More than 200 friends of former Penguin CEO and Overlook Press co-founder Peter Mayer gathered in a ballroom at the Grandhotel Hessischer Hof in Frankfurt on Tuesday to remember the late publisher. Mayer, whose legendary publishing career spanned both sides of the Atlantic, passed away in May, at the age of 82.
Born in London and raised in New York, Mayer began his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Orion Press in 1961, then quickly moved to Avon Books, where, over the course of 14 years, he rose to the position of publisher. After serving as publisher of Pocket Books from 1976 to 1978, Pearson chose Mayer to run its troubled Penguin Books division. When he left in 1996, the company had become one of the world’s largest, and most profitable, publishers.
In an interview with PW discussing his departure from Penguin, Mayer said Pearson had wanted him to take a seat on the company board and to oversee some of the conglomerate’s other businesses. “I didn’t want to retire as a corporate executive, but as a book publisher,” said Mayer, who was 60 at the time, to PW’s John Baker. Upon Mayer’s exit, Lord Blakenham, Pearson chairman, said the company owed Mayer “an enormous debt of gratitude” for turning what had been largely a money-losing British publisher into a worldwide publishing powerhouse.
At the Hessischer Hof on Tuesday, there were some tears—but mostly smiles and laughs as Mayer’s friends offered tributes and remembrances, recalling his many adventures throughout the world, his publishing acumen, his abiding love of family and friends, his legendary penchant for smoking, and the many careers he helped along in his remarkable life. It doesn’t seem like a Frankfurt Book Fair without him many remarked, recalling Mayer’s surprisingly good German, and his love for the fair.
Kicking off the toasts, Grove Atlantic executive editor George Gibson spoke movingly of Mayer. “It is I feel a luxury when a mentor also becomes one’s great friend,” Gibson said. “You were larger than life, and you loved life to the fullest. You were courageous and opportunistic—Salman Rushdie to Sudoku. Your tastes were wide-ranging—mass-market to art. You were as at home in a corporate corner office as in a fierce independent. And you were indomitable.”
In his toast, Richard Charkin summed up Mayer in a single word: mensch. “He was to me a sort of godfather, I confess,” Charkin said. “I worshiped him, to be honest. And I’ve heard lots of things about him, lots of stories, we all love him, but one word hasn’t come out that I think should be applied—he was a mensch.”