Woody Allen may have won this year's Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his whimsical movie, Midnight in Paris, with its time tripping to the 1920s when Gertrude Stein held court in her salon. But Paris had another literary heyday in the mid-century when another round of Americans, among them George Plimpton, James Baldwin, Peter Stone, Irwin Shaw, Barney Rosset, Richard Seaver, and the beats hung out. Rosset died last week at age 89, and for those who valued his contribution to upholding First Amendment rights in this country, his championing the works of artists, transgressive in subject and language (Beckett, Burroughs, Miller, Lawrence, Genet, Ionesco) the event truly marks the end of an era. People said the same when Dick Seaver died in 2009, but this time we really, really mean it.
By coincidence, the Americans in midcentury Paris are noted in several recently released books: Richard Seaver's The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the '50s, New York in the '60s: A Memoir, the author's remembrance from this fecund period and edited by his widow Jeannette Seaver; and Rub Out the Word: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, edited by Bill Morgan. Needless to say, Barney Rosset is a vital character in each of these vital reads on this literary moment. As he tells it, Seaver met Rosset just after Barney bought Grove Press, noting, "The man seemed incapable of repose. I liked the way he acted on his impulses." Seaver also recounts the history of the publication of Burroughs's Naked Lunch, first by Maurice Girodias's Paris-based Olympia Press and later in the U.S. by Rosset's Grove Press.
Dovetailing this publication record, Burroughs' letters of the period are fascinating for revealing his literary life, the feuds and rivalries between Rosset and Girodias, and friendships and betrayals among Gysin, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Harold Norse and others who resided at 9 Git-le-Coeur, a low-rent joint in Paris with a zinc bar otherwise known as The Beat Hotel. Among its many distinctions, the "cut-up," a literary device best utilized by Burroughs was invented there by Brion Gysin. Seaver went on to publish The Third Mind, under his imprint at Viking Press. Originally published in France, the volume celebrates this midcentury collaboration. And again, in another bit of synergy, a new documentary film limns this history; The Beat Hotel, directed by Alan Govenar, will screen at New York's Cinema Village starting March 30.
As to that great expatriate Gertrude Stein, an exhibition of her extensive art collection housed at her Paris salon on rue de Fleurus -- where the likes of Hemingway and others caricatured in Midnight in Paris mingled -- starts this week at the Metropolitan Museum.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.