Peter Mayer, the last lion

On May 11, Peter M. Mayer, international publishing legend, founder of The Overlook Press, and Woodstocker of more than 50 years, succumbed to amyloidosis at the age of 82. He died in his Greenwich Village apartment surrounded by family and friends, just around the corner from the offices of the Overlook Press. Forced into fighting retreat, Mayer had earlier transformed this apartment into a field office of sorts. From here, until very recently, health-care workers and editorial assistants catered to the whispered command of a man who would be stopped by nothing that lived. And so today, with glowing accolades still pouring in from around the world, publishers say farewell to the last lion of a golden age.  

Peter Mayer was born in London in 1936 shortly after his parents fled Nazi Germany. The Mayers emigrated to New York City in 1940. Above and beyond his elementary-school homework Peter read five library books a week. 

Despite such studiousness he once told an interviewer, “I was a very naughty boy — and I’m a naughty man…but I knew when to stop. I went just to the edge…” The statement neatly encapsulates his entire career. 

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At 16, Mayer won a Ford Foundation grant to attend Columbia. His parents expected him make his own way in the world upon graduation. “You want to be a writer?…Write at night.” Stints in the Merchant Marine, the Army, work in post offices, jobs as a waiter, cabdriver, and finally an errand boy at The New York Times followed. 

During these early years Peter won other full scholarships for further degrees in various American and European universities including at Christ College of Oxford and in Berlin. As a merchant sailor he jumped ship at Barcelona, rented a room in Ibiza in which he completed a novel accepted by the Dial Press, appeared in a movie, and after convincing the Spanish Coast Guard to chase the ship he’d just missed as it sailed for New York was promptly offered a film contract by the man who discovered Rock Hudson. Peter explained he wasn’t going to go to Hollywood. He was going to the University of Indiana! 

Why Mayer’s novel was never published is not known, but a subtler turning point came when a fellow cabdriver recommended he read the out-of-print-novel Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. A few weeks later Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso hailed Mayer’s cab, invited him to a party, and after one too many puffs of pot a third poet yelled, “Let’s drive to San Francisco! Who’s got a car?”

Peter volunteered his cab but failed to inform his employer until the four hit Kansas City. Although summarily fired, he completed the odyssey. As head of the largest publishing company in the world, Mayer would eventually publish The Complete Poems of Allen Ginsberg.

When a friend asked what sort of a job he’d like next, Mayer answered, “Something with words.” Minutes later he was shaking the hand of Milton Glaser, who’d eventually become his best friend. Glaser reached out on Mayer’s behalf to various luminaries including Roger Straus (of Farrar & Straus) and Clay Felker (with whom Glaser would create New York Magazine). 

In the meantime Peter answered an ad for a delivery boy at The New York Times. It paid $47 a week for “the lobster shift” from 7 p.m. until four in the morning. The only thing he learned, he said, was what whiskey which reviewer required when.

Clay Felker called late from Esquire magazine to ask whether Peter could write ad copy. “Of course I can,” Mayer lied. The pay was $97 a week writing ads for Rose’s Lime Juice and Angosturia Bitters. 

Next Roger Straus called. Mayer was soon writing reader reports of German, French and English works for Straus and publishing titan Alfred Knopf.

The offer to become Mr. Knopf’s primary reader coincided to the day with one from the tiny, struggling Orion Press. When Roger Straus heard that the ingrate Peter Mayer had turned down Alfred Knopf to go to work for a peon, he got Peter on the phone. “Schmuck!” Straus shouted. “If Tiffany’s wants you to go to work for them — you go to work for Tiffany’s!”

Peter’s decision to “learn every job imaginable” at a small, struggling publisher rather than accept a fancy job at a highly prestigious one proved to be the earliest indicator of renegade genius. Sure enough, Orion promptly failed, but not before Mayer acquired basic mastery of the entire trade. 

Next he was cultivated by a decadent character, later a publishing legend, named Frank Taylor, “who had an androgynous side he hoped would awaken a similar one in me. It didn’t — but I got the job, anyway.”

Avon calling

Before emerging as self-supporting entities, American paperbacks were the unruly offspring of magazine and newspapers publishers. Avon, owned by the Hearst Corporation, was a battered leftover of that era. As Mayer put it, “only a few young people who couldn’t get work at any reputable house inhabited its small, shabby office.”  Peter’s pedigree made him “Education Editor,” which allowed him to offer as much as $2500 for a title. 

He knew exactly which would be first. The rights to Call It Sleep belonged to an obscure New York bookstore (secured because so many readers requested it.) Peter appeared at lunch one day, bought the rights, sent out advance copies to the best reviewers, and was instantly rewarded with the front page of The New York Times Book Review. Call It Sleep soared to the top of the best-seller list.

Impossibly, Mayer continued to place one title after another on that list, until he was offered the presidency of Avon. He took the job. Because the company was so small, Mayer’s bestsellers eventually amassed the most profitable decade-long run of any paperback company in American publishing history. 

Among his cracker-jack crew Peter enlisted Woodstock’s Bob Wyatt from a nearby Doubleday bookstore. (Wyatt soon became something a legend himself, discovering, for instance, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and leading the boom it brought.)  

By now Mayer was feeling his oats. His combination of charm, erudition, movie-star looks, notorious tight-fistedness and irascible unpredictability combined to create a chain-smoking, epithet-hurling, coffee-guzzling tyrant instantly loved or hated (or more often both) by all encountering him. 

Along the way Mayer came to the attention of the first bad boy of paperback publishing, Ian Ballantine, who’d invented the game and also happened to hide out in the town Peter had fallen in love with as a young man, where he by now rented a weekend home: Woodstock, NY. 

Ballantine and Mayer were both guerilla publishers. Both found gold in the forgotten. Both built entire categories up from scratch. But unlike any publisher before him, Mayer would bid wildly on a title, defying sane explanation. Ballantine was “frightened for Peter” when Mayer paid a million dollars for a 60-page manuscript about a sea bird. At the height of its success Avon was publishing a million copies a week of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. 

Then Mayer paid another million for the paperback rights to the insipid “I’m Okay — You’re Okay,” which fast broke all previous sales for a paperback reprint. 

The Overlook Press and beyond

In 1967 Peter bought a seven-acre estate at the top of Lewis Hollow. The main house had been a turn-of-the-century tavern at the heart of the “Irish Village” of stonecutters, famous in the bluestone boom. (Little did Peter know at the time that Milton and Shirley Glaser had created a mini-Italian villa just down the road.)

In 1971 Mayer gained permission from Hearst-owned-Avon to publish a single hard-cover book in German with his own separate company, created in association with his father, Alfred Mayer, a retired glovemaker. This was Aufbau, a compendium of articles mainly by and for German Holocaust survivors in New York City, reprinted by what would presciently be called “The Overlook Press.” 

Said Alfred to his son, “I knew book publishing couldn’t be so difficult for you to have done so well. Really — it’s very like making a good pair of gloves. Let’s make more books!”

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But the Hearst Corporation refused. So Peter threatened to leave Avon. At that, the largest newspaper company in America blinked. Overlook was off and running. Utilizing his fluency in four languages, Peter Mayer sought out overlooked titles, edgy new authors, as well as local Woodstock writers, to indulge a rarified sensibility long frustrated. Overlook’s first and unlikeliest of breakouts came with a medieval Japanese treatise on war soon embraced by American businessmen: The Book of The Five Rings. Then a cat-and-mouse conversation from years earlier between Peter and Milton Glaser resulted in a unique publishing event. Said Peter: “Someday someone should publish a collection of your work.” Answered Milton: “Ask me.” The result would be Milton Glaser: Graphic Design, with Bob Dylan’s psychedelic hair emblazoning Overlook’s book. It was award-winning and perennially in print.

Evermore displeased, Peter left Avon in 1976 to take a job he liked even less as head of Pocket Books. He was amenable to the byzantine courtship with Penguin Books which resulted in Mayer leaving his father in charge of Overlook and arriving in London in 1978 to right a celebrated publishing empire gone terribly wrong.

By then, Woodstock town historian Alf Evers had completed his Woodstock: History of an American Town for Overlook. Prior to publication as a book, the Evers manuscript was run by arrangement with Peter Mayer in 65 installments in the local weekly newspaper.

After a chance conversation with Spider Barbour, the intrepid Mayer cold-called an obscure local history writer named Vernon Benjamin. Twenty-two years later Overlook published the second volume of Benjamin’s The History of the Hudson River Valley.

The magic alluded to on the doors Overlook’s first home in Lewis Hollow, “the apple house,” fast outgrew such humble beginnings. Eventually Mayer bought and improved the property across from the Bearsville Garage, having long before hired Janelle Perry straight out of high school to run the office along with Maureen Nagy. Sadly, the local office became a redundancy to Overlook’s inevitable Greenwich Village headquarters from which it is today run by Mayer’s long-time co-publisher, Tracy Carns.

Peter Mayer and daughter Liese.

The Yank who saved Penguin

When Peter Mayer and his fiancée Mary Hall arrived at Heathrow Airport in 1978, no one from Penguin bothered to meet them. An icy transition followed. Mayer fired his chauffeur and twenty per cent of the rest of Penguin’s staff. He took lunch in the cafeteria. He published hot-reads as well as high-brow literature. 

Then came his finest hour. At Mayer’s order, Penguin defied Iranian grand ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie and anyone daring to publish The Satanic Verses. Peter Mayer, as a publisher as passionate a believer in a free press as ever lived, gave not an inch. Writer Ed Sanders recalls literary lunches Peter hosted outside his house on Lewis Hollow with a silent man standing by wearing a harnessed pistol at his breast.

Eighteen years after Penguin’s chilly reception — and convinced to stay on an extra year with a million dollars plus —  Mayer had not only brought the international giant back from the brink of financial ruin but saved the Viking Press from a similar fate in the United States. He opened Penguin India. In celebration of Penguin’s 60th anniversary, he devised 60 tiny hardcovers priced at sixty pence (cents). Tens of millions of copies were sold. 

Halfway through his Penguin tenure Mayer took to flying back and forth from London to New York and around the world weekly. It suited his restless temperament, and the savings on duty-free cigarettes essentially paid for the trip. (A history of Mayer’s injuries and illnesses would read like a third world war.) 

Though his first marriage brought Peter his beloved daughter Liese — who is today head fiction editor at Bloomsbury — clearly, Mayer’s true love was publishing. Little wonder then that he spent so many fruitful years with biographer-extraordinaire Judith Thurman, or that his last and happiest relationship was at the side of Sophy Thompson, head of Thames & Hudson.

Back to Overlook

Peter’s timing in leaving Penguin in 1996 to run the Overlook Press could not have been better. While a desktop revolution was clobbering the giant publishers, Mayer resorted to his superb backlist, reefed his sails at Overlook, and headed straight into the storm. Missing his double life as Yank in the U.K., he gambled again in 2003 by purchasing England’s venerable if ailing Duckworth Press. He was soon printing identical Overlook-Duckworth editions to — as always — trim unnecessary costs.  He’d still go all in, as in buying Robert Littel’s superb CIA novel The Company which shared best-seller honors with a forgotten children book’s classic Freddy The Pig — all 28 incarnations of which were found in the public domain. 

Although known as a ferocious negotiator, privately Peter Mayer could be extraordinarily generous, as when he refused a sizable loan to an old friend — insisting the money be his gift. Forever a man of both child-like enthusiasms and petulance, whose impossible-to-please standards were frustratingly imposed by his own gorgeously overstuffed mind, he was both a learned throwback and a driven anticipator. 

To say he was “the last of his line” is in fact inaccurate. For better and worse, Peter Mayer will always be remembered as one mind-bogglingly unique human being.

He once said it was his intention to publish as many books as possible before falling over. As of last Friday, having brought thousands of mind-treasures to millions of readers around the world, Peter Mayer died. He had accomplished exactly what he had said he wanted to.

He is survived by his daughter Liese, his granddaughter Stella, his companion Sophy Thompson, and by The Overlook Press, which will press on. A man of the world in every sense, Peter Mayer chose to be buried in the Artist’s Cemetery in Woodstock after the ceremony at Lasher’s funeral home, attended by family and closest friends, on what proved to be May 14, 2018.

There is one comment

  1. Richard Fusco

    Without a doubt the most interesting person I have ever known. I have enjoyed his stories, conversations and unique personality for over 30 years. Read in peace my friend.

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