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A lucky guy in every respect

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A happy and adventurous early life
Peter Mayer Publisher
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[Q] Did you have a happy childhood?

I did, I had an extremely happy childhood with a fantastic father and a quite difficult mother.  And I had difficulties with my mother because she was very strict and very Germanic.  But I gave her some slack in her later years when I realized that she was worried about me.  She had her own sense of what was normal.  What was normal was always something that was defined by her own life, not by the life of somebody she was describing or worried about. 

My father was a bear of a guy, not very large, but he was huggable and he hugged me a lot.  My mother did not hug me a lot.  After a certain age… I mean, she did hug me as a child, but I think at the age when I was becoming difficult, probably at seven or eight, she stopped hugging me so much and started criticising me a lot.  And she never stopped that. 

But I did think that it was a very happy childhood because it was extremely secure. They got along very, very well, they did everything together, sports they did together, holidays they did together, they liked the same friends, we had a home that was open and tons of friends, relatives were always coming, they were always visiting.  I had a great childhood.  But childhood ends, doesn't it?  And my father was rather… I think my mother and father were quite strict moralists in the sense that at a certain age you should do everything yourself, and I got that message, actually at the age of 16 because I was lucky or fortunate, I don't know what, reasonably talented, and I won a university grant from the Ford Foundation to go to any one of four great universities: the University of Chicago, Yale, Wisconsin or Columbia, before finishing high school.

So I never graduated from high school and I was off at the age of 16 to university, and I think this had both good and deleterious effects on me.  Deleterious in the sense that I was independent of my parents at the age of 16.  I think probably some longer period of longevity or dependency would have been very good for me, but it made it possible for me to say no to almost everything that my parents thought was appropriate for me, because the Ford Foundation was paying for everything, not only the tuition but my room and board.  I did have to go to Columbia because at the age of 16, I needed my parents' permission to both leave high school early, but also to enter university and they did not want me to live any further than Columbia, which was in New York City. I did board there, but they didn't want me to go Yale or Wisconsin or Chicago, as I was 16 years old and they worried. 

Well, I chose or was or… Columbia was chosen and it turned out to be terrific, and I don't think any of the other choices would have been any less terrific.  I think too much is made by what school you go to, what university you go to, what public or private or whatever it is.  I think a lot of the students either have it in themselves or they encounter good teachers who inspire them, or they come from a home that honours what you have to learn or what you do learn.  And I think this very middle class vying for what school you get into, which is a feature of American and British life, putting kids down for enrolment in this place or that place because the mother or the father went to this place or that place, because you will get some preferment if you go to this place or that place, I think it's all sort of nuts. And I think it leads to great anxiety in a lot of kids.

I didn't have that because I never finished high school and I never was put down for anything.  I went to Columbia, had a great time at Columbia, and had, since you've asked the question, a happy childhood, a happy growing up and when I was 20, I was already a university graduate.  I was going to go to Yale Law School, but decided [instead] to become a writer.  And of course I had no money.  My parents' generation or my parents themselves didn't believe in giving any money to children whatsoever; at a certain age you had to do it yourself.  So I joined the Merchant Marine and said I would go to Yale later, to law school, and I earned my living as a sailor, as an engine wiper in fact, on ships going to Panama mostly.

And I lived with a very rough bunch of sailors for some considerable time. Also in the course of years, I jumped ship in Barcelona and lived in Ibiza as a 20-year-old, 21-year-old I guess.  I acted in a movie, won another grant to Indiana University for an MA in Comparative Literature because my professor from Columbia had gone for a year to teach at Indiana University, his name was Richard Chase, he wrote a great book called The American Prose Romance, which found a line which he could draw, I think correctly, with a Freudian analysis of American writers, which seemed very sensible to me and he suggested I go to Indiana University because he was there.  I won a fellowship and was there a year and then applied for a Fulbright, which I won, and went to Germany from Indiana, to the Freie Universität in Germany. 

This upset my parents who were not – especially given the fact that we were Jewish – pro-German, wanted to know why I couldn't have gone to the Sorbonne, why… and I applied to France. I said actually, I wanted to find out what I might have been, or what my life would have been, had there not been Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich, I would have been German, I wouldn't have been English or American, I would have been German.  I was curious about that, and I spoke German reasonably well.  I had an extraordinary year in Berlin.  It was still four-power occupied, so I lived in a city that was Russian, French, American and British, and the different sectors. I spent a lot of time in East Berlin, which was communist, and learned a lot as a young man. 

Born in England 1936, Peter Mayer is an American independent publisher who is president of The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc, a New York-based publishing company he founded with his father in 1971. At the time of Overlook's founding, Mayer was head of Avon Books, a large New York-based paperback publisher. There, he successfully launched the trade paperback as a viable alternative to mass market and hardcover formats. From 1978 to 1996 he was CEO of Penguin Books, where he introduced a flexible style in editorial, marketing, and production. Recently, Mayer financially revived both Ardis, a publisher of Russian literature in English, and Duckworth, an independent publishing house in the UK.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Columbia University, Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany

Duration: 8 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015