“Everyone adored him.” Remembering legendary publisher Peter Mayer, a free-speech hero.

Share

A charismatic enfant terrible: “As gracious as he was wise.”

Publisher Peter Mayer has died at 82. “Everyone adored him,” a friend wrote to me.

I interviewed him briefly, by phone in 2002, for an article in the Times Literary Supplement (republished by  The Los Angeles Times Book Review), at the time Ardis Publishers was acquired by Overlook Press, the independent publisher that he founded with his father, Alfred Mayer, and ran for nearly fifty years. He was a charming and intelligent interviewee, but I didn’t know then he was a legend.

From Publishers Weekly: “Once one of the most charismatic publishers, known for his penchant for smoking wherever he was, Mayer had suffered a number of injuries and illnesses in recent years.

“Born in London and raised in New York, Mayer began his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Orion Press in 1961, then quickly moved to Avon Books, where, over the course of 14 years, he rose to the position of publisher. After serving as publisher of Pocket Books from 1976 to 1978, Pearson chose Mayer to run its troubled Penguin Books division. When he left in 1996, the company had become one of the world’s largest, and most profitable, publishers.”

Praising a life “at full tilt”

Steve Wasserman now heads Berkeley’s Heyday Books, but back in 2002, he was my editor at The Los Angeles Times Book Review. He also knew the publisher well. Apparently everybody did. “Peter Mayer lived at full tilt,” he wrote. “I adored him. As generous with his smokes as he was with his advice, he always had time for me, was always encouraging, and was a deep well of marvelous stories. He was a bridge spanning the past and my own present. And somehow he was one of the most handsome men even into old age I ever met. As gracious as he was wise.”

Andy Ross, now a literary agent but then proprietor of Cody Books in Berkeley, has a special reason to remember Mayer. “I’m thinking good thoughts for Peter and his family,” he told me. “When I first became a bookseller in the 1970s, Peter was considered the enfant terrible of book publishing. It was a pretty stodgy business back then. Peter broke the mold when he became head of Pocket Books. He was young. He wore jeans. He was brilliant and charismatic. Every woman I knew had a crush on him.”

It survived the fatwa. (CreativeCommons)

When, in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie‘s head for his book, Satanic Verses, Peter Mayer’s heroism – and Andy’s – came to the fore.  Andy’s bookstore Cody’s, which refused to drop the book, was bombed in the middle of the night, two weeks after the fatwa was announced – I wrote about that here.

“Peter was the head of Viking Books, Rushdie’s publisher. At the time of the bombing, Satanic Verses had sold out and there were almost no stores that had copies left. Peter called me to express his support for us and told me the new printing was coming out the following Monday. He was going to air freight our copies so that we would be the first and only store in America with the book. Oy vey!”

Unlamented.

One of the women who had a crush, and admits it, is book editor and media journalista Maureen O’Brien. “They don’t make publishers like that no more. He was the coolest,” she said. “Peter Mayer. I always had a big crush on him. From NYC cab driver to the head of Viking/Penguin Books Worldwide, he pretty much invented the publishing of trade paperbacks and kept Salman Rushdie safe and mostly sound during his time in hiding after the release of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses.

“I will always remember covering the American Booksellers Association in Washington, D.C. and interviewing Peter at the Penguin exhibit while bomb-sniffing German Shepherds roamed the aisles of the convention center in search of Islamic terrorists. To me, he was the best kind of great.”

Missed.

From The New York Times obituary:

“I was advised by many to live like a hunted man,” he said in an oral history for the online collection Web of Stories, “and to change my address, change my car, move into a hotel.”

The controversy put not only him in jeopardy but also anyone else who worked for Penguin, but Mr. Mayer said the principles involved were important.

“Once you say I won’t publish a book because someone doesn’t like it or someone threatens you, you’re finished,” he said. “Some other group will do the same thing, or the same group will do it more.”


Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply