An overflow crowd of trade publishing luminaries packed the auditorium of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City last week for the third, and final, memorial service for Peter Mayer who, over the course of his long career, revived Penguin Publishing and cofounded the Overlook Press, which he continued to run until his death last May.
Previous services were held at the London and Frankfurt book fairs, all arranged by his daughter, Liese. In his opening remarks, onetime Penguin chief executive John Makinson said that while it was certainly possible to hold more tributes to Mayer in other cities across the world, three felt about right. New York “bookended Peter’s life,” Makinson said, but noted that the Frankfurt Book Fair best reflected what he was about.
Frankfurt, Makinson said, was “Peter’s natural milieu, the heart of a European intellectual tradition within which he felt completely at home. Patrolling the stands of the book fair, buying English language rights to Dutch literary fiction or a puzzle book for kids, greeting old friends, swapping languages with ridiculous facility, cadging cigarettes at the annual Peter Mayer dinner—that week in October somehow defined Peter.“
Other speakers' remarks were filled with the many anecdotes they had of life with Mayer. His daughter remembered getting into an argument with him while stranded somewhere in eastern Turkey. After they reached their destination, they managed to get kicked out of the guest house where they were staying—but before too long, Liese said, the two were laughing over the events of the past 12 hours. “And that, pretty much, was how every day with my father went. Adventurous, wild, scary, infuriating, but always so much bigger and more unforgettable than my days without him,” Liese said.
The following seven speakers spoke of Mayer’s charm, energy, chain-smoking abilities, and penchant for falling asleep during dinners, but also his devotion to publishing and his commitment to mentoring the next generation of publishers. Scholastic chairman Dick Robinson called Mayer “the best global publisher of his generation” and went on to recount his many visits to the Mayo Clinic with Mayer, which always seemed to involve an unusual incident or two. Carole Baron said while there are many adjectives to describe Peter, "common is not one of them."
Tracy Carns, who worked with Mayer at the Overlook Press for 29 years, reflected on his “wide-ranging tastes” as well as his courage in standing firm on something he believed in, most notably his determination to publish Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses despite death threat from the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Mark Gompertz, now at Skyhorse, said he knew Mayer since he was a kid observing: “I always wanted to be like him when I grew up.” Mayer, Gompertz said, "had more lives than a cat," but through it all he was “a man of a letters and a dedicated family man.”