I interviewed Peter Mayer many times, but a dozen years ago, I sat down to talk with him for a biography I’m writing about Random House cofounder Bennett Cerf. Any young comer was on Bennett’s radar, and in the 1960s, long before Peter recalled Penguin to life, he rose meteorically at Avon, turning a tiny Hearst subsidiary into a mass market powerhouse. Starting as education editor, he reprinted a nearly forgotten masterpiece, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, which became the first paperback reprint ever to get a New York Times Book Review front-page review. It went on to sell a million copies.
Bennett wanted to meet this fellow. He invited Peter to lunch, and kept inviting him: they lunched perhaps three times a year until Bennett’s death in 1971. “He never offered me a job,” Peter recalled, “but often asked if I’d like to work at Random House.”
After Peter died on May 11, I looked back through my interview notes and thought about how many things he and Bennett shared—the stuff that went into making them both such culturally transformative publishers: they had outsize, demanding egos and flitting attention spans, but also openness; protean brilliance and a bone-deep love of books; playfulness; generosity; a democratizing desire to popularize; shrewd, competitive toughness beneath the warmth; the ability to grasp the direction the culture was heading; and a wellspring of rare, boyish energy fueling all of the above.
Peter talked about beginnings—being born to Jewish parents from Germany and Luxembourg who had fled to London, then New York. Like Bennett, he left high school a year early and went to Columbia. After college, he joined the Merchant Marine but jumped ship in Barcelona. Then it was comp lit in Indiana, German lit in Berlin, and back to Britain (the country he’d left at age four) and Christ Church College, Oxford.
When Peter returned to New York, he became a night messenger at the New York Times, a cab driver, etc. A friend introduced him to the artist Milton Glaser, who, among other graphic work, designed book jackets. Glaser connected him with publishing houses, and Peter soon read and reported on German and French books for Roger Straus Jr. and Alfred Knopf. He also got a job writing ad copy for Esquire.
“I was putting a lot of creative work into the reports—I had small illusions about writing,” Peter recalled. One day he got a call at Esquire summoning him to lunch with Knopf; Peter went. It turned out that Knopf wanted to hire Peter as his personal reader.
“Too young to be intimidated” by the famously intimidating Knopf, Peter said he was instead dogged by a “feeling of treason”: the night before, he’d been offered a job by Howard Greenfeld of Orion Press, which published books in translation. Both paid $110 per week.
“When I got back to the Esquire office, I got a call from Roger Straus,” Peter said. Straus had heard about the lunch from a friend at Knopf.
“Kid, you’re about to be offered a job by Alfred Knopf!” Straus said.
“I’m about to turn it down,” Peter replied.
A long pause, then: “Schmuck, if Tiffany’s wants you, you work for Tiffany’s.” Straus hung up.
Peter went to Orion, into the Army, then back to Orion. There, he “learned about being a small publisher.” Then it was Avon, and briefly Pocket.
“Sonny Mehta and I both came up through mass market and learned how to publish all kinds of books,” Peter said. “People often looked down on us in those days, but we were much closer to the tempo of the nation that way, not publishing just the books that flattered us.”
In 1972, while at Avon, Peter formed a small publishing company with his father—they called it Overlook—to copublish, with a German publisher, one book—a very personal project: Aufbau. The title means reconstruction, and the book is 400 pages of documents, in German, about German-Jewish culture in exile.
An intellectual, a consummate international, a man willing to put his life on the line for a book, Peter revived and transformed Penguin during two decades. Afterward, Overlook was waiting. In each generation, there are many good publishers. Peter was a truly great one.
Gayle Feldman has written for PW and the Bookseller for 30 years. She is currently writing a biography of Bennett Cerf for Random House.