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Special Report

The Good, the Bad, and the Obscene

Plexus was the first book published by the Olympia Press. Girodias’ father, Jack Kahane, had published Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934 for which Girodias had designed the cover. He was fifteen years old at the time.
White Thighs was one of the more racy titles of the Olympia Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Olympia Press of Paris—The Publishers Who Defeated Censorship, a pamphlet

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

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

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

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