‘An Editor Can Save You From Yourself’: Remembering Alice Mayhew

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Alice was a giant! She will be remembered for decades to come. For me and for generations of writers and readers, she was our champion — indefatigable, brilliant, loyal, constantly curious about every chapter of every book. She loved what she did and we loved her as if she were a member of our families. She has been an integral part of my life for nearly four decades. I will miss her every day.

Alice had many best-selling authors, and I was not one of them. She basically picked me up, not out of a slush pile but from a trash bin of writers another editor at Simon & Schuster had decided to torment and reject. She liked my manuscript — my first book on Haiti — she loved it, I would have to say; that’s how Alice reacted to writing before she began to pick it apart and shift your chapters around, and lay them on the floor of her apartment and put the book back together piece by piece, and then call you, crowing, about how she’d solved the one big problem. She was not a line editor, to put it mildly. She was a loyal editor and I published four books with her. None of them about American presidents although I once jokingly asked her if she’d publish a presidential history, even by me. And she said “Of course.” Even, I asked, if it were about Millard Fillmore? “Absolutely.” Well, I did not write that, of course.

She always treated me like a princess. She took me to lunch at her table against the wall, smack in the middle of Michael’s on 55th Street, where she took all her writers after the restaurant she preferred, an idiosyncratic place with waitresses wearing Swiss garb, shut; I happily cannot remember its name. Of course she always paid: I teased her because in the 30-plus years I knew her it seemed that she never bought a new wallet. “I like this one,” she said defensively. She invited me and my husband to lunches and dinners at her house in Sag Harbor: I have to say I was grateful, because her social generosity seemed to me so reflexive, so democratic, so not-Manhattany.

She had a braying and appreciative laugh which I always tried to provoke, often successfully because she liked to laugh. Her obsessions, which were not mine, were Washington, D.C., presidential politics, and Catholicism, and I was just lucky that Haiti in the late 1980s touched on two of these. She was a gossip and we were always searching for mutual friends and acquaintances to discuss, mostly appreciatively. She loved ballet and would fly around the world to see something good. Mostly, she loved the human pantheon, knew everyone, and wanted to know everything they knew and more. She was voraciously curious, madly energetic, and devoted to writing and books. And at the top of Rockefeller Center in Simon & Schuster’s offices, sitting behind a big executive desk (decorated with a crowd of colorful little plastic windup toys), Alice used all that intellectual vigor and interest to fuel a generation and more of American publishing.

I was always jealous of the many journalists I knew who were her authors. Her reputation was such that I don’t think I ever heard anyone actually say her last name. It was just, “I work with Alice.” I finally got into the club.


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