The Olympia Press

Novelist Jack Kahane was born in Manchester in 1887, the son of Rumanian Jewish immigrants. In 1929, he established the Obelisk Press and moved to Paris in order to escape British prudence and censorship. He became a publisher of pornography to make a living and, at the same time, sponsor the publication of serious novels that were considered too risky by other houses, including Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the work of James Joyce, Anais Nin, Frank Harris, and Lawrence Durrell. His son, using the pseudonym Maurice Girodias, continued the business – but without his father’s good luck. The press went bankrupt and, in 1950, was sold to a rival firm. Three years later Maurice established the Olympia Press. He stuck to the example his father had set, publishing both erotic fiction and avant-garde classics by such authors as Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, and Lawrence Durrell. Pornographic titles were bound in distinctive green soft covers, numbered, and issued as the Traveller’s Companion Series. The firm’s list included titles such as The Ordeals of the Rod by R. Bernhard Burns, The Whipping Club by Angela Pearson and Book of Bawdy Ballads by Count Palmiro Vicarion. The Ophelia Press line of erotica was far larger, using the same design, but pink covers instead of green. Girodias turned the Olympia into one of the most sensational presses of its time. Its philosophy was simple: the printing of filth paid for the publication of quality, including Lolita by Nabokov (which led to a long dispute between author and publisher about the rights of the book), Molloy and Watt by Beckett, and several works by Jean Genet.

In the summer of 1954 Girodias received a letter from a young author who called himself J.P. (James Patrick) Donleavy which started thus: ‘Dear Sir, I have a novel in English called Sebastian Dangerfield.’ The novel, which was later renamed The Ginger Man, had for various reasons been refused by at least thirty English publishers. Some objected to the style of the story; others were unhappy about the explicit eroticism of some passages. Brendan Behan had been the first to read the manuscript. Although critical of parts of the novel, he instantly recognized its vitality. He reported back to Donleavy with the words ‘this book is gonna beat the Bible’ and suggested the Olympia Press as a possible publisher. Girodias bought the publishing rights for £250 and, in 1955, published an ‘unexpurgated’ version of the novel in his series of ‘green’ erotic titles. Donleavy felt humiliated and argued that Girodias had damaged his literary reputation. He declared the agreement null and void, and contracted Neville Spearman for further publication of the novel. Girodias sued the author for breach of contract in Britain, America and France. The legal battle ran for many years.

Luck would have it that the Olympia Press, due to the difficulties of operating under French censorship laws and to the various troubles the publisher experienced in dealing with copyright issues, went bankrupt. It was offered for sale at a Paris auction. Girodias intended to buy back his beloved publishing house. His offer was opposed by a woman unknown to him. She submitted the winning bid of £5,000 for the rights to Olympia’s backlist of some 285 titles. The woman was Mary Wilson Price – J.P. Donleavy’s second wife. Revenge was sweet for the novelist.

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