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Getting a foot in the door


Working the lobster shift at the New York Times
Peter Mayer Publisher
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When I came out of the army, after my… I went into the army for the first time – that was after the Merchant Marine – I went into the army and I was released six months later because there was some deal that I was part of that you could be on active duty for six months if you signed an agreement to be in the reserve for six years. So I got out of the army and I was wandering up Madison Avenue, I had had a novel accepted by the Dial Press by Jim Silberman who was the editor of the Dial Press. It's a strange story how it came not to be published and it's probably sitting somewhere in my closet somewhere, and I was wandering up Madison Avenue and I ran into… I was looking for a job. I had to have a job, and I ran into Myrna Davis or maybe she was Myrna Mushkin at that time. I don't know if she had married Paul Davis yet. I think not, I think she was… and she was the girl who I was fondest of in grade school. And she'd been my dancing partner at the age of four or five in Mrs Roses Nursery or maybe an earlier dance class, I don't know, and I loved Myrna, but as little children love people and she was a friend. I still love her and, curiously, her life and my life has had its parallelisms. She went to PS 99, which is the grade school I went to, and then she went to Richmond Hill High School which is the high school I went to, and then she went to Columbia. She went to the girl's or the women's division which was Barnard. I went to the men's division at Columbia College. So we were in college together and her parents knew my parents, and we have stayed in touch all these years since then.

And anyway, I was walking up Madison Avenue, I had my discharge papers, I was looking for a job and I ran into her and she said what are you doing? So I said I'm looking for a job. What kind of a job? I don't know something with words, I remember saying. She said, what do you mean with words? She said, advertising? I said, no, I didn't think advertising, but maybe newspapers or magazines or books or something. I mean I don't really want a job. I have to have a job. I have to take care of myself. And she said, can't your parents help? She knew my parents. I said, no, no in my family parents took care of you in extremis when something was wrong and something was happening, but you had the obligation to take care of yourself, and I'm now 21 or whatever age I was, 22 maybe. So she said, well, you should meet my boss.

So I said who's your boss? She said, well, he's a man named Milton Glaser and he works for publishers. I said what does he do? Well, he's an artist. He's a commercial artist and I rep him. Repping him meant that she took his portfolio around to book publishers and record publishers, album covers and he did album covers and book covers, and I think he did some advertising, too. I don't remember. So I said, well, I'd be glad to meet him, and she said, well, maybe he could introduce you to some magazine or book publishing people. So I said, well, I'd be glad to do that and, thank you, and I said, when should we do that? And she said, well now. It's lunchtime, so why don't we go back there now unless you're doing something?

Well, I had nothing to do. I couldn't even get appointments to see anybody. So I went back to his studio with her and he was very nice to me, probably because of Myrna, and he said he would think about various people that he worked for to do dust jackets and covers. And two days later when I got up and got my mail there were carbon copies of five letters that he had written to Cy Nelson at perhaps Dutton, and Clay Felker at New York Magazine and someone at Farrar Straus, Roger Straus at Farrar Straus and two other publishing companies which I can't remember just now. And I saw all these people, none of whom had jobs for me, but they were all nice to me, everybody was very nice and they all said they would keep my resume, my CV, on file, and I finally answered an ad for messenger boy and I got it.

Messenger boy at The New York Times I thought that's a good connection, New York Times; messenger boy – not so terrific, but okay, 47 bucks a week, it was the lobster shift, I think it was called the lobster shift.

Peter Mayer (1936-2018) was an American independent publisher who was 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. More recently, Mayer had 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: New York Times

Duration: 6 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015