On 30th April 2019, ex-Penguin c.e.o. John Makinson stood in New York’s Leo Baeck Institute, welcoming an overflow crowd of 325 or so to celebrate his predecessor Peter Mayer, 11 days before the first anniversary of Mayer’s death. It strains credibility that the "irresistible, yet exasperating" enfant terrible "publishing nomad", who straddled the globe with "outsized footsteps" and an ever-present cigarette, has been gone a year.
The gathering followed remembrances in London and Frankfurt. "Why three memorials, I hear you ask," Makinson began, answering with a smile and wry second question: "Why only three? What about Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Delhi? Peter’s friends would have packed a hall" in those cities, too.
Makinson argued that in New York "the wider community never quite ‘got’ Peter" in the way it had in Frankfurt and London. With Jewish refugee parents from Germany and Luxembourg, Frankfurt was his "natural milieu, the heart of a European intellectual tradition within which he felt completely at home". London, "more complicated" and at first "unwelcoming", looked askance at the American mass-marketer who in 1978 came "to shake a bedraggled Penguin by the neck". In ostensibly un-British fashion, Mayer "never saw shame" in making money; in using a "scandalous" jacket that would sell; and in taking on the unions. London came to understand he rescued "a beloved public institution from oblivion". Brits place great store by eccentricity and amateurs: Mayer was both.
"A reader"; "endlessly curious"; "publisher first, merchant second"; and a "sophisticated, if somewhat erratic, businessman", Mayer was also a "true visionary", and an "internationalist" who saw promise in India two decades before competitors did. It took money, and Mayer was lucky to have Pearson’s Michael Blakenham, "a steadfast supporter", as his boss. Together, they courageously weathered the "horrors" of The Satanic Verses, and the legal "nightmares" of Spycatcher. "Everything is a bit duller now he’s gone," Makinson concluded.
A life less ordinary
Mayer’s only child, Liese, fiction director at Bloomsbury, brought the crowd to laughter recounting exactly how un-dull life with her father was. She described being 21, and with a 68-year-old father with two artificial hips, lost and without any means of transport on an empty highway in the middle of the Turkish countryside at 3 a.m.
Life with Peter was "adventurous, wild, scary, infuriating"; big and unforgettable. "Thrifty, even cheap, with memories of what the Nazis had taken from his family," Mayer had bought gold in his thirties, and buried it in the forest near his Woodstock country home. To find it 50 years later required an earth mover, Liese recalled, as her father had lost his treasure map.
Scholastic c.e.o. Dick Robinson described Mayer as "the best global publisher of his generation". Mayer had been a Scholastic director for 15 years, and asked "the best question" anyone ever asked of Robinson—"what are you afraid of?"—thereby helping him move forward and get on with life.
Knopf’s Carole Baron worked for Mayer for two years when they were both young, and was a friend for more than 50. "Peter was a publisher, not a re-printer, not a second-class citizen. ‘You don’t lower your standards, you expand your horizons,’" was how he saw it. The big reveal of the memorial came from her: Mayer at one point had a contract to write a novel for Dial Press (which Baron’s husband Richard co-owned in the 1960s).
Mark Gompertz, Skyhorse group editorial director, was the final speaker. He started at Overlook as a publicist, and 10 years later left as editorial director; he said it was because, while everyone acknowledged that Mayer had a temper and did not suffer fools, he could also be "an extraordinary teacher and mentor". From a similar background, Gompertz was a young boy the first time he saw Mayer, at a beach club frequented by German-Jewish refugees and their families. He watched, and knew: "I wanted to be like Peter Mayer when I grew up," a man whom Gompertz also likened to another Peter, "Peter Pan."
New York did "get" Peter—so many Peters—as much as any one place could.