Alice Mayhew, a widely admired editor who shepherded into print bestsellers by a veritable who’s who of writers—along the way popularising the Washington political narrative, beginning with All the President’s Men in 1974 — died on Tuesday at her home in New York. She was 87.
The death was confirmed by Simon & Schuster, where she had been a vice president and editorial director.
All the President’s Men, the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they uncovered the truth about the Watergate burglary and the subsequent White House effort to cover it up, became an immediate bestseller and had a decided effect on American history. Published on June 15, 1974 (no advance copies had been provided, even for reviewers), it accelerated a growing public disapproval of President Richard M. Nixon’s actions and helped fuel a congressional drive toward impeachment that led to Nixon’s resignation 55 days later.
Mayhew also worked with notable public figures, including President Jimmy Carter (A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, 2015) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (My Own Words, 2017).
The countless bestsellers that edited include John Dean’s Blind Ambition: The White House Years (1976); Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years (1998); Walter Isaacson’s books, including Steve Jobs (2011) and Leonardo da Vinci (2017); David Brooks’ On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense (2004), an examination of contemporary American society; Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights history, Carry Me Home (2001); and the first volumes of Sidney Blumenthal’s political biography of Abraham Lincoln, beginning with A Self-Made Man (2016).
In 2014, when Simon & Schuster celebrated its 90th anniversary by having staff members vote for their 90 favorite titles over those years, almost one-third of the books (29) had been edited by Mayhew.
Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (2018) was, as he noted in the acknowledgments, his 19th book with her.
Mayhew’s books occasionally dealt with the lighter side of political or popular culture. She edited Kitty Kelley’s gossipy biography Nancy Reagan (1991) and two memoirs by the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.
Though Mayhew was highly regarded, her own life was something of a closed book, so rigorously did she defend her privacy. When The New York Times ran an article about her in 2004 with the headline “Muse of the Beltway Book,” she declined to be interviewed. The article relied on the observations of those who worked with her, some of whom said her greatest talents lay in conceptualisation and structure.
“She is particularly adept at unearthing submerged themes,” the Times article concluded, “developing swift transitions, unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when—especially when—they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”
Alice E. Mayhew was born on June 14, 1932, in Brooklyn, the daughter of Alice and Leonard S. Mayhew. Alice grew up in the Bronx and had an older brother, Leonard F. Mayhew, who was her neighbor in Sag Harbor, New York, on Long Island, where she also had a home. He died in 2012.
Simon & Schuster said she left no immediate survivors.
Mayhew joined Simon & Schuster in 1971. One of her early successes there was Our Bodies, Our Selves (1973), the feminist classic assembled by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. What began as a 193-page course booklet on stapled newsprint sold, in the Simon & Schuster version, at least 4.5 million copies worldwide.
Just a sampling of her other authors, many of them historians and journalists, would include, in no particular order, Betty Friedan, Frances Fitzgerald, Michael Beschloss, Steven Brill, E.J. Dionne, J. Anthony Lukas, Kati Marton, Richard Reeves, Evan Thomas, David Gergen, Jill Abramson, David Herbert Donald, Robert Gates, Fred Kaplan, Sylvia Nasar, William Shawcross, James B. Stewart, Amy Wilentz, Joe Conason, Mark Whitaker, Harold Holzer, Connie Bruck, Jonathan Alter, Jennet Conant, Richard Engel, David Maraniss and Sally Bedell Smith.
Mayhew’s reputation was sterling, but her career was not untouched by scandal. In 2002, historians Stephen E. Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both Mayhew authors, were accused of plagiarism. Goodwin acknowledged that in 1987 Simon & Schuster settled with an author over accusations of plagiarism in a book she had written about the Kennedy family. Ambrose was found to have lifted, without using quotation marks, passages from another book, though he had footnoted them.
The twist with the Ambrose episode, as the gossip site Gawker reported, was that the book Ambrose had mined, Robert Sam Anson’s Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon, had also been edited by Mayhew.
In 2008, Priscilla Painton became Simon & Schuster’s executive editor, taking over many of Mayhew’s duties. But Mayhew continued to acquire and edit titles.
While Mayhew firmly avoided talking about herself, she was considerably more straightforward when discussing others.
In an interview with Len Colodny, co-author of Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, about Dean’s claim that his editors had told him to include false information in Blind Ambition (reissued in 2009), Mayhew said: “That’s a lie. L-I-E. That is spelled L-I-E.”
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