Sonny Mehta arrived in New York from Pan in 1987, hand-picked by Bob Gottlieb to succeed him as only the third editor-in-chief in the history of Alfred A Knopf. Our paths inevitably crossed after I became book news editor of Publishers Weekly two years later. I’d worked in London publishing, and we hit it off; I became the PW editor with whom, from time to time, he would lunch.
Most of those meals, during which he invariably ate little, involved wanting to convey enthusiasm for certain books. Reading was his great kick: Sonny was probably the most passionate, international, and informed reader I’ve ever known. His desk and tables always had piles of amazing discoveries he’d made—volumes slim and fat—from around the globe. There was something of the essentially solitary nature of the reader always about him; yet when he took an interest in an author, he brought to it the proselytizing energy and fierce intensity of the most loyal fan. I’ll never forget being given a manuscript copy of The English Patient, and told to read it. For him, brilliant editorial selection and marketing was an extension of committed reading.
Reactions to his reign in the early years were mixed: he was a foreigner at the premier American literary house, whose style was so different from that of his sneaker-shod, sandwich-at-the-desk predecessor. Both men were uncompromising in taste, standards, and in being in charge—but in very different ways. Always “Sonny” to just about everyone—as if to offset the aura of innate dignity that would, more naturally, have demanded a “Mr Mehta”—he could be moody, or some reckoned “inscrutable”. When a curtain of silence descended during lunches, it had to be respected until eventually—and that might seem forever when sitting opposite him—it lifted. But Sonny could also laugh, charm, and amuse with the best of them. (Smoking and drinking were involved.) Unquestionably charismatic, he could also convey great warmth.
He understood the role and responsibilities of a publisher. He knew that for Knopf to survive with a modicum of independence, especially within a large corporate structure, it would have to pay its way. High literature needed an underpinning of highly commercial fare to make the numbers work: “mass” and “class” had to be symbiotic.
Publishing shrewdly and without apology, he saw opportunities, and took them. Random House had stopped giving Vintage the cultivating it needed; under Sonny, Vintage was reborn. He could be controversial: after S&S dropped Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho amid a howling uproar at the novel’s extreme content, Sonny published it. Knopf survived. With The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fifty Shades of Grey, and their many spawn, Knopf not only survived, but thrived, still Knopf, with the ornaments of Ishiguro, Morrison, Pamuk, Barnes, Murakami, and so many others intact, and newer ones—Lahiri, Danticat, Adichie—regularly added.
He returned to India from time to time, went back to London frequently, but remained in New York, navigating changes in the zeitgeist, in publishing, and in the company where he worked. Along the way, Pantheon and Doubleday also came under his wing. The big, often expensive bets that he made on books were much publicised; what wasn’t was the fact that under him, Knopf employees at last became better paid, much better than they’d ever been before. Also not making headlines were the deep personal attachments he’d forged with many of the best booksellers in America.
Sonny’s father had been a high-level Indian diplomat, and he had something of the diplomat’s delicacy about him. In 1991, after I was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, he made sure I knew of his concern. After I left the PW staff to go freelance, he stayed in touch, meeting for lunch or a drink; not everyone did. Once I started work on a biography of Random House’s co-founder, he was always interested.
I last met him for a drink in the fall. The shield of dignity was intact, despite the now very evident physical frailty and pain he tried so hard not to show as we walked from Penguin Random House to a bar across the street. We talked about publishing, and about my book. Much was left unsaid. He was both an editor, and one of the very greatest publishers—ever. It feels like the end of an era, now. I shall miss him.