By Thomas Clavin
The legion of legendary editors who earned fierce loyalty from some of the top authors in the United States was diminished last week by the death of Alice Mayhew. She died on February 4 at 87 at her apartment in Manhattan. This past Sunday, a funeral was held in Sag Harbor, where she had lived part-time for decades, first on Madison Street and then on John Street. She left no immediate survivors; her brother, Leonard, also a Sag Harbor resident, died in 2012.
Ms. Mayhew could be considered old school in the book publishing industry in that she remained with the same company — Simon and Schuster, where at her death she was a vice president and editorial director — for her entire career, and was the editor of many of her authors’ books for most of their careers. She was born in Brooklyn on June 14, 1932, grew up in the Bronx, and joined Simon and Schuster in 1971. The publication of “Our Bodies, Our Selves” two year later was the first in a seemingly uninterrupted string of books edited by Ms. Mayhew that achieved critical or commercial success, and often both. Her editing of “All the President’s Men” was crucial to its success and impact on American politics, with President Richard Nixon resigning in August 1974, two months after the book’s release. With that book she began a long professional relationship with the author Bob Woodward, which continued into 2018 when “Fear: Trump in the White House,” the 19th collaboration between Mr. Woodward and Ms. Mayhew, being released.
As part of Simon and Schuster’s 90th anniversary celebration in 2014, staffers selected 90 of their favorite titles published by the company. Of those, 29 had been edited by Ms. Mayhew. During her 49-year tenure at Simon and Schuster, her roster of authors included President Jimmy Carter, John Dean, E.J. Dionne, Frances FitzGerald, Diane von Furstenberg, David Gergen, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thomas Hoving, David Maraniss, Sylvia Nasar, William Shawcross, Sally Bedell Smith, James B. Stewart, Evan Thomas, Mark Whitaker, and Amy Wilentz. Not surprisingly, the roster also included prominent authors who resided in and around Sag Harbor: Betty Friedan, J. Anthony Lukas, Kati Marton, Walter Isaacson, Judith Miller, Richard Reeves, Carl Bernstein, Robert Sam Anson, and Jennet Conant.
The writer and editor David Masello, in an op-ed in last Thursday’s New York Times, recalled working for Ms. Mayhew at Simon and Schuster in the early 1980s when he was just out of college. He remembered the bottom drawer of her desk filled with postcards she had purchased during trips to France: “The moment she needed to thank an author for a revision or encourage a first-time novelist to keep going, she opened the drawer, pulled out a card and wrote with a pen she’d sometimes have tucked behind an ear. She paid no attention to whether the postcard image had any relationship to the recipient.”
Sag Harbor was a both a retreat from office life for Ms. Mayhew and fertile ground for nurturing writing talent and professional connections — even if, at times, she had to delegate. One of Mr. Masello’s assignments was to stay at Ms. Mayhew’s house in Sag Harbor to help Jane Howard finish her biography of Margaret Mead. “Every morning,” he recalled, “I walked down a quiet Sag Harbor street to meet Ms. Howard in her office, a converted garage. I drove to the local library to confirm facts and collate the finished pages.” Also in Sag Harbor were cocktail parties “where Wilfred Sheed and Richard Reeves and James Salter gathered to clink and sip until dinner.”
The house on John Street was also where Ms. Mayhew hosted holiday gatherings. “There were wonderful Christmas parties with caroling ever year,” remembers Hilary Loomis, a writer whose husband, Robert, cut from the same cloth as Ms. Mayhew, was an editor at Random House for 54 years.
Immediately after Ms. Mayhew’s death, Carolyn Reidy, the president and CEO of Simon and Schuster, paid tribute to the editor and her traditional view of her role: “Alice’s loyalty to her authors was so absolute that despite her extraordinary record in publishing and the many offers she received over the years, she repeatedly refused to participate in any form of publicity or recognition for her achievements, never wavering in her conviction that the spotlight should always remain entirely focused on her authors. It is no wonder, then, that her dedication and commitment were frequently returned in the form of author-editor relationships that lasted decades and entire careers.”