LUNCHING ON GRAAVLOX in the Four Seasons Grill in New York, wearing an English velvet smoking jacket the color of his chocolate eyes and a wistful smile on his face, speaking of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, Maurice Girodias hardly seems like the man one would have imagined -- the man who made the world safe for pornography and lost, if not his jacket, several shirts in the process.
If the name Maurice Girodias is not familiar, perhaps the name of olymapia Press and its "Traveller's Companion" series may tingle a pleasurable memory. Published for the English-speaking market in Paris during the 1950s, the series included such memorable titles and forgettable books as Thongs, Helen and Desire, White Thighs, The Chariot of Flesh, The Woman Thing , and many, many more. The books were written for the summer tourist trade on the basis of orders received after the catalogue describing them went out each spring. A small colony of expatriate writers, some of them famous today, produced them to Girodias' order under such flamboyantly pseudonymous names as Carmencita de Las Lunas, Helen Lengel, Count Palmiro Vicarion, Akbar del Piombo, Marcus van Heller, and so on. The titles and the names of the authors were Girodias' own.Orders poured in with the April rains, and so did the money to commission and print the books. If the books received in June didn't precisely fit their descriptions in the spring catalogue, no one complained or even noticed. They did, after all, deliver the goods.
Today the "Traveller's Companion" series seems as quaint as the old apothecary shop in the Smithsonian Institution. Censorship weakened in the United States when Putnam published Nabokov's masterpiece Lolita in 1958. In 1959 Grove Press successfully published D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover . The following year grove published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer , and censorship was dead. So was the Olympia Press. In a world where The Happy Hooker and The Happy Hustler compete for attention at the corner drugstore; in a world where "leather" has taken on a new connotation and "discipline" does not refer to what the teacher did to you in school, where one's kinkiest fantasies are acted out larger than life in the movies, no one need resort to a smuggled copy of Thongs for hard-core titillation.
Wonders are many, and not the least of them is that the authors of these and many other books, great and small, owe their current financial success, at least in part, to this mild-mannered, beguiling Don Quixote, now approaching 60, married to a Cabot and living on Mount Vernon Street, hard by Louisburg Square, in the heart of genteel Boston, Massachusetts. "One feels one is living in a museum," he says, "and it's not my museum."
It would be hard to say where Maurice Girodias' museum might be located; his instincts have always been nomadic. He was born in Paris in 1919, lived mostly in France until 1967 when he settled in New York, continues to carry a French passport, and now possesses the green card -- which, as he points out, is actually blue -- of a resident of the United States.
Girodias' father, Jack Kahane, was an English Jew who made a small fortune as a very young man manufacturing velvet in Manchester and then, with the war, became an officer in the Bengal Lancers though he could scarcely ride a horse. He wore, however, a nomocle with considerable style. (Girodias took his mother's surname -- and bough a false identity card -- when the Germans invaded France.) His mother, whose Catholicism was modified by a heavy element of spiritualism, had spent most of her childhood in the Argentine. The vagaries of life brought the two together on a beach near Marselilles. They were married and when Maurice was born his mother believed him to be the reincarnation of her brother, for whom he was named. "I was much more her brother than her son," he says. Being his own uncle "gave an eerie atmosphere to my early childhood. Reincarnation was a fact of life. It leads to a certain attitude...."
In 1937, the young Maurice, under the spell of a spiritual leader in Paris named Vivian du Mas, set out to visit India. (He failed to reach it then but did finally make it to Sri Aurobindo's ashram in 1973. "A very curious experience," he says.) In the way of young men, Maurice also fell under a spell of a different sort, worshipping at the feet of the aged guru's young vestal and closest disciple who had, with Maurice, taken a vow of chasity. Their vows lent an exquisite poignance to his passion. But rules, as they say, are made to be broken and the young vestal eventually became his first wife. Thus did Eros triumph. Some might say it reigned supreme thereafter.
If Girodias' museum has not yet been located, some of its major exhibits can be clearly identified. In it, of course, would be the hundred-odd books of the famous series -- those "exercises in publishing pornography in a deliberate manner for people who wanted to believe in it" -- but also a small shrine dedicated to the monkeys sacrificed for the Bogomoletz cure.
The Bogomoletz cure is, Girodias says, "a highly suspicious treatment" consisting of injections of monkey glands. It was prescribed (by an unconventional analyst who thought a physiological shock was called for) during one of the many low points in Girodias' life. An earlier publishing venture, Les Editions du Chene, his marriage, a subsequent love affair -- all had failed. Girodias was a bankrupt, "a bum, a vagrant, an obsessive drinker." The cure worked wonders. "The six months I was so full of energy that I couldn't sleep, and my sex life became overpowering. I was 33 at the time, the same age as Christ on the cross. It left me a huge surplus of energy. That's what started Olympia Press."
That and the kindness of Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer had been published by Maurice's father's Obelisk Press in 1934. Miller gave Girodias Plexus to publish. The year was 1953. Quiet Days in Clichy followed, and later The World of Sex . The first four books published by Olympia were by Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Bataille, Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. Girodias published Beckett's Watt in 1954, and the first English version of The Story of O . The following year he published the first English edition of Nabokov's Lolita and J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man . In 1956 he signed up Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg to write Candy . It came out in 1958, was banned by the French who had begun a practice of seizing Olympia Press books, and reissued immediately as Lollipop . (When one of his books was banned, Girodias would reissue it under another title. Helen and Desire , for instance, became Desire and Helen .) Girodias published William Burroughs' Naked Lunch , and works by Chester Himes and Jean Genet. At the time most of them could not be published in Britain or the United States.
Successful then, he was also, suddenly, affluent. He wrote a biography of Roger Casement. He opened a nightclub, La Grande Severine. "I was a great inventor of spectacles," he says. One of the spectacles was a stage adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's book, The Bedroom Philosophers . It was his last spectacle. The Paris police closed the club. The end of censorship in the United States and Britain and legal difficulties in France closed the press. Authors were angry. Enemies were made. Books were, in Girodias' word, stolen. Litigation and contention. Girodias was again bankrupt.
How many times? "That's like asking a pretty woman her age," he says, and then reflects. "Oh, five or six -- in different countries. England, Germany, twice in France, twice in America. So far I've avoided bankruptcy in Italy, I don't know how. My past," he muses with a resigned but puzzled air, "is so disorganized and self-destructive. I work in ten-year cycles. I started my first publishing venture at 20. It lasted ten years and collapsed. I started Olympia Press and that flourished for ten glorious years. It collapsed. Then I missed a cycle. The fourth one is coming up. I have 20 more years to build another series of adventures, and I intend to take advantage of that time in the best manner possible."
One of the many projects he has underway is his autobiography, a three-part work written in French entitled Une journee sur la terre . The first volume, J'arrive! , which takes him up to 1942, was published in Paris in 1977. The reviews he shows were enthusiastic. The second and third volumes, Cause celebre (1941-1977) and Departs (1977 to 2000), are still to come.
So, surprisingly, is an American publisher. Girodias can occasionally be seen these days lurking in their corporate corridors, trying to interest one of them in the story of his life, which contains, he says, in his soft and wistful way, "a certain amount of order, a certain amount of order in my disorder. There has been consistent wrongdoing from beginning to end."
Henry Miller wrote him in 1977, after reading J'arrive!: "I remember so well... when you were in the packing room of your father's publishing house and I asked your father what you intended to become -- and he said -- not without a smirk -- 'a priest, no less!' From that moment I suspected you were something other than I had thought.
And indeed, he is. His museum, should it ever be placed, belongs in India, within an imaginary pyramid formed by the Kama Sutra , the temples of Konarak and Khajuraho, and the ashram of Sri Aurobindo. In Hindu culture -- and in Maurice Girodias -- the erotic and the spiritual have always been uniquely entwined. CAPTION:
Pictures 1 and 2, no caption, Photo of Maurice Girodias by Nancy Crampton