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CEO of Penguin Books: the early days


The dinner with Allen Ginsberg I wish I'd never had
Peter Mayer Publisher
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But I knew Allen forever.  And I ran into Allen for years at Naropa, which was a kind of Zen consciousness-raising grouping of individuals in Boulder, Colorado and Allen went there every year to teach.  And I finally saw him in New York.  And I even published The Complete Poems of Allen Ginsberg at Penguin, I think it was, in England; think Harper was his publisher in America.  And Allen says, well, why don't you publish it in England?  By that time I was the head of Penguin.  So I did.

And I even had dinner with him, maybe, less than a year before he died.  And it was very disheartening, because it was either a PEN dinner or it was some literary organisation's benefit dinner, and you could pick what table you wanted to sit at.  And every table had a famous author there.  So, at one table, Allen Ginsberg was seated, and I put myself down to sit there and see him again.  I was his publisher.  He also lived on 2nd Avenue, which was very close to where I lived, but I didn't see him perhaps more than once a year after I published him.  And I sat next to him at the dinner.

And I thought I would have a wonderful sort of literary or intellectual dinner with him.  There were other people at the table, too, but he and I were the only ones who knew each other, and we were sitting next to each other.  And nothing of the sort happened.  He told me about all of his physical ailments in disgusting detail, and he had many of them.  And the last thing I wanted to do was hear about his problems at bed, in bed at night, and running to the bathroom, and draining from every orifice, and I don't know.  It was horrible!  That's all he wanted to talk about through this whole dinner.  And I wanted to ask him was, what are you writing now?  And where… and he was very, very nice, but he died relatively soon after that.  And I think he had a very unhappy death, because he was a mess.

But it started with a cab ride.  And your friend remembers that.  I did write it up somewhere, 1000 years ago.

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: Allen Ginsberg

Duration: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015