Howard Rose was the oldest of two surviving sons of Sam Rose (c.1897-?), a restaurant manager and owner, and his wife Etta Donchin Rose (c.1898-1952), both of Russian Jewish descent.
Rose served in the army in World War II, and studied painting and art history for four years at the Art Institute in Chicago. He moved to New York in 1950, where he made a career working in the art galleries. With his partner Raymond Saroff (b. 1922), he began to collect art in the late 1950s, developing a particular interest in folk art. Saroff described their collecting in 1989: "Over a period of twenty-five years our collection came to include more than 300 items. The variety was enormous—sculptures and paintings, of course, but also furniture, rugs, quilts, drawings, toys, theorems, tramp art, etc.—most of it from the 19th and early 20th centuries."
|The 1969 Macmillan cover|
In New York Rose also began to write fiction. He published only one novel during his lifetime, that being Twelve Ravens: A Novel of Witchcraft (New York: Macmillan, [February] 1969). It was well-reviewed. Kirkus Review described the book as "a starling, stygian tale of a witches' coven in the midwestern hills, vaulting out of the dark venue of Poe with something of the manic, picaresque energy of Pynchon." The story centers on a Jewish family, Max and Rose Lavin and son Alan. Their handyman, called Gypsy, is a magus and the leader of the rural town of Braddox, southwest of Chicago. Its modernist take on the occult was perhaps a bit too early to be appreciated. Rose wrote several more novels before his sudden death.
From 1979 to 1982 Rose wrote a book on Unexpected Eloquence: The Art in American Folk Art. The first chapter appeared in Art in America for January 1982, but the full book did not appear until 1990, three years after Rose's death, when it was published by Raymond Saroff in association with the Edith C. Blum Art Institute at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, where there was an exhibition of selections from the Howard Rose / Raymond Saroff Collection of American Folk Art from December 1989 through March 1990.
Saroff also reprinted Twelve Ravens in 1990, and published for the first time three other Howard Rose novels, The False Messiah trilogy, comprising The Pooles of Pismo Bay (1990), a Great Depression sage concerning the Wobbly sensibilities in the Poole family; Oak Street Beach (1990), a short novel concerning Reuben Poole, set fifteen years after The Pooles of Pismo Bay; and The Marrano (1992), the third in the sequence though it overlaps in time with Oak Street Beach. None of these have the overt occult presence found in Twelve Ravens.