Her death was announced by Simon & Schuster, which did not give a precise cause. Friends said she had suffered several falls in recent months.
Ms. Mayhew was one of the most prominent editors in her field, celebrated in the acknowledgments section of best-selling books by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, former president Jimmy Carter, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Walter Isaacson, among many others.
She was also one of publishing’s most fiercely private figures, turning down an interview request for a 2004 New York Times story about her influence with the line, “I don’t think that’s legitimate.” Diminutive but forthright and often abrupt, she made relatively few public appearances but was “a ferocious defender of her authors, in all cases,” said Washington Post journalist David Maraniss, who worked with her on 12 books.
Rising to become a vice president and editorial director for Simon & Schuster, Ms. Mayhew helped break open the old boys’ club of publishing, along with female editors such as Barbara Epstein and Nan A. Talese. Widely admired for her work in shaping manuscripts at the conceptual level, she was “somebody who can hear a pitch for a book idea and just know instinctively whether or not it’s a good book,” author Barbara Feinman Todd once said, and know “whether or not that’s the book that you should be writing.”
Ms. Mayhew focused on popular histories and biographies as well as the journalistic genre known as “the Washington book.” Released only a year or two after the events they covered, the books featured heavily reported, insider accounts of Beltway politics and White House intrigue, tailored for readers who wanted details that were often unavailable to daily journalists.
While such works sometimes drew the ire of critics who questioned their sourcing, literary quality and occasionally melodramatic tone, they became increasingly popular after the publication of “All the President’s Men” (1974), in which Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein recounted their sometimes torturous reporting on the Watergate scandal that consumed Richard M. Nixon’s presidency. The book was later adapted into a celebrated film and “transformed book publishing into a red-hot part of the media,” Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda wrote in a memoir, “Another Life.”
Ms. Mayhew’s “thought and guidance are reflected on every page,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote in the acknowledgments to “All the President’s Men.” She later edited their follow-up, “The Final Days” (1976), and continued working with Woodward through the next eight presidencies and 17 additional books — most recently his Donald Trump chronicle “Fear” (2018), which Simon & Schuster called its best-selling book in company history, with more than 1.1 million copies sold in its first week.
Her other authors included journalists Jill Abramson, Jonathan Alter, Richard Engel, Ron Suskind and James B. Stewart; and historians Stephen E. Ambrose, Taylor Branch, James Chace and Diane McWhorter. By the early 1990s, her office was putting out some 30 to 40 books a year, a figure that led some of her peers — and authors — to question how closely she was reading her manuscripts.
In 1991, the New Republic reported that Ms. Mayhew “farms out most of the nitty-gritty work to three minions” and skewered her for factual discrepancies that appeared in her authors’ work. A similar criticism arose more than a decade later, when in 2002 two of her most celebrated writers, Ambrose and Goodwin, were accused of plagiarism. Both said it was inadvertent, and Ms. Mayhew said her job as editor did not extend to fact-checking — a position she shared with most of her peers.
Prominent publishers and editors rose to her defense on both occasions. Several of Ms. Mayhew’s authors sent letters of protest to the New Republic; Ambrose wrote that Ms. Mayhew “puts more time and skill into her editing than any author has a right to expect.”
“Her genius is two things: pace and tone,” Woodward said by phone. “She would cut out whole sections, words and sentences, anything that was a little snide or self-approving,” always writing the phrase “not necessary” in the margins with a blue pen. On one occasion, she cut 90 manuscript sheets from a draft of “All the President’s Men,” deciding — correctly, he said — that the section took readers too far afield from the story.
In 2014, Simon & Schuster Publisher Jonathan Karp called Ms. Mayhew “the heart and soul and conscience of our editorial operation,” according to the trade publication Shelf Awareness. In a sign of her reach, when the imprint commemorated its 90th anniversary that year with a list of 90 favorite titles, 29 were found to have been edited by Ms. Mayhew.
Alice Ellen Mayhew was born in New York City on June 14, 1932, according to her birth certificate. Voting records give a different birth year, 1937, and her college diploma lists her name as Alicellen Margaret Mayhew.
While friends cautioned that her stories were sometimes less than wholly accurate, Ms. Mayhew said that her father was a lawyer for the Statler hotel chain who died when she was 14 and that her mother was a teacher who contributed to a children’s encyclopedia. She graduated from Saint Barnabas High, a Catholic school in the Bronx, and in 1953 received a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University, according to school records.
She later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and by the end of the decade was writing literary criticism for Commonweal, a liberal Catholic magazine. Her work there seemed to reflect a religious upbringing: Her older brother, Leonard, was a priest in Georgia, where he befriended the Southern author Flannery O’Connor and once introduced her to Ms. Mayhew over lunch — an occasion that O’Connor later commemorated in a letter. “The Mayhews seem to have survived growing up in New York City so I suppose it can be done,” she wrote, “but as a kind of miracle, not the normal thing surely.”
Ms. Mayhew eventually launched an editing career, working with international affairs columnist William Pfaff at Harper & Row before editing Charles A. Reich’s countercultural bestseller “The Greening of America” (1970) at Random House. The latter represented an early mistake in judgment: She disliked the manuscript, especially its title, and the work languished before a long excerpt appeared in the New Yorker to popular acclaim, spurring Random House to publish.
In 1971, she joined Simon & Schuster, according to a company history, and two years later published “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Written by a coalition of Boston women, the work had originally appeared in 1970 as a 75-cent booklet titled “Women and Their Bodies”; Ms. Mayhew said she acquired it for wide release only after meeting with the authors during a “terrific snowstorm” in Cambridge, Mass.
Featuring a frank discussion of abortion and women’s health, the book has acquired the reputation of a feminist classic. It was soon followed by “All the President’s Men,” which made Simon & Schuster “a major publishing force,” Korda wrote, and firmly established Ms. Mayhew as an editing force in her own right.
For years she split her time between a Greenwich Village apartment and a Hamptons home in Sag Harbor, where she hosted publishing figures such as Jason Epstein, biographer Jane Howard and novelist E.L. Doctorow for games of tennis and croquet. Friends said she never married and has no immediate survivors.
Ms. Mayhew’s advice to authors was sometimes unconventional, as when she gave lawyer and journalist Steven Brill a book about the Titanic while he was working on “The Teamsters” (1978), a survey of the labor union led by Jimmy Hoffa. “You tell me what the sinking of the Titanic has to do with a book about the Teamsters,” Brill recalled telling her, according to the Times. “She said, ‘Think of this as a narrative form.’ ”
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