Publisher Peter Mayer dies at age 82

NEW YORK — Peter Mayer, a leading mainstream and independent publisher of the past half century who acquired such million-selling books as "Up the Down Staircase" and "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and was known for his innovative and volatile style, died Friday at age 82.

Mayer's daughter, Liese Mayer, told The Associated Press that he died at his Manhattan home of complications related to amyloidosis.

In an email Friday to The Associated Press, a former publishing colleague and executive, William Shinker, called him "a brilliant & charismatic publisher and a gifted business man."

"He was also a friend & mentor to many men & women in publishing on both sides of the Atlantic."

Mayer was a London native and Columbia University graduate who broke into book publishing in the early 1960s. At Avon Books he demonstrated a knack for finding unexpected best-sellers, especially during an era when different companies often released a book's hardcover and paperback editions.

Mayer had driven a taxi for several years and was told by another driver about a coming-of-age novel written in the 1930s and long forgotten: Henry Roth's "Call it Sleep." Mayer found a copy at the New York Public Library, tracked down the owner of the book's copyright and, for $2,500, purchased paperback rights for a novel that went on to sell more than a million copies and was praised as a literary classic.

In his publishing history "The Time of Their Lives," Al Silverman described Mayer as a "gorgeous young fellow with curls" while also acknowledging that some regarded him as "a raging egomaniac." Mayer was a "bionic wonder," according to Silverman, who would "smoke, yell at his associates, smoke some more, yell some more, and, every once in a while, come up with some revolutionary new way to make money in book publishing."

After "Call it Sleep," Mayer had similar success with "Up the Down Staircase," Bel Kaufman's beloved novel about an idealistic school teacher; Thomas A. Harris' pop psychology favorite "I'm OK — You're OK" and Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." He was an early fan of John Irving and, at Pocket Books, which he joined in 1976, Mayer acquired the paperback for Irving's breakthrough "The World According to Garp."

He rose to the heights of publishing power, serving as chair and CEO of Penguin from 1978 to 1997, and presiding over a company where authors included Saul Bellow, Stephen King and Don DeLillo. But he also co-founded Overlook Press, focusing on works otherwise "overlooked" by major publishers such as Penguin. Overlook has released spy novels by Charles McCarry and Robert Littell among others and reissued the comic works of P.G. Wodehouse and "True Grit" author Charles Portis.

"'I'm happy as a book publisher," he told The New York Times in 1998, soon after leaving Penguin and returning to Overlook, which he and his father started in 1971. "I loved my 19 years being a CEO. I loved it to distraction, but I couldn't do it till I'm 80. So I love being big and I love being small."

Mayer received numerous honors, including France's Chevalier medal and a lifetime achievement award from the London Book Fair.

He was also at the center of one of the most consequential publications, Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." After Penguin released the novel in 1988, Muslims burned copies in the street and demonstrated around the world and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree, or fatwa, calling for the author to be killed. Rushdie was forced into hiding, the novel's Japanese translator was murdered, and the Italian and Norwegian translators were attacked.

The book also created tension between Mayer and Rushdie, and some of the author's supporters. Rushdie wanted Mayer to release the paperback and became angry when Mayer hesitated, citing concerns about the safety of Penguin employees.

"He thought it was important to show the flag, show his flag, if you like," Mayer later said of Rushdie. "But, of course, he was guarded. We were not. We had to go home."

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