was designed by artist and illustrator Manfredo Acerbo) in the late 1960s.
Four years before Candy's publication, Girodias published Histoire d'O penned by Pauline Réage, whose real name was Anne Desclos, though she also wrote under the name Dominique Aury. Story of O appeared in English and French in 1954. It was Jean-Jacques Pauvert, a twenty-five year old editor who mentioned O to Girodias while he was preparing the original French version for publication. O was translated by Baird Bryant and it received the Prix des Deux Magots, acquiring a certain literary fame and attracting the attention of the government. Pauvert and Girodias were called by the police who asked them who was O's author, but neither of them revealed the name of O's mother and, after a while, the Minister of Justice himself issued a decree ending all the proceedings against Story of O.
The French version of O was free to circulate, but Girodias's English edition ran into problems that consequently took the publisher to change the title from O to The Wisdom of the Lash. The new book was translated again by Austryn Wainhouse, as he remembers, "The Vice Squad ordered the seizure of a number of copies of the English edition of Story of O. But the book was never officially banned and the police eventually turned their attention elsewhere."
Pauvert sold the rights to Rosset at Grove Press, but when he sent out the book to the States, it was seized by US Customs in New York and released by Irving Fishman, Deputy Collector, Restricted Merchandise Division, the same man who had released Lolita. A third translation of the book was then made, this time by a certain Sabine d'Estrée who penned the 1965 Grove Press edition. Story of O had a follow up in Retour à Roissy, translated as Return to the Chateau and published in 1971 by Grove Press, and, a few years later, the novel was also turned into a movie (fashion note: costumes in the film were by Cerruti 1881).
Another book that helped Girodias building his empire was brought to him in 1957 by the young Allen Ginsberg. The manuscript, by William Burroughs, was entitled The Naked Lunch and it had already been rejected by many publishers.
At first Girodias rejected it because it had a tenuous sexual content, but, in 1958, after the manuscript had been edited and changed, he accepted the book dubbing it as "the Chanson de Roland of the 20th century, the cry of the hero who is prepared to die in full ecstasy!" The book, published in July 1959, was n.76 of the Olympia's Traveller's Companion Series and Girodias sold its rights to Rosset in 1959. Grove Press published the manuscript only in 1962, since at the time they were too busy defending Tropic of Cancer and Rosset feared that, if he also published The Naked Lunch, he would have had to fight against two lawsuits for two books, a thing he couldn't financially afford.
Though in 1964 Grove Press won the case over Tropic of Cancer, it lost the legal battle over Naked Lunch in Massachussets in 1965. Burroughs' fame was established in Great Britain by John Calder who published in 1963 a compendium of Burroughs' works and in 1964 published Naked Lunch while Girodias published The Soft Machine in 1961 and, in the following year, The Ticket That Exploded.
In 1959 Olympia Press moved to 7 rue Saint-Séverin, where Girodias opened his complex of bars and restaurants. La Grande Séverine was the result of the literary successes Girodias had with The Ginger Man, Lolita, Candy, Story of O, Naked Lunch, successes that brought The Economist to call him "the most celebrated avant-garde editor of his time."
Unfortunately, the entertainment offered at La Grande Séverine was soon over after the building burned down. Girodias didn't lose his mind about the whole thing, but rebuilt his entertainment house, reopening it with a stage adaptation of Norman Rubington's Fuzz Against Junk.
The theatre - where an adaptation of de Sade's writings was also staged - was closed by the Vice Squad not long after it opened, but Girodias kept on offering his audience shows there till The Vice Squad closed it for good, while Olympia Press kept on publishing books.
Roger Casement was born in 1864 in Northern Ireland. Educated in England, after entering the British Civil service, he went to Africa as a consul. Casement had exposed the labour conditions of the mine and plantation workers in the then Congo Free State and in the rubber-growing regions of Peru and had received the knighthood for his services to the British Crown. After World War I broke out, Casement joined the militant Irish movement and tried to recruit an Irish Brigade, but, after landing on the Irish coast on a German U-boat, he was imprisoned and convicted of high treason.
During the trial, extracts of his private diaries, which contained recounts of homosexual activities, were read out. Many people thought that the British government had written the diaries, but Casement was convicted all the same and hanged in Pentonville Prison in 1916.
Peter Singleton-Gates, who had started writing a book about Casement in 1922, but had eventually been stopped by the British government in 1925, was naturally enthusiastic about Girodias' edition of the diaries that came out in 1959 simultaneously in Paris, London and New York. Only the Paris edition included the 1911 diary, which was the "coarsest but not the most explosive" of them according to Girodias.
Meanwhile things got worse with censorship in France: De Gaulle had come back to power in 1958, but it was only in the early 1960s that Girodias started feeling the weight of censorship on his back, since "the government had reactivated an old law that had been little used in the twentieth century. This was outrage aux bonnes moeurs par la voie du livre, 'O.B.M.' for short among the lawyers." Consequently, Girodias was prosecuted for books he had published, for a few titles that were out of print and for books he had never published.
In the introduction to the 1965 edition of The Olympia Reader by the Grove Press, Maurice Girodias remembers how he got eighty years' personal ban from all publishing activities, from four to six years suspended prison sentences, and some $80,000 in fines. Though the fines were reduced and he stopped publishing books, he kept on being denounced for books he had published in the past. Exasperated by the trials, which he called "Alice in Wonderland exercises," Girodias flew to the States settling Olympia in New York, while Holly Hutchins took care of the Paris- based Olympia.
Unfortunately, in New York things weren't as brilliant as Girodias thought they may have been.
There weren't any new authors to discover and, besides, freedom was flourishing. The aim of the Paris-based Olympia Press was to dismantle censorship, but in New York, with the sexual revolution well on its way, the aim had to change and concretised in the effort to normalize the situation, and help integrate the erotic side of life in creative writing.
Among the new authors Girodias published while in the States there are also Diane Di Prima, Marco (Fred) Vassi, Ronald Tavel and 'Angelo d'Arcangelo', 'Vlas Tenin', Norman Singer and Valerie Solanas, author of the anti-male play Up Your Ass and of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men).
In the second part of the 1960s Girodias had new problems with three new titles. The first book was The Seven Minutes by Irving Wallace, published in 1969 by Simon & Schuster. The book was the story of the trial of a novel entitled The Seven Minutes, written by JJ Jadway: the book - written in Paris in the 1930s - had been released by an erotica publisher. Wallace had talked to Girodias while writing the book, but Girodias had soon met a man, an Israeli writer and friend, Michael Bernet who had told him that he could write a fictional The Seven Minutes and Maurice could publish it.
So Girodias published The Original Seven Minutes by 'JJ Jadway' or Michel Bernet and was denounced by Wallace's publisher. As a consequence, he had to destroy all the copies of the book, but then reprinted it anonymously with the title The Seven Erotic Minutes.The second book was Sir Cyril Black by Benjamin Grimm: the book was denounced directly by Sir Cyril Black, a Conservative Member of Parliament, who won the case against Girodias. Black was responsible for a campaign against pornography, homosexuality, alcohol and miniskirts. He had also prosecuted Hugh Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, on the basis that it had a homosexual theme.
The third book which caused a disaster was President Kissinger. Published in 1974 by Freeway (later Venus-Freeway), a reborn version of Olympia USA after it had gone bankrupt, President Kissinger was the story of a foreign-born citizen who becomes President of the USA.
After the book was published, Girodias was called by the US Immigration officials and asked to show his visa, which had eventually expired. He was also found in possession of drugs, which, he claimed, were planted on him by a woman. Afterwards the publisher claimed that there was a conspiracy behind his later misfortunes, a conspiracy organised by Scientology since, in 1973, he had published a book entitled Inside Scientology: How I Joined Scientology and Became Superhuman by Robert Kaufman. Girodias started suspecting of their conspiracy when his associates received a letter saying that the Olympia Press was out of business and his ideas were reinforced after he was busted and started having problems with the US government.
After a spell in New York and then Boston, Girodias finally went back to Paris. His experiences in the States allowed him to edit for two American publishing houses a couple of anthologies, one in 1965 for Grove Press, the other in 1970 for Blue Moon Books, the latter containing manuscripts from 1967-69, the years in which Olympia moved to the States.
Later John Calder encouraged Maurice Girodias to write his biography, convincing him with the words "You disarmed the opposition (…) Your defense of real masterpieces, Lolita, Naked Lunch, even Sexus or The Ginger Man, this puts you in a class apart. No other publisher has ever done that. You are a liberator. I admire you (…) You changed the world, that's what you did. You made it safe for sex. You know what they call you in Tangiers? The Lenin of the Sexual Revolution (…) Single-handed you did what Churchill and Roosvelt together couldn't have pulled off in a century: You destroyed Anglo-Saxon censorship, blaam, all by yourself."
Girodias wrote in the 1970s two volumes of his autobiography, J'Arrive in French and The Frog Prince in English, then wrote another volume in the 1980s. The first two installments of his biography came out under the title Une Journée sur la Terre (A Day on Earth), while the third volume was never published.
While still working for his father's publishing house and after witnessing a discussion between his father and his father's friend Michel Bogouslawsky about French censorship, Girodias wrote "All that hot talk caused me to believe that I was working in a kind of anticensorship laboratory, which wasn't far from the truth."
Indeed Girodias had worked for an anticensorship laboratory which spread around good and controversial literature. "In his professional life, Girodias was a real publisher", de St Jorre writes, "(…) at times a brilliant publisher (…) Girodias did read, he loved books and he knew about literature. He had a publisher's eye for the good and the bad, what would work and what would not."
Girodias, the man who wished to publish "anything that shocks because it comes before its time, anything that is liable to be banned by the censors because they cannot accept its honesty", never repented of what he did or of what he published, he only regretted one thing "not to have gone far enough."Girodias represented a saviour and at the same time an unfair master for his writers, as de St Jorre remembers in his tome on Olympia Press, “Miller, Durrell, Beckett, Nabokov, Donleavy, Burroughs and Dominique Aury had something inside them that had to come out, whether anybody read it or not. It was their misfortune that, in addition to the natural difficulties of being published as unknown writers, they had to contend with censorship. This increased their anguish and made them more desperate, more paranoid than they might have been. Obelisk and Olympia brought salvation.”
"It is my job to deprave and corrupt," Girodias used to claim, still the story of Olympia Press is not only the story of the publishing house that erotica built, nor the mere story of "The Prince of Porn" and "The Kamikaze Publisher", it's the story of a bunch of writers, men and women, who applied themselves at the trade of writing fine erotica novels and of battles won and lost, above all it's the story of someone who genuinely believed in what he was doing and who wanted to show at his young age to "those constipated old publishers and assorted book people that true talent starts early."
Lost are the days when Girodias met his Merlinois, lost are the days when he might have been seen rambling around La Grande Séverine. Lost are those days, but not the books published then: Story of O and The Ginger Man are still among the best selling titles, while a copy of Jack Kahane's biography, Memoirs of a Booklegger, can easily reach hundreds of dollars (though you can buy the PDF file here). Olympia Press, the ship of Venus, ended its voyage a long time ago, but I like to think that those censors who tried to make it sink drowned before succeeding in their attempt.
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