|Oct/Nov 2013 Nonfiction|
Photograph by Birgit Stephenson
Rogue publisher and himself a bit of a rogue, Maurice Girodias, founding editor of the infamous Olympia Press, chief purveyor of English language pornography during the postwar period, loosed upon an eager reading world a handful of scandalous masterpieces together with what were (by his own bemused admission) torrents of bad taste. The publication of modern classics such as Samuel Beckett's Watt, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, William S. Burroughs's The Naked Lunch, as well as notable works by Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Jean Cocteau, was made possible by the sale of a series of pseudonymously written sexually explicit novels with lubricious titles such as Chariot of Flesh, White Thighs, Sin for Breakfast, and There's a Whip in My Valise. Published in Paris, Olympia books were forbidden throughout the English speaking world but were smuggled through Customs by returning tourists, merchant seamen, servicemen and others. The mixture of literature and lust reflected in the publications of Girodias's Olympia Press may perhaps be seen as an expression of divisions within the man himself whose behaviour encompassed shady practices and impetuous generosity, irrepressible audacity and shy reserve, conspicuous dissipation and secret spirituality. Indeed, I have sometimes speculated whether his often turbulent personal fortunes were not, at least in part, the result of a species of subconscious self-sabotage.
A self-described "second-generation pornographer," Maurice Girodias was born Maurice Kahane in Paris in 1919, the son of English expatriate author and publisher, Jack Kahane, proprietor of the Obelisk Press. Racy, risqué novels in English were the speciality of the Paris-based Obelisk Press, and Kahane's prize literary discovery was Henry Miller. Upon the sudden death of Jack Kahane at the outbreak of World War II, young Maurice inherited the debt-ridden Obelisk Press, but the war and the German occupation (during which to avoid deportation as a Jew, Maurice changed his surname to that of his French mother) compelled him instead to establish himself as an art publisher, forming his own imprint, Les Editions du Chêne. After the war, the presence in Paris of large numbers of British, Canadian, and American soldiers (and later, the return of tourists) provided Maurice with a readership sufficient to resurrect the Obelisk Press and reissue the more popular titles of its prewar catalog.
According to Girodias's version of events, it was due to the machinations of his business partners, Hachette Publishers, that he lost ownership of both Les Editions du Chêne and the Obelisk Press. After an extended period of poverty and depression, in the early 1950s Girodias succeeded in founding the Olympia Press on little more than daring and desperate desire. Slowly, Olympia attained a precarious solvency, then—largely as a consequence of the popularity of Lolita and a favourable contract with Vladimir Nabokov—achieved outright prosperity. This pleasantly unwonted circumstance proved, however, less than a boon for Girodias for it permitted him to indulge in an extravagant, not to say grandiose, project: the creation of a lavish, sumptuous nightclub called La Grande Séverine, an unrealistically ambitious undertaking that was an economic disaster. Closely related—both in terms of cause and effect—to this reckless enterprise was Girodias' excessive drinking. At the same time, the Olympia Press was being relentlessly harassed by the Paris vice squad and was the object of multiple law suits. At length, his personal life out of control, his nightclub bankrupt, his press paralyzed by punitive fines and publishing bans pronounced by the courts, Girodias fled to the United States to re-establish the Olympia Press in New York city.
Arriving in America in the mid 1960s, Girodias busily set about making and losing fortunes. Recently liberalized federal laws concerning the censorship of printed matter and a changing cultural climate in the U.S. helped to ease his path as a publisher of pornography while at the same time serving to stimulate the development of competing publishers in the same field, some of whom shamelessly pirated Girodias's Paris publications (few of which had been copyrighted.) Ever inventive, ever enterprising, by sheer will and ingenuity, Girodias kept his American venture in operation for over a decade, enjoying intermittent prosperity and enduring recurrent fiasco. Forced at last by adverse circumstances to abandon the Olympia Press, he formed the Freeway Press (later Venus-Freeway Press). At length, however, in a final debacle all schemes and hopes collapsed. Thereafter, for a time, Girodias lived a quiet life in Boston with his latest wife, writing his memoirs. Then, when his marriage failed, weary and indigent he returned to Paris.
The first volume of Girodias's autobiography, covering the years from his childhood to the Second World War, was published in France in 1977 under the title J'arrive. In 1980 the book appeared in English as The Frog Prince. In neither language, though, did the book attract more than scant notice. Nor were the meagre royalties that Girodias received for the indifferent sales of the book sufficient to alleviate his now chronic penury. He was reduced at last to living with family members and friends, with frequent changes of address.
In the spring of 1982, I initiated a correspondence with Maurice Girodias, one that was to continue intermittently until only a few months before his sudden and untimely death in early July of 1990. During this same time, on two occasions, I met and spoke with Maurice in Paris. Our first meeting took place in September of 1982. I was accompanied by my wife, Birgit. At the time Girodias was living at number 20 Quai de Béthune on the Ile St. Louis, a solid 17th century sandstone building with white shutters and black wrought iron balconies. His name did not appear among the occupants of the building at the main entrance so I pressed the button designated as "Gardien," and inquired of the concierge if Monsieur Girodias lived there. She informed us that he lived on the 4th floor and buzzed us into the building. We passed through the heavy studded wooden doors (with sculpted demonic faces on either side of the doorway and a winged angel in relief across the frieze), ascended flights of stone steps and walked wooden landings. Above the apartment doors were bas reliefs with classical motifs. Reaching the fourth floor we rang the doorbell. A woman answered and we explained the purpose of our visit. She invited us in and went to fetch Girodias who showed us into the kitchen where we sat and spoke. There appeared to be five other occupants of the apartment.
Girodias is a handsome man with silver-gray hair combed straight back, a sort of hawk nose, white, even teeth and sad dark-brown eyes. He wears a brown shirt unbuttoned at the neck exposing a gray-haired tanned chest. He has the air of one who has just awakened from sleep and has not yet altogether collected his thoughts. He seems somewhat abstracted, absent. He offers us a glass of red wine which we accept and we sit drinking at the kitchen table. Our conversation begins in French then drifts into English. Girodias is equally at ease in either language but speaks English with a slight French accent. The apartment is not his, he explains; he is merely staying there with friends. When did he return to Paris, I ask. He thinks it was in October of the preceding year. Have you any projects at present? He replies that he is working on plans for a new magazine he wants to publish and edit. The magazine is to be called America, and it will concern itself with American fashion and film, American literature and culture, American food and trends and American thought. The French, he says, in common with nearly everyone everywhere, have a love-hate relationship with the United States. This magazine will address their half-sceptical, half-fascinated interest in things American. He needs about one and a half million dollars to launch it. His weary smile indicates that he thinks it highly unlikely that he will ever find investors to provide the necessary capital.
What is his legal status in France at present, I ask. Has the ban on publishing imposed on him back in the 1960s been lifted? It's still uncertain, he says. He has applied to the authorities for formal "rehabilitation," they have promised to address the question, but it's quite a complicated matter. He shrugs. He can in any case work through friends, using their names. But a judicial declaration of "rehabilitation" would be good publicity for him. It would bring him some favourable attention and it might help attract investors, he says. I ask him about his memoirs. When might the second volume appear? He has written some of it, he says, but he was discouraged by the poor sales of the first volume and has laid the manuscript aside. Fundamentally, he questions the value of the subject matter. He does not feel that he can claim any insights regarding Beckett, Nabokov or Burroughs. Perhaps, too, in order to avoid controversy and possible litigation it would be better to wait until those he intends to discuss in his memoirs are already dead. And in any case, he finds writing to be very demanding and troublesome and thinks his own writing of dubious worth. The writing of the first volume was a curious process, he says. At first he just sharpened his pencils and stared at the blank paper before him. He could not seem to get started. Whole mornings and afternoons passed in this manner. At last, however, he began to write and once begun he wrote day and night for three and a half weeks. To sustain his powers of recollection, he had continually smoked good quality marijuana while outside it was a snowy New England winter encouraging a certain inwardness and reflection. As he wrote he began to remember incidents and people he had not recalled or thought about for a great many years. The account of his life that he had set down was about 99 percent true; there was only a little invention involved on his part. Indeed, there were certain incidents which he had felt compelled to tone down in order to make them seem more credible. The finished manuscript had numbered about 700 pages which the publisher had edited down to about 500 pages.
We talk then of his ill-fated Danish publishing venture in the mid 1960s which had consisted both of a Danish language version of the Olympia Press and another imprint called The Odyssey Library which was an English language press designed to circumvent the publishing ban placed upon Girodias by the French courts. Girodias had aimed to print and distribute a new line of erotic novels from Copenhagen. Some half-a-dozen titles had been printed. Curiously, though, the French police had somehow persuaded the Danish police to confiscate the publications of the Odyssey Library and this despite the fact that the books were in English and despite liberal Danish laws then in force that protected the written word, including pornographic literature. To have been banned in Denmark! He smiles ruefully and shakes his head in amused disbelief. His partner in Denmark had been honest in all his dealings with him, Girodias says, and that was rare, indeed, among persons of that milieu. Unfortunately, however, his Danish partner had died suddenly. The man's son had then taken over and if equally honest was less competent than his father. "A second generation pornographer—just like me," Girodias says. Another factor that had contributed to the misfortunes and ultimate collapse of Girodias's Danish venture had been the advent of the legalization—first in Denmark then elsewhere—of visual pornography. Erotic novels had been a casualty of the unfolding sexual revolution.
I mention the persistent misapprehension that those Olympia titles written under the pseudonym of Akbar del Piombo were authored by William S. Burroughs. I firmly believe this attribution to be incorrect, I say, but does he know the origins of the myth? Girodias says that he once ascertained the cause of this mix-up—an error which has since been a source of irritation to both authors—but he has now forgotten what it was. (He could now remember much less concerning the events of recent years, he says, than those of the more distant past.) He believes that it was a mis-print in an announcement or catalog that gave rise to the confusion. It was certainly not deliberate on his part, he says, as some have implied—a ruse to increase sales of the Akbar del Piombo books. He would not have done such a thing, nor would the two authors have countenanced it. (Years after this conversation, I believe I discovered the source of the error. The second printing of the one-volume trilogy of novels by Akbar del Piombo collectively titled The Fetish Crowd was carried out in June 1965 at the Imprimerie Croutzet in Paris. At the same time, June 1965, a second printing of William S. Burroughs's The Naked Lunch was undertaken for Olympia by the same local printer. Inadvertently, a page from the front matter of the latter book was bound into the former, a page listing "Other works by William Burroughs published by the Olympia Press" including The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Many readers—and some libraries—took this to mean that Akbar del Piombo and William Burroughs were one and the same.) Norman Rubingon was, of course, the author behind the Akbar del Piombo pseudonym. Girodias had seen Rubington only last year in New York City, he says. He was living near the Bowery, surviving, "a lazy bum."
Girodias says that he is often astonished and disappointed to learn that certain of his best authors from the old Olympia days, those he thought most promising, had, in fact, done their best work writing for him. Alexander Trocchi, for example, who was clearly the most talented of the young postwar expatriate writers had produced very little of significance after 1960. Trocchi had, of course, been terribly addicted for many years now and had been very ill. Trocchi is now, he believes, a bookseller in London. The subsequent writing career of Iris Owens, in particular, had been a great disappointment and surprise to him. He had thought her very talented and destined to become an important writer but she had seemed to lose inspiration with the loss of the Olympia DB (dirty book) structure and the freedom to experiment that comes with writing under a pseudonym.
The expatriates of the postwar period, he says, were in the main rather insular, frequenting only two cafés, not learning to speak French (some of them even after 10 years in Paris) or having any contact with the French. Then during the Algerian war some expatriates had been harassed or expelled by the police under the tightening of regulations that were instituted then. It was then, Girodias says, that they discovered that "France is a Fascist country—as every Frenchmen already knows."
I ask if any of the correspondence, the manuscripts and other documents of the Olympia Press remain. No, he says, everything was thrown away by the landlord of the building in 1968, while he himself was in New York. Except for some Henry Miller letters which the landlord sold to a collector. The only part of those archives whose loss is truly regrettable, Girodias says, was a file containing some of the insane letters received over the years by the Olympia Press. He smiles to remember them. There were the most extraordinary letters from, among others, credulous customers, lechers of all nations, lunatic lonely hearts and furious Head Masters of English public schools. Girodias had made a selection of the best of them—the most entertaining, the most poignant—which he'd kept in a file, intending to publish the collection as a book. Those letters, he says, were indeed a unique treasure and were truly irreplaceable. In fact, he adds, he has no material at all pertaining to his career as a publisher and he doesn't even own a copy of a single one of all the many books he published, though he thinks that his brother Eric might have some few of them.
Girodias is amazed and amused at my interest in his past publishing activities. When I mention certain titles—such as Boy and To Beg I am Ashamed—that he reprinted under the Obelisk imprint in the immediate postwar years, he expresses surprise that he did so. "Gee, did we really do those?" he asks. He never suspected, he says, that one day collectors and university librarians would seek out all those drab little volumes. They were, after all, so undistinguished in appearance. The quality of the paper and the printing was poor. He had chosen the format for the pocket-sized Traveller's Companion Series precisely because books of those dimensions were more suited to smuggling in pockets. His earlier books had been too large and bulky. The drab green color of the books had also been chosen for its property as camouflage; the color was "the very opposite of flashy." This, too, had been to facilitate smuggling the books past Customs Inspectors who nevertheless had had an uncanny ability to "nose them out." On one occasion, he had himself been stopped upon entering England with a selection of Henry Miller's works in his suitcase. "Naughty, naughty," the Customs Inspector had said, "those are forbidden here." Girodias says that he explained to the Customs man that as a Frenchman he hadn't known they were forbidden and that at the request of an English friend he was only bringing them to the man as gifts. The Customs Inspector had then allowed him to pass with the books, thinking him to be an elderly, naïve Frenchman, little suspecting that he was the very man responsible for publishing the books in question.
He regrets, he says, neglecting the Olympia Press and draining away its financial resources on his ill-fated nightclub during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He can now remember but little of that period, he admits, as he'd spent those years drinking to excess and keeping late hours in his nightclub. But he can clearly see that his heedless behavior contributed to the downfall of the Olympia Press. However, it must be said, he adds, that others also did their part in undermining his enterprise. Austryn Wainhouse and Dick Seaver at Grove Press took over much of the list he had built up, including Beckett and Genet, Pauline Réage , Henry Miller and Burroughs. In addition, in imitating Olympia's practice of bringing back into print classic erotic works, Grove had taken from him a vital part of his very raison d'etre as a publisher. Worse, though, pirate publishers—such as Brandon House, Greenleaf and Collector's Publications—had re-printed almost all of his Paris books without his permission or that of the authors and had paid neither fees nor royalties. These were the very books and authors that Girodias had so carefully nurtured in Paris, books for which he had paid authors the standard fee and for which he had endured police harassment, arrests and court battles, fines and prohibitions, books which had cost him bribe money and lawyers' fees. His Olympia books had also been pirated in the Far East, in Taiwan, in India, appearing in smudgy editions printed on disintegrating paper, novels recombined, titles switched. The pirates had plundered his livelihood, he says. Not only were their practices reprehensible but they showed a deplorable lack of originality.
Yet in recounting this litany of misfortunes Girodias betrays little bitterness. He seems instead mildly amused by the various turns of fortune he has experienced. He consents courteously to Birgit's request to take a photograph of him, though modestly remarking that he considers himself highly unphotogenic. He signs our copy of The Frog Prince with a friendly and generous inscription. My impression is of a very likeable, affable man, sad, defeated but sustained by a wry and weary humour.
During the years that followed, Girodias and I kept up our intermittent correspondence. I noted the frequent changes of address on his letters. He kept me abreast of his (ultimately futile) attempt to reach a pecuniary settlement with Collins/Grafton publishers for their having pirated certain of his original Olympia books. He had by now, he confessed, lost his taste for litigation. Nor could he any longer afford legal counsel. Sheer economic necessity obliged him to continue scuffling and scraping to make a living. Since he had no archives whatever with regard to his past publishing activities, I willingly furnished him with copies of articles from my own extensive files concerning the Olympia Press. These were pieces which had appeared in Time, Evergreen Review, The Spectator, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere. These were, he wrote me, very helpful to him in writing his memoirs.
My second conversation with Maurice Girodias took place in April of 1989. At Girodias's suggestion, we made a rendezvous at Le Bonaparte, a café on Place Saint-Germain-des-Près. I arrived a bit early and secured one of the small tables along the rear wall of the café from which I would be able to see people entering. I ordered a glass of compari and waited. Girodias arrived a bit late, wearing dark slacks and a dark sport coat, a white shirt open at the neck. I thought he looked more brisk and buoyant than on our previous meeting seven years previous. He still retained that look of amused and ironic detachment which comes to men who have experienced dramatic reversals and inversions of fate. He apologized for being late, then asked me what my drink was and ordered the same from the waiter. We talked amid the clinking and clattering of cups and glasses and the chatter of the other café guests.
My opening question to him, again, concerns his current projects. He is editing an issue of The Courier, a magazine put out by UNESCO, he tells me. The theme of the issue is that of beauty in all its expressions. It's progressing satisfactorily, though he expects to deliver the material about a month past the deadline he has been given. But they expect that, he adds. The topic of beauty is one that interests and engages him deeply, he says. In the wake of the sexual revolution, the time is now propitious for "the beauty revolution," which will mean an exploration and appreciation and deeper understanding of all aspects of beauty. The beauty revolution will be a kind of metaphysical counterpart to the sexual revolution, both its antithesis and its complement, its fulfilment. He would like to edit a book, a collection of essays, on the same theme. In this regard, he would wish to gather essays on various aspects of beauty from experts in particular fields. For example, he would like to have an essay on the beauty of light written by an astrophysicist. The difficulty, he says, is in getting highly informed views on such a subject that are at the same time exciting to read. He would like contributions that are elegant and innovative as well as authoritative.
He is also currently attempting to start a new publishing venture, a series of books that would be projections, predictions of "the utopias of the third millennium." Again, these would be written by various hands whose expertise is in the area of art, society, and a range of other pertinent subjects. He has, he says, already found a banker who will invest 60 percent of the required capital. He, himself, must now raise the remaining 40 percent. He probably can't do so, he says smiling, but who knows?
What is the status of the second volume of your memoirs, I ask. He has given it up again, he says. At least temporarily. He has now written about two-thirds of the second volume but thinks that what he has written lacks form, as well as lacking an informing perspective both on the events and on himself. And without such a perspective the tale of his life lacks coherence. Essentially, he questions "the value of such paltry personal reminiscences" in the context of truly significant world events. And quite apart from such reservations, it bores him to go over again that period of his life. Nor can he imagine that many readers would be interested in his account. Finally, the narrative is not a success story and so it has neither appeal nor any point as such. I object that it is really rather an extraordinary story, certainly one that has interested me intensely. He thanks me for my kindness and concedes that there are a few droll episodes. There is, for example, the sorry tale of his 21-year feud in the courts with J.P. Donleavy. Although it was Donleavy who ultimately triumphed, Girodias finds the denouement—in which he was craftily out-maneuvered by his relentless adversary—to be no less amusing for his own discomfiture.
At issue between publisher and author was a question of breach of contract on the part of Donleavy. After many years and much litigation and lawyers' fees in plenty, Girodias had still believed he could win the case. In the French courts, he had already won some preliminary judgements against Donleavy. He was, however, yet once again, bankrupt. The Paris Olympia Press as an entity was also broke, in debt, and was to be sold for payment to creditors. If Girodias could regain ownership of the Olympia Press he could press on with his suit against Donleavy. Accordingly, when the Olympia Press was to be set at auction, Girodias contrived (by means of bribes) to have the auction take place as quietly, even secretly, as possible. He even succeeded in having the legally required newspaper announcements of the auction quashed. In this way, he hoped to buy back his press as cheaply as possible and with it the Donleavy contract. He was dismayed, then, on the afternoon of the auction to see others present in the secluded room where the auction was to take place. Present were two women and their lawyer. One of the women glared at him with undisguised hostility. This was ominous, unsettling. He had no notion of who they might be or how they had learned of the auction. As the bidding began, Girodias was constantly, casually outbid by the lawyer for the two women. Their final bid exceeded all the capital he could possibly hope to borrow. He had definitively lost the Olympia Press and the two women were now the owners of his life's project and all its prospects. Even in his black dejection, Girodias wondered who they were and why they had visited upon him such destruction. Not long afterward, compounding his loss, he discovered that one of the women was Donleavy's wife. Donleavy, his long-time legal adversary and arch-foe, now owned the Olympia Press.
Donleavy, Girodias remarks, was, indeed, the Ginger Man, but without the charm. He was a ruthless, vindictive man, a monstrous egotist. Moreover, all Donleavy's novels since The Ginger Man were inferior and repetitive. He had never developed as a novelist. He had but the one trick, the one formula that had made his name. Through the intermediary of a New York reporter, Girodias had recently proposed to Donleavy that they collaborate on a book in which each party would relate his side of the story. Donleavy had ignored the offer. I don't understand his unending animosity, Girodias says, after all it is he who has won. Indeed, Girodias adds, Donleavy won doubly, as it were.
The Olympia Press was a salutary event, I tell him. It was entirely sui generis, a kind of Wild West of literature. The pizzazz, the panache, the mad humour. The preposterous noms-de-plumes, the extravagant sexual antics recounted in the "dirty books." Norman Rubington's crazy collage novels. Yes, he agrees, the humour had not been fully appreciated. Even Rubington had at first been unpleasantly surprised by the pseudonym that Girodias had chosen for him (i.e. Akbar del Piombo). Rubington had objected, saying "I'm a New York Jew and you've given me an Arab name!" At the outset of the whole nefarious Olympia enterprise, Girodias says, he was very fortunate in having Trocchi as a literary collaborator. Trocchi had a genius for that sort of thing. Girodias had suggested to him that he write a kind of contemporary Fanny Hill, using that novel with its female narrator and the record of her erotic misadventures as a model, and Trocchi had done so brilliantly in The Carnal Days of Helen Seferis. Thereafter, Girodias says, he had given that novel by Trocchi to his other prospective Olympia Press writers to use as a template for their efforts.
Trocchi had been the central figure of the postwar expatriate group, Girodias says, the dominant personality, the one whose tastes and inclinations influenced many of the others. But he had been a strange man who had "tried to cheat his way through life." Unfortunately, Trocchi had dissipated his very considerable gifts in writing pornography for the Olympia Press. It seems to have undermined his faith in the value of writing, Girodias says. Another promising writer whose pornographic novels for Olympia had been better than her subsequent efforts was Iris Owens, he says. Perhaps it was as Oscar Wilde had written somewhere about the truth of masks. ("Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.") It was, he says, as if the pseudonyms assigned these authors had released them from an oppressive self-consciousness and from preconceptions about literature and conventions of what constitutes good writing. Liberated by their disguises, they had enjoyed creative freedom, exercising considerable inventiveness and imagination in their writing, even engaging in radical experimentation, as in Harriett Daimler's (Iris Owens) The Organization. Iris Owens, he says, had later attempted to imitate her own DBs for the mainstream literary market, but had done so with indifferent results.
He has not recently seen Iris Owens, he says, nor do they correspond. But when last he saw her in New York City she was as witty and as pretty as ever. Mason Hoffenberg is dead as of three years ago. Rubington came to Paris on a visit a few years ago but seemed a bit distant. Trocchi is dead. It's all a long time ago now. The principals are all scattered and one by one they are disappearing. It was great fun, he says, but in the end it was of little consequence.
Girodias accedes to my assertion that the Olympia Press was a vital aspect of the postwar cultural revolution, that it not only prefigured but precipitated certain elements of the rebellious 1960s. My own view, I tell him, is that the much celebrated 1960s were, in fact, a kind of parody of the 1950s, a weak imitation of the experimental aesthetics and the more unconventional currents of thought of that earlier era. Yes, Girodias agrees, but the Fifties were in their turn a kind of parody of the 1930s. The literary expatriates in Paris in the Fifties had been attempting to repeat the experiences of the earlier wave of expatriate writers. They had seen themselves as contemporary heirs to Hemingway or Henry Miller but they had lacked both the talent and the originality of those authors. George Plimpton, in particular, had struck him as a kind of counterfeit litterateur. Plimpton had, in fact, once written a DB for Olympia that he had turned down. It made unpleasant reading and was distinctly inferior in quality, Girodias says.
His own biggest mistake, Girodias says, was the nightclub La Grande Séverine. He should never have entered into such an endeavour. He knew nothing about the practicalities of such a business, he says, and it had ended in a financial debacle. Since then, of course, he had experienced bankruptcies so numerous that he couldn't keep track of them, financial reverses and the failures of myriad enterprises had since been so frequent, one following on the heels of another. He had prospered in New York, he said, largely due to an excellent business partner, an ex-sailor, "a businessman-thief." This man, he says, had had excellent qualifications and connections for that shady line of publishing and for a time he had made Girodias a millionaire. And this had been accomplished in spite of the legalization of pornography in the U.S. and despite all the piracies of the original Olympia novels, many of which were simply photo-offset from Girodias's Paris publications, and despite a horde of competitors in the field. But with his newly won prosperity, Girodias had overreached. He had, he says, tried to build a publishing empire on a world scale, with ventures in Holland, Italy, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. He had even had a scheme that involved translating pornographic novels into Russian. These books were to be sold in Finland to Russian sailors who would then smuggle them back into their country as in the old, original Olympia days. Sailors had always been some of his best customers, he says. In the 1950s when the U.S. fleet would anchor in the south of France, he would dispatch enormous shipments of Olympia books there as quickly as he could to meet their reading needs. He had often reflected that bell-bottomed trousers such as sailors wear are ideal for smuggling books.
But now it is all gone, all over, he says. Fortunes had been won, lost, won again, then lost again. "Now I have to change my luck," he says. "I have nothing. I must strive and provide for myself however I can." Accordingly, he still pins desperate hopes on his current projects while at the same time doubting the likelihood of their realization. Sometimes in the past he had prospered by bluff and sheer luck, but perhaps those days are now definitively over. I ask if the court ban imposed on his publishing is still in force. He thinks not, though he would be banned anyway for having filed bankruptcy so many times. Had he ever inquired under the Freedom of Information Act as to whether there was an FBI file on him, I ask, had he ever attempted to get ahold of it? No, he replies, he believes that in order to petition for information of that nature he would have to sign an affidavit at the U.S. Embassy and he is reluctant to draw undue attention to himself from that quarter. He wants to maintain his ability to re-enter the United States. He adds that his FBI file probably "goes back to before my birth."
I ask Girodias if I may pose a rather personal question concerning his spiritual beliefs. He widens his eyes and wiggles his ears in mock horror, then smiles and nods. I mention that in his autobiography, The Frog Prince, he recounts how as a youth and during his young manhood he embraced Theosophy, attended lectures by Krishnamurti, pursued an earnest interest in Eastern thought. Does he still hold such beliefs? Girodias replies that he does. Even as a drunkard, even as the King of Porn, he says, he retained his original perspective on the self and the spirit. He had often felt, he says, as if all the dissipation, the sensual self-indulgence, the rapid changes of fortune he had known in his life were somehow something he had to endure, almost an ordeal. Something to do in some way with expiation or purgation or satiety. Inwardly, he has, he says, remained true to his youthful self and to the spiritual path he chose in those early years. Indeed, he feels as if he is the same person merely inhabiting an older body, "surprised to be an old man." With regard to the spiritual beliefs he embraced early in his life concerning karma, death and the survival of consciousness, he says that he continues to hold the same beliefs and he has always felt that life would be utterly absurd without the survival of the spirit. He has never questioned that it endures and evolves. Whatever his personal failings had been and despite the many changes of outward circumstance that he had experienced, a belief in the journey of the spirit had remained fundamental to his understanding of existence.
I mention that for me the most haunting passages of his autobiography were those recounting the strange experiences he underwent night after night for a period of about three months after his father's sudden death, when in dreams and hallucinations he followed the putrefaction of his father's corpse underground, then its luminous rejuvenation. Girodias tells me that strangely he has in recent times lived through a similar experience. He underwent a serious surgical procedure not long ago and prior to the operation was given a massive dose of sodium pentothal administered to him by an anaesthesiologist friend of his. For five days after his return from the hospital he felt utterly stoned, he says, adrift in a twilight state of consciousness, experiencing a recurrent dream in which he felt as if he had been buried alive in the earth and could taste the delicious dirt. This was tasting and savouring not in a merely physical sense but at some higher power of experience, an acute sensation of the mind and all the senses of delicious dissolution under the ground, as if one had been buried in a chocolate layer cake. The experience had prompted him to reflect that if this condition resembled the immediate posthumous state, if this were death, then it was not to be dreaded but desired.
Girodias insists on paying for our drinks. He has a polished Parisian manner of summoning a waiter which I cannot but admire. He is assertive, authoritative yet formally courteous. We leave Le Bonaparte together and part outside in the spring sunlight, shaking hands and wishing each other well.
One month after our meeting in Paris, I received a letter from Maurice urgently asking a favour of me. "I need a good English version of my newest publishing project," he wrote, "I thought of you as a potential saviour." He enclosed a French text, 17 pages in length, a typed prospectus for a publishing venture called Zoë, which was one of the projects he had mentioned during our conversation at Le Bonaparte. I must admit that I felt gratified and flattered (as perhaps he knew I would) that Girodias thought my command of French adequate to the task. And, hopeless romantic that I am, I relished the notion of working for the notorious Maurice Girodias. I knew, of course, that there would be no payment, though Maurice promised "eternal gratitude" and pledged to reward me "in some suitable way one day soon." My only recompense would be purely personal; I would gain deeper insight into Girodias's latest scheme and it would be an interesting task for me to undertake.
Girodias envisioned that the individual volumes of the Zoë series of books that he was offering for consideration to prospective investors would collectively constitute "a projected portrait of the 21st century," a future history of humankind. Each book was to be written by an expert in a particular area of knowledge and would predict likely developments in that field in time to come. The topics to be addressed in the diverse studies would include the U.S.S.R., minority rights, politics, money, intelligence, beauty, ecology, drugs, psychology and the hand-gun. The project was ambitious and provocative, but also informed by an earnest idealism. Obviously, Girodias must have hoped that the project would yield him a livelihood at the very least. But I believe that he also saw in the Zoë enterprise a possibility for vindication and even for a kind of redemption. From the tone of the prospectus I take it to be true that Girodias sincerely hoped for a better world. He believed that a better world could be achieved and he believed that books of the nature that he proposed to publish might serve in their way to precipitate the advent of such a world.
Unfortunately for Girodias and for a better world, nothing came of the Zoë project. As so often, he could not secure the necessary capital to launch the series, though as late as 1990 he wrote to me that he was attempting to salvage a part of the project by entering into discussions with Antoine Waechter, the head of the Ecology movement in France, with the aim of initiating a monthly magazine to be titled Ecoregions, supplemented by a collection of short books and pamphlets. In April of 1990, Girodias wrote to me that in recent months he had been "going through the trauma of childbirth" in completing at last the second volume of his memoirs covering the years 1942 to 1962. The book was soon to be published. And he was already engaged in writing the third volume which would cover the time from his "flight to America" in the mid 1960s, "to my actual death as I anticipate it to happen, to appear in principle at the end of `90." Just above this sentence in smaller hand writing Girodias added: "the book not the death."
Published in the spring of 1990, L'Arrivée, the second volume of the projected three volume autobiography, was well-reviewed and sales of the book were brisk. Girodias began at last to receive something of the attention and admiration he had been lacking through long years of poverty and obscurity. Only a few months later, in early July of that year, while taping a radio interview, Maurice Girodias died of a heart attack. And so in an instant all plans were obviated, all goals cancelled, all projects ended. Except perhaps for one, the one in which in his inmost mind he had always believed: the journey of the spirit.