Monday, May 28, 2018

The word is bereft: remembering Peter Mayer

In the space of just a few weeks this spring, the world of readers lost three of the great ones—Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, and Peter Mayer, a publisher unlike any other who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82. Peter's passing has left me feeling bereft. I had always considered him one of The Immortals.

If Peter’s name is unfamiliar, here’s my favorite way to introduce him: the first time I met Peter, I served him a slew of eighteenth-century insults…and he loved them.

At the time I had recently and somewhat improbably licensed an (abridged) edition of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary to George Gibson, then the owner of Walker Publishing. You need to meet Peter Mayer, George advised. He will have ideas for you.

I needed some. I was the editor of a small specialty-publishing imprint that was a sideline business to a larger company in Florida. I was tasked with publishing books that would not be sold anywhere else but would still sell.

Put another way: I was nobody in particular in the publishing world, and I was going to meet someone who was legendary.

At that point Peter was in the last chapter of his extraordinary publishing career, after his time as CEO of Penguin in Britain, and after he had published Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses despite the death threats. Peter was by then running Overlook Press out of his very-downtown Manhattan office, whose squeaky wood floors and lively hum signaled to visitors that this was no corporate bland land of publishing.

Peter's preposterous idea

Peter and I met at the London Book Fair, in 2003. I wanted to take him something for our first meeting, but what? A book was superfluous. As a line extension to the Johnson dictionary, we had created a set of magnets that each sported one of the more colorful insults from the book—slubberdegullion, fopdoodle, and the like. So I took Peter a tin of Samuel Johnson’s insults.

And that was how our friendship began. The consummately shrewd Peter immediately grasped what I was trying to do with this small imprint and, just as George promised, had an idea. He would reprise some of the more expensive, out-of-print books he had published in years past, and we would publish new versions of them as high-end, limited-edition books.

The only way I could successfully sell them, though, was if I sold them exclusively, not jointly with Overlook. For anyone else, this would have been a deal breaker. For Peter, it was barely a shrug. He would wait until I’d sold through my stock and then bring out a slightly different version for Overlook.

The word bubbling up in the head of any publisher reading this is most likely: preposterous. Who does this? Who sits on inventory until somebody else sells through their stock?

The word is generosity

I never did fully understand why Peter was so uncommonly generous to me. He was a savvy businessperson, evident in his commanding presence. He punctuated it with a voice that was unmistakable—a Cary-Grant-on-steroids voice, but with more of a New York accent, his home for most of his life (although he was born in England). It was a voice that spoke of keen intelligence, to say nothing of experience.

Most of all, Peter really didn’t need this idea of his for his own imprint.

But he was of his own era and mind, a book man who believed in the near-alchemistic powers of books. Even more—and more simply—Peter was kind.

He and I published some stunning books together: Jerusalem, The Saga of the Holy City; The Grimani Breviary; The Sarajevo Haggadah. I confess that when Peter proposed the last one to me, I didn’t know what a Haggadah was. Aren’t you Jewish? he said incredulously. Half-Lebanese, I assured him.

It was only the second time I knew Peter to be (momentarily) nonplussed. The first was when I told him, between tears, that I could never repay him for what he’d done for me.

The last book we published together was a collection of Redouté’s famous flower paintings. We produced it as an “unbound book,” an idea that I suggested and Peter enthusiastically endorsed. If anyone actually beams with pride anymore, I did when Peter said he liked the idea.

There was another, bigger project afterwards that we planned to collaborate on. But then the sideline-business imprint got sidelined. I wrote Peter to let him know. He immediately wrote me back, distraught. When he called me shortly after that, I could hear the concern in his voice. I was to come see him anyway, when I came to New York.

I never got that chance. But Peter had given me a much larger chance—the opportunity to do, at least for a short time, the work I loved best.

I was a small, insignificant speck in a world where he was a giant. There was really no reason for him to help me the way he did. But that was the way Peter Mayer lived.