Approximately 500 people filled the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library on February 19 to celebrate the life of Sonny Mehta, the legendary editor-in-chief of Knopf and chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, who died on December 30.
Guests included authors, agents, booksellers, and people from the publishing industry. Paul Bogaards, executive v-p and deputy publisher at Knopf, noted that Sonny "was the thread that brought all these people together," adding that a number had come traveled from afar to attend the ceremony.
A theme that ran through most of the speakers' remarks was Mehta's total commitment to his authors and the world of books. Jon Segal, v-p and senior editor of Knopf, observed that Mehta "was happiest in the company of authors." Segal, as well as several other speakers, picked up on quote Mehta had used in accepting the Maxwell E. Perkins Award from the Center for Fiction in 2018, in which Mehta said he "wanted to be remembered as a reader."
An emotional Segal also reminisced about the many years he spent with Mehta, noting that Mehta's final day in the Penguin Random House office was the day of last year's Knopf holiday party. Segal recounted that Mehta told him he had found his successor, Reagan Arthur, and that he planned to be around for a while to help with the transition. "Was there ever a more elegant man?" Segal asked.
Tributes from authors all featured a favorite Mehta anecdote. James Ellroy called Mehta the greatest pubisher in the world of English-language books. He remembered a time when he and Mehta began talking about who would die first and what they would say at each other's wakes. Ellroy told Mehta if Mehta went first "I'll think of something" and then recited some poetry from A.E. Housman and a piece from the Book of Revalation.
Patti Smith said she had only met Mehta a few times, but had a lunch date set for January 15, 2020. At the request of Mehta's wife, Gita, she performed the Van Morrison song "Rave On, John Donne."
Filmmaker and author Ken Burns began his remarks by saying that when he was driving down to the service, he heard someone on the radio say that "today is prevent plagiarism day. Sonny would have got a laugh out of that." He called Mehta a "great noticer" and "the bravest of men" who "didn't suffer fools." Burns noted that at one point in his 32-year friendship with Mehta, the two got into a debate over the merits of baseball vs. cricket. After a series of arguments, Burns said he looked down at Mehta's desk and saw a pistol, at which point he agreed that cricket was a great game.
Carl Hiaasen said he was shocked when Mehta bought one of his first books. "I don't fit into any category," Hiaasen said he told Metha. " 'That why I want to publish you,' " Mehta's replied. Mehta was at work editing his most recent work when he passed away, Hiaasen said.
Sonali Deraniyagala acknowledged she knew nothing about publishing or writing when Mehta bought her memoir, and said she appreciated how Metha showed her the ropes. Though Mehta "was a giant in the world of books," Deraniyagala said she really loved "his tiny gestures."
Kazuo Ishiguro also spoke of the generosity of spirit of Mehta, noting that Mehta always insisted Ishiguro stay at his apartment whenever he was in New York.
Jordan Pavlin, now senior v-p and editorial director at Knopf, spoke of her 25 years of conversations she had with Mehta about books, and how she will miss those conversations. She called him "the most efficient editor on the planet," adding that one word from Mehta could cause a writer to frantically re-examine whatever Mehta had been critiquing. "His voice will be something those who work at Knopf will hear for the rest of their lives," Pavlin said.