May 16, 2018
Hail and Farewell: Peter Mayer (1936 – 2018)
by Ryan Harrington
On Friday, May 11th, the publishing world lost one of its old-school icons when Peter Mayer died in his Soho home at the age of eighty-two.
Salman Rushdie’s memoir offers the finest-I-know description of Mayer as “a big, cuddly, tousle-headed bear of a man, famously attractive to women, soft-voiced, doe-eyed, much admired by his fellow publishers…” Mayer was at the very center of the worldwide controversy surrounding the publication of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses when he served as the CEO of Penguin from 1978 to 1997. In fact, in our book about the affair — From Fatwa to Jihad, by Kenan Malik — Mayer is a central figure, and is cited at length about the incident, when he found his own life, and that of his family, in jeopardy.
After leaving Penguin in the late nineties, Mayer turned his full-time attention to The Overlook Press, which he had begun with his father in upstate New York and had run intermittently during the previous decades. Overlook focuses on re-launching classic writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Charles Portis for a new generation.
At Overlook, I had the irreproducible experience of working with Peter for a short while. He was a rare figure: his reputation preceded him, and yet the real man did not disappoint. He really did smoke that many cigarettes in his office, he really did never stop working, he really could speak in useful axioms, and, yes, he really was that charismatic.
I’d bet that Peter had met every single person in publishing, and I think every single person in publishing remembers the moment they met Peter.
An obituary in The Bookseller highlighted some gems among these memories:
Writer and editor Fanny Blake… remembered: “In 1979 he asked me for breakfast where he impressively juggled a full English breakfast with countless cigarettes, then hired me to be Penguin’s chief editor, fiction. At the time he had just published M M Kaye’s Far Pavilions complete with what was considered a luridly illustrated cover. That earlier scepticism had turned to outrage. But he was unrepentant, and Far Pavilions went on to become a huge bestseller.”
[. . .]
Aitken Alexander m.d. Clare Alexander, also formerly at Viking, said: “Peter was a giant amongst a great generation. His extraordinary energy and vision, coupled with Peter Carson’s erudition and Patrick Wright’s business skills, made Penguin in the UK a powerhouse and a thrilling place to work and all of us who worked there were forged thereafter in a very particular way.
As someone who has taken dictation for Peter’s correspondences at all hours of the day, I can speak to his ability to pluck a perfect phrase right out of the air, recall an obscure literary reference, and end with a great joke before moving on to the next email like it was nothing.
It’s a shame to think that there was perhaps only one person capable of appropriately eulogizing so grand a figure as Peter Mayer — Peter himself.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.