How to Write a Life

Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of Knopf, the most prestigious imprint in the Penguin Random House universe, chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and arguably the most important literary publisher in the English language, died of complications of pneumonia last week at 77. Obituaries followed.

Obituaries, says Oxford, are notices of deaths often written as miniature biographies of the deceased. The major components of an obituary are the basic facts of the life, the important events of the life, and a representation of the subject’s character. But those are not enough to make a first-rate obituary.

A first-rate obituary finds its subject’s specific excellence (what makes the person worth writing about), without ignoring his or her complexity and contradictions, and uses well-chosen detail to bring the deceased, momentarily, back to life.

Biographies are bigger and more involved than obituaries but when they fail, they generally fail for the same reasons that obituaries fail. Let’s look at how the major obituaries of Sonny Mehta failed.

The basic facts and events of Sonny Mehta’s life are available on Wikipedia. He was born in New Dehli, the son of a diplomat, and educated at private schools and Cambridge where he read history and English literature. He worked for various UK publishers. The first big book he published was Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. He was known for bringing popular U.S. writers (Hunter S. Thompson) to greater attention in the UK, and for publishing Booker Prize winners Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Edmund White, Julian Barnes, and Graham Swift. (He also brought out the biography of Little Richard, below.)

In 1987, the forty-five-year-old Mehta replaced Robert Gottlieb as editor-in-chief of Knopf, only the third person to hold that position in the storied history of the imprint. On his watch, Knopf published six Nobel laureates, including Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.

Over time, Mehta’s empire at Penguin Random House expanded to include Vintage Books, Doubleday, Pantheon, and other imprints. He did not shy away from publishing popular fare including Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and the Fifty Shades trilogy. He was a regular on Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list. He was married to Indian writer, activist, and socialite Gita Mehta.

“On a good day,” he said, “I am still convinced I have the best job in the world.”

Those are the basic facts and events of Mehta’s life. The obituarists cover the same ground, name the grade schools he attended, the specific publishing houses he worked for, and some other writers he published (and their sales and advances and awards), but scarcely improve on the Wikipedia record.

In London, The Guardian adds only that Mehta was a bearded chain-smoker and that his bosses lauded his “exacting standards,” and that Germaine Greer was a friend from college.

The Washington Post notes Mehta’s description of himself as an “outsider” in the New York publishing world, that he smoked Silk Cuts, that he had a special affinity for detective fiction, and that he wouldn’t buy books on Amazon (which produced probably half of his sales).

The New York Times contributes that Mehta enjoyed the marketing side of publishing and once invited 250 booksellers to a baseball game to launch a baseball book, that Mehta was Gottlieb’s hand-picked successor (we’re not told why), that his desk (above) was cluttered, that he drank black-label Scotch in his office without appearing drunk, that he wavered between difficult to know and charming and gregarious, that he hosted book parties at his apartment and was something of a man about town.

The Times of India details the Mehtas’ illustrious connections in that country and mentions that Gottlieb’s staff at Knopf was initially cool to his successor and that his office contained a stuffed bear with the world ‘Grandpa’ embroidered on its foot.

The Financial Times calls Mehta a “roving, voracious reader” (true of every publishing executive) and a “habitual risk-taker” (no examples given) but nevertheless wins this competition. It adds that Mehta carried a “coiled energy and brooding assurance,” that he almost always wore black, that he had lived in Prague and New York and India as a child, that he was one of few “dusky hued” people in British publishing in the 1970s, that he met his wife in a lineup for Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, that he forgot to return calls and could lapse into unnerving silences, and that he once made the writer finish his book by “locking him in a hotel room and only letting him out for meals, while Sonny watched videos next door.”

It might be argued that newspapers have limited space and that after including the Wikipedia basics, which are important, there is little room for much else. But if you’re a major newspaper doing an obituary of the most important literary publisher of his generation, that’s no excuse.

One of the wonderful things about biography (and obituary) is that character tends to reveal itself in big moments. Three of the biggest moments in Mehta’s life were his start in publishing, his move to Knopf, and his heart attack.

First, the start. The Financial Times “dusky” quote, about Mehta’s introduction to the business, was a criminally abbreviated part of a longer statement: “English publishing was in the last throes of pretending to be a pro­fession for gentlemen,” Mehta remembers, “and there weren’t too many people who weren’t Brit in the business. There cer­tainly weren’t too many dusky-hued peo­ple. And so I spent a lot of interviews being spoken to slowly and distinctly.”

You know Mehta better for the full quote, and for the fact that he entered the tweedy world of British publishing in a purple shirt with what he called a “change the world” attitude.

In discussing the move to New York and Knopf, the obituaries overlook that Mehta was part of a generation of British journalistic and literary talent (Tina Brown, James Truman, Andrew Sullivan, etc.) that invaded Manhattan in the eighties, often at the behest of Si Newhouse, who then owned Random House and the Conde Nast magazines (Vanity Fair, New Yorker). The imports were posh. They were celebrated for a perceived ability to bring quality to the masses. They liked their parties, or, as a colleague said of Mehta, “he likes to rock-and-roll a little.” In short, he was a type.

Was he really an outsider to Knopf? How does one reconcile that claim with Times’ comment that he was Gottlieb’s hand-picked successor? Can a diplomat’s son educated at Cambridge, a brahmin of UK publishing, friendly with Gottlieb, always hanging around the Knopf offices in Manhattan, ever be considered an outsider? Yes.

“As far as I can understand,” said Mehta, “I succeeded two deeply individualis­tic if not deeply idiosyncratic and certainly profoundly more distinguished publishers than I am myself. One was Alfred Knopf, and one was the legend Bob Gottlieb. And I came into a company where a lot of people had been working together in a particular way for a long time. They grew up in a particu­lar way together.”

At Knopf, Mehta entered an alternate universe not unlike the New Yorker universe of Tom Wolfe’s “Tiny Mummies!” There was refinement, hierarchy, self-regard, a way of doing things universally understood (internally) as the best and only way. Only a fool would try to change it.

Mehta had not been in the job two years before rumors appeared in the papers that he was about to be shipped back to London. He had lost a couple of the imprint’s best authors, Robert Massie and J. Anthony Lukas. The Times reported that he was uncommunicative and an abysmal administrator, the Village Voice that he had a dark side, kept a gun in his desk, had been arrested for cocaine in Australia, and that Random House was already looking for his replacement. Worst of all, he was said to prefer the company of writers to Knopf staffers, and he referred to book jackets as covers.

Most of these reports were bullshit. Mehta was not good at returning phone calls and the gun in his desk was a plugged replica, although Random House did make inquiries about possible replacements for Mehta.

The newcomer’s greatest sins in those years appear to have been trying to effect change at Knopf, and his loyalty to Gottlieb, who, it turns out, never really left Knopf on moving to the New Yorker. While at the magazine, Gottlieb kept an office and an assistant at Knopf, still edited some of its most important authors, and still wandered around the premises and took calls from staffers unnerved by any efforts Mehta made to assert himself. Not cool, Bob. (That’s Gottlieb below talking to Toni Morrison, with Susan Sontag lurking.)

Mehta understood what was happening to him. With Gottlieb hanging around, he was always “the step-father” at Knopf. “It’s been a traumatic experience for them,” he said of his new colleagues, “and it’s been a traumatic experience for me, too.”

Trauma belongs in a biography, and an obit. You appreciate Mehta more for knowing that he not only stuck it out and prevailed in that environment, but excelled. Most of the obits quote sales numbers and a couple mention his interest in marketing but Mehta is far more impressive if you know that he sold 2 1/2 times more John le Carre books than Knopf had ever sold before, and doubled the sales of Toni Morrison and Anne Tyler, as well. He schooled the mummies. And you understand better why the chiefs at Random House eventually expanded his empire. (That’s him with Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, below)

As for Mehta’s personal style, this is as good a summary as any, and the obituaries would have done well to quote it or try to improve upon it: “He breezes through words with an elegant accent, but it sometimes sounds as if he’s mumbling. His silence and his quiet might easily be taken for rudeness or dislike. People who know him say that his arro­gance can be loud. When a phone rings in the middle of an interview, one hears his voice turn cross—maybe an indication of what [come call] the ‘dark side’ that has turned some authors off. But Mehta charms his guests, making fun of himself with sharp little jokes that dart off his tongue.”

And how can you overlook the heart-attack, the triple-bypass surgery in the late 1990s, which happened just after Knopf and Random House were sold to the German media giant Bertelsmann?

“Was it the merger or was it the cigarettes?” Mehta asked softly in his Oxbridge tone. He paused. “It was the cholesterol,” he said. “I had two fried eggs a day for breakfast. I had no checkups for five years. I kept meaning to go. The doctor would probably say it was years of bad living. I’ve always had a good time. Maybe I’ve had too good a time. Now I think I’m going to live forever, and I’m looking forward to running Knopf into the ground.”

Know him better? Here’s another:

“I don’t have a glamorous lifestyle. We all have our notions of sport. If I’d wanted to fucking make my living climbing mountains, I wouldn’t have gone into publishing. Most of the time you’re sitting in a dark room reading a fucking manuscript. I have nothing but regret that I cannot continue to behave the way I behaved all my life, and I can’t wait for a chance to behave immoderately again.”

Several of the obits quoted friends and acquaintances of Mehta. None quoted Jonathan Segal who said that boredom is Mr. Mehta’s “biggest enemy. Sonny wants from people an enrichment of himself. He’s crazy when he’s bored. He just has to keep making discoveries. When you go with him to hear country music or Brazilian music, he loves it. When he’s listening to Mahler, he has tears in his eyes.”

Perhaps the best quote: “‘He’s competitive the English way,’ said an acquaintance from Mr. Mehta’s London days. ‘He’s laid back to the point where you’re afraid he’ll fall over. He seems to be asleep, but he’s like a crocodile–don’t put your foot in the water. Sonny’s allegiance is to Sonny. That’s what makes him dangerous to a corporation. He’s capable of walking away from things.’”

That he was capable of walking away from things does not seem as salient as the fact that Mehta always stayed and fought, adapted to new owners with their new priorities, cost-consciousness, and tighter budgets. Whether or not he returned phone calls, he was a serious corporate player. It’s a safe bet that the merger was as big a factor in his health troubles as the cholesterol.

Still more detail? In later years, Sonny Mehta wore black pullovers with jeans and a steel kara, a Sikh symbol of restraint and gentility. His birth name, Ajai Singh, means “unconquered” in Sanskrit. His father was not merely a diplomat: Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Minh were at the house when Sonny was growing up. The mummies had no idea what they were up against.

As for the oft-mentioned charm? How’s this:

“Mr. Mehta appeared in the doorway to join the discussion. The visitor said, ‘Sonny, this book is about unrequited love.’

He leaned into the jamb. ‘Aren’t all books?’ he said.”

All the above additional material is from two late 1990s clippings, one from the Village Voice (the two matching illustrations above), the other from the Observer (the third illustration above), both available online. There is more, if one is interested, including the Charlie Rose interviews. The goal here isn’t to write an obit or a biography of Sonny Mehta but to show how obits and biographies live and die on the depth of their research, the author’s choices about what to include, how vividly the subject is portrayed (especially in moments that matter), and their elucidation of what makes that person extraordinary.