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New York Times
1 Apr 2023

NextImg:The Last Days of Beckett’s, a Smoky New York Literary Salon

About a year ago, a literary salon sprang to life in a run-down townhouse in the West Village of Manhattan. Dozens of young writers, critics, artists, theater actors and filmmakers started going there almost nightly to drink, smoke, talk, dance and argue, much like their bohemian predecessors in the days before sky-high rents priced poets out of the neighborhood.

The venue had the clandestine air of a speakeasy. Notice of its existence was passed along by word of mouth. Guests stuffed cash into a cardboard box marked “donations” to receive canned Modelo from a fridge. There were readings, screenings and music shows in the grand, loft-like ground-floor space. Neighbors complained constantly about the noise. The police barged in once during a play.

“This place has given us a taste of an older New York we never saw,” said Christian Cail, a jazz guitarist who visited the space. “This isn’t meant to exist.”

The host was Beckett Rosset, a 53-year-old writer with a rocky past who lives in a book-cluttered apartment upstairs with his 18-year-old tabby cat, Micio. Mr. Rosset was named after Samuel Beckett, the 20th-century literary giant who worked closely with his father, the publishing maverick Barney Rosset. Gradually, his salon became known as Beckett’s, and its happenings included a debate about Shakespeare’s identity, a showing of the 1972 pornography classic “Deep Throat” and issue release parties for Dirty Magazine and the Mars Review of Books.

ImageA woman and two men, standing in a stairwell, face the camera. Another man, in a leather jacket, with his back to the camera, is headed downstairs.
The writers Rachel Rabbit White, left, and Nico Walker, in the townhouse stairwell with Mr. Rosset.Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

Late in the fall, as rumors swirled that the building was about to be sold, word went out that there would be one last gathering. On a November night, some 100 devotees shoved past the townhouse door to attend a rowdy wake inside. Poets in scarves sipped Fernet and writers in denim jackets drank cheap red wine. Others hung out on tattered sofas, flipping through the works of Henry James.

In the rear, a hushed crowd sat on the floor of a dark theater space equipped with a piano and a disco ball, waiting for the evening’s entertainment to begin. Acts included the blind soprano Nafset Chenib, who sang Verdi, and the literary critic Christian Lorentzen, who read his old humor columns from The New York Observer. A woman in the audience wearing Converse sneakers kept coughing as she smoked a cigarette.

Mr. Rosset, nervy and thin, wearing a dark suit, stood up and faced the crowd. “It wasn’t so long ago I was sitting here by myself and I didn’t even know any of you yet,” he said. “Now the building is getting sold, but I’m just thankful to so many of you for what this place became.” Some of the regulars started sobbing and hugging each other.

To its adherents, Beckett’s had become a downtown sanctuary for the city’s creative underclass. It started last spring, when the playwright Matthew Gasda, who is known for staging his works in lofts and apartments, was looking for a place to mount his satire “Dimes Square.” So an actor in his play, Fernanda Amis (the daughter of the novelist Martin Amis), approached her cousin, Pablo Marvel, who lives in the townhouse and is related to the family that bought the building decades ago, to ask about renting the ground floor. Mr. Rosset soon started managing things. During the run of “Dimes Square” performances, a scene was born.

Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times
Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

After Mr. Rosset thanked the crowd on that November night, the gathering turned into a drunken send-off to Beckett’s. Guests danced to Oasis beneath the disco ball while others chain-smoked beside space heaters in the host’s bedroom.

Among the mourners was a writer named Jonah Howell. “I’m from a swamp town near New Orleans and haven’t been in New York long,” he said, “but I’ve already learned the bar to entry to literary scenes is high here. You got to know the right people to get anywhere. But here, you just come and you’re in.”

“To read at those places like KGB Bar or the Franklin Park series it’s like you need a National Book Award or something,” Mr. Howell added. “There’s no segregated class here.”

The playwright Matthew Gasda at the piano, with the artist Alida Delaney.Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

Mr. Cail, the jazz guitarist, was standing near the bathroom line.

“Where are we supposed to go now?” he said.

As things shook out, Beckett’s wasn’t over quite yet.

‘It Ain’t Pretty’

Because the sale of a debt-ridden building in New York can be sluggish, the salon survived a few more months, resulting in a series of farewell parties with names like “Afterlife” and “Resurrection.” Amid the cigarette smoke haze at these bashes, the conversation often turned to Mr. Rosset and what would become of him once the townhouse was sold.

“I think this place will come to signify its era,” said Anika Jade Levy, a co-editor of the indie literary publication Forever Magazine. “Now that it’s ending, I hope Beckett knows he’s more to us than just a man with a cool loft.”

Cassidy Grady, an actor and playwright, whose “Fire Wars” was staged in the townhouse, shared the sentiment. “Beckett has never lived an ordinary life,” Ms. Grady said. “He’s been trying to figure out who he is through all this, but I think he thought he’d have more time.”

Mr. Rosset had become a subject of fascination to his acolytes, some of whom accosted him for selfies. They had heard whispers of a troubled life — that he was a scion of literary royalty who had been in and out of jail. And they wondered about the framed Richard Avedon photograph hanging in his bedroom, a 1979 portrait that shows him, at age 10, standing next to Samuel Beckett.

Late on a recent night, as yet another party emptied out downstairs, Mr. Rosset stood in his room, looking at the boy in the picture. “I still remember that day,” he said. “I flew to Paris with my father, and we all met at a cafe. I remember Beckett didn’t seem to like Avedon much. He said he’d only do the portrait if I was in it.”

“When I look at this picture,” he continued, “I feel sad for that kid. That’s not a happy child. He looks in pain. It’s like he’s looking at his future and it ain’t pretty.”

Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

Mr. Rosset had a privileged Manhattan childhood. His father, the founder of Grove Press, was a towering figure who published writers like Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs. He changed the course of American letters with his crusade against censorship by publishing works including D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” His legal slugfests resulted in landmark First Amendment cases.

The younger Mr. Rosset grew up in a townhouse not far from the one where he lives now. As a boy, he sat on the staircase to get a view of the cocktail parties attended by the likes of Norman Mailer and John Lennon. He spent weekends at a house in East Hampton, where the novelist Kenzaburo Oe stopped by for visits, and he sometimes encountered his father’s first wife, the painter Joan Mitchell.

“She overheard me learning how to say curse words,” he recalled. “She called me over and told me, ‘Your language, it’s beautiful.’”

Mr. Rosset’s struggles began in his teens. He said that he was expelled from two private boarding schools, Rumsey Hall and Blair Academy, and started experimenting with hard drugs at night in Central Park. He described his father, who married five times, as an absent parent, but said that, as his drug use worsened, so did their rift, resulting in a strained relationship that lasted until his death in 2012.

“It was easy to tell I was going down a bad road,” he said. “I always felt abandoned by my father, and that feeling came to define my life. But in fairness to him and my family, I was unmanageable.”

By his 20s, Mr. Rosset was using heroin and living in Bowery flophouses like the Providence and the Whitehouse Hotel. In the mid-1990s, he was charged with selling narcotics and petit larceny, putting him in Rikers repeatedly. Inmates nicknamed him “the Brain,” he said, after he taught a cellmate how to read.

“At the Rikers library, I found a rare first-edition Beckett book,” he said. “I shoved it down my pants and stole it. I sent it to my father to try and make amends. He mailed me some cigarettes after that.”

The actor George Olesky stood up from his place on the floor to the delight of the Beckett’s crowd.Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

In his 30s, Mr. Rosset worked as a bartender, a proofreader and an assistant at a small record label. He befriended a West Village eccentric, Mary Kaplan, who took an interest in him. “She told me: ‘I feel sorry for your cats. Why don’t you all come stay at my home for a week?’” he said. “Well, I’m still here today. Mary saved me.”

He moved into her townhouse, the same building that would become the site of his underground salon. As his stay expanded from weeks to years, he realized he had been taken in by a den mother of sorts. Ms. Kaplan’s father ran the Welch Grape Juice Company, and she used her largess to provide shelter for artists. Mr. Rosset helped take care of her until her death at 85.

One of her great-nephews, Mr. Marvel, lives on the fourth floor, helping manage the building for his family. “I think what’s happened here with Beckett was guided by Mary’s bohemian spirit,” he said.

In March, the building was put up for auction, and Beckett’s shut down indefinitely. Whatever happens next, Mr. Rosset said he was grateful for the ride, although he won’t exactly miss cleaning up after a bunch of hormonally charged poets and artists.

Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times
Casualties of another evening at Mr. Rosset’s salon.Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

“Lots of them are privileged, highly educated, bored kids, but I’m not knocking them,” he said. “They’ve desired to become part of something, and that touches me, because I’ve felt like an outsider my whole life. For the first time, I feel like I belong.”

Mr. Rosset declined to discuss the specifics of the Beckett’s business model, but said the money that guests kicked in had allowed him to make “enough to feed me and my cat.” The downtown scene that sprouted up around him, he added, also helped him make sense of his life. He’s even starting a publication, Tense, citing as its inspiration his father’s literary journal, Evergreen Review.

“There’s an irony that I’m now channeling my father with this space and this magazine,” he said. “I’ve tried to be a lot of things in my life, but doing this finally feels right, because it’s in my blood, and that’s because of him.”

The Last Last Party

Mr. Rosset threw one last bash, billed in his email blasts as “The Rear End.” On the night of the party, March 18, the townhouse was packed. A group of women in fur coats stepped out of a black S.U.V. and tried to talk their way inside, only to be told by the volunteers at the door that Beckett’s was over capacity.

“But I know someone reading tonight,” one of the latecomers said.

Some of the guests were wondering where the scene would go now.

The ballet dancer Ellen Frances in Mr. Rosset’s apartment on the night of her solo performance.Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

“People are already trying to make new places a thing,” said Meg Spectre, an artist who had a Tamagotchi tied to her purse. “I heard at Manero’s in Little Italy people tried staging a play, but the restaurant got too loud. A scene has to happen organically, like it did here. You can’t force it.”

The variety show that evening featured a reading by the novelist Nico Walker, a solo ballet performance by Ellen Frances and a pole dancing routine by Ella Wasserman-Smith. Mr. Rosset took part in a staging of a short Samuel Beckett play, “Catastrophe.”

Around midnight, Ray Laurél, a musician from London, left the party and approached Mr. Rosset on the sidewalk, saying, “I just want to thank you, Mr. Beckett. I’m a theater kid from London and I was trying to find the scene here. Someone told me to come here because it might be closing. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

Mr. Rosset, in his apartment at the townhouse. “For the first time, I feel like I belong,” he said of his time as the host of the literary salon that took his name.Credit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

Mr. Rosset gave a smile. Then he went back to picking cigarette butts off the sidewalk.

Two days later, Mr. Rosset was awakened by a call informing him that the movers had arrived. He rushed downstairs to watch them take away the piano, the chandeliers and the rows of antique chairs.

Then the moving truck drove off, hauling a scene away with it.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.