Peter Mayer, a leading figure in the book publishing world who was known for publishing Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel “The Satanic Verses” and for his fondness for republishing out-of-print works.
Mayer held top positions at several publishing houses during his career and was chairman and chief executive of the Penguin Group from 1978-1997, a period during which its Viking division published “The Satanic Verses.”
That book, first released in 1988 in Britain, offended some Muslims and caused Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the Iranian leader, to call for the deaths of Rushdie and his publishers. Rushdie went into hiding, but Mayer did not, despite receiving threatening letters and telephone calls.
“I was advised by many to live like a hunted man,” he said in an oral history for the online collection Web of Stories, “and to change my address, change my car, move into a hotel.”
The controversy put not only him in jeopardy but also anyone else who worked for Penguin, but Mayer said the principles involved were important.
“Once you say I won’t publish a book because someone doesn’t like it or someone threatens you, you’re finished,” he said. “Some other group will do the same thing, or the same group will do it more.”
In a far more lighthearted vein, Mayer also resurrected Freddy the Pig, an animal that was the basis for a series of children’s books popular when he was a boy. The Overlook Press, which he and his father founded, republished the books in recent years, something that gave him considerable joy.
“The Freddy the Pig books were all out of print,” he said in the oral history, “and I had the great pleasure of not only republishing them, but finding a new readership for them.”
Peter Michael Mayer was born on March 28, 1936, in London. His father, Alfred, would later establish a successful glove manufacturing business before joining his son in founding Overlook. His mother, Lee, was a homemaker.
His parents, who were Jewish, both spoke German — his mother was from Germany, his father from Luxembourg — and had immigrated to England only a few years earlier. The family was on a trip to the United States when World War II broke out in Europe, and rather than return they settled in the Kew Gardens section of Queens.
In Robert H. Lieberman’s documentary “Last Stop Kew Gardens,” Mayer recalled his reaction to the villains in war movies of the period.
“I thought my parents were like them,” he said, “and this embarrassed me terribly that my parents spoke at home the way these Nazis did in the movies. Little did I know that these Nazis in the movies were Jewish” — that is, they were sometimes portrayed by Jewish actors, like Otto Preminger, a commandant in “Stalag 17.”
The nearest library became a favorite destination for young Peter.
“I remember that we were allowed to take out on our library card five books a week,” he said, “and by God I took out five books a week.”
Even before he finished high school, Mayer received a Ford Foundation grant to attend Columbia University, where he enrolled at 16. After a detour to Oxford, he graduated in 1956.
He received a master’s degree in comparative literature at Indiana University in 1956 and was considering law school at Yale but, money being in short supply, first joined the merchant marine.
“I earned my living as a sailor,” he said. “As an engine-wiper, in fact, on ships going to Panama mostly.”
But the thrill wore thin, and after a few voyages he jumped ship in Spain. He took a stab at being a writer there, unsuccessfully; then, back in the United States, he took a job at a small publisher, Orion.
In 1962 he joined Avon Books, where in 14 years he rose to editor-in-chief and then publisher. He had one of his greatest republishing successes there, reprinting “Call It Sleep,” Henry Roth’s now-classic 1934 novel, in paperback in 1964. It sold more than 1 million copies.
In 1978, after a brief stint as publisher and president of Pocket Books, Mayer took over Penguin, which was then languishing. He presided over significant growth, expanding the line of Penguin Classics and acquiring several other publishers, including Frederick Warne, which had the Beatrix Potter line of children’s books, which he thought had been underpromoted.
“That took us into merchandising,” Mayer said. “We put Peter Rabbit on milk formula and I don’t know what else.”
He and his father founded Overlook in 1971 solely to publish one book, an anthology in German, that was special to his family. But that book found some unexpected success, so at his father’s urging they tried other projects, with an emphasis on republishing — not only Freddy the Pig but also P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, Charles Portis’ “True Grit” and more.
The company was named for a mountain near Woodstock, New York, where the Mayers shipped their initial books from an old apple shed, but the name came to have other connotations.
“Over the years,” Mayer wrote on the company’s website, “I’ve been happy to discover that most people think Overlook’s name relates to a penchant we have to publish books that for one reason or another have been ‘overlooked.'”
Mayer, though, didn’t like the distinction between new books and reprints.
“The real issue ought to be, is the book readable, is it valuable, is it good?” he said. “Who cares if it’s old or new? If you haven’t read the book and it’s an old book, it’s actually a new book. It’s a new book to anyone who hasn’t read it.”
Mayer married Mary Hall in 1980; they divorced in 1991. He was also the longtime partner of Judith Thurman, a writer for The New Yorker.
He is survived by his partner, Sophy Thompson; a daughter from his marriage, Liese Mayer; and a granddaughter.
Tracy Carns, associate publisher of Overlook, said Mayer’s wide-ranging interests served him well.
“He was a serious publisher who was also open to publishing, say, Sudoku books, and he sold millions of them,” she said.
She remembered his penchant for rule-bending, which would be evident at book fairs, where he paid no heed to the smoking bans.
“Peter would light up on our stand in Frankfurt,” she said, “and a friend would come by and ask if smoking was really allowed, and he’d say, straight-faced, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and soon the stand would be full of smokers. That was heaven for him — being a bit bad, talking about books, and being surrounded by international publishing pals.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.