Book Editor Alice Mayhew: “Her genius is two things: pace and tone,” Bob Woodward said.

From the Washington Post obit, by Harrison Smith, on book editor Alice Mayhew:

Alice Mayhew, a top editor at Simon & Schuster who assembled a roster of literary heavyweights and helped pioneer the modern Washington political chronicle, most notably through her work on the Watergate book “All the President’s Men,” died Feb. 4 at her home in Manhattan. She had long declined to give her age, but her birth certificate indicated she was 87. . . .

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, President Jimmy Carter and 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. . . .

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.”. . .

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. . . .

“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. . . .

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.’”
From the New York Times obit, by Anita Gates, on Alice Mayhew:

Alice Mayhew, a widely admired editor who shepherded into print best sellers by a veritable who’s who of writers—along the way popularizing the Washington political narrative, beginning with “All the President’s Men” in 1974—died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 87. . . .

“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 best seller and had a decided impact on American history. . . .Ms. Mayhew also worked with notable public figures, including President Jimmy Carter (“A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” 2015) and the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“My Own Words,” 2017).

The countless best sellers that Ms. Mayhew 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’s “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).

Though Ms. 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 conceptualization 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.”


  1. An earlier post about Alice Mayhew, All the President’s men, and Deep Throat:


    SEPTEMBER 14, 2018

    The Washington Post ran a long piece this week revisiting Deep Throat, the secret Watergate source for Bob Woodward in the book All the President’s Men and the Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman movie. The hook for the Post reviving Deep Throat was the current search for the anonymous writer of the New York Times op-ed that had “bombshell disclosures about a scandal that encircled the president”—this time Donald Trump.

    After reading the Post story, I wrote a piece pointing out that the first accurate story on the identity of Deep Throat was not, as the Post said, in the Wall Street Journal 0n June 25, 1974 but a month earlier in the Washingtonian, which named FBI man Mark Felt as the most plausible Deep Throat candidate.

    What this week’s Post piece also didn’t touch on was the never resolved controversy over whether Deep Throat was a real person or mostly a literary character created by Alice Mayhew, the book’s editor at Simon & Schuster, to add some drama to Woodward and Bernstein’s manuscript.

    Where did Deep Throat come from? The character is introduced in All the President’s Men this way:

    Woodward had a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at CRP [Committee to Re-elect the President] as well as at the White House. His identity was unknown to anyone else. He could be contacted only on very important occasions. Woodward had promised he would never identify him or his position to anyone. Further, he had agreed never to quote the man, even as an anonymous source. Their discussions would be only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.

    In newspaper terminology, this meant the discussions were on “deep background.” Woodward explained the arrangement to managing editor Howard Simons one day. He had taken to call the source “my friend,” but Simons dubbed him “Deep Throat,” the title of a celebrated pornographic novel. The name stuck.After All the President’s Men was published, the was-he-real controversy about Deep Throat continued.

    From a 1993 piece in Entertainment Weekly:

    After Bob and Carl won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post and when Watergate started to unravel in the spring of 1973, Dick Snyder (who, as head of Simon & Schuster, had bought All the President’s Men) began to suspect that his $55,000 investment might pay off….A powerful editor, Alice Mayhew, was freed up to work with the two reporters ”day and night.”

    Mayhew, who helped Bob and Carl write the book, kept urging them to ”build up the Deep Throat character and make him interesting.” Thus, with Mayhew goading the two on one side and Robert Redford standing in the wings on the other, with nearly half a million dollars and a piece of the profits waiting for the two reporters whose combined income was less than $30,000 per year, what Bob and Carl produced was a sort of Hardy Boys in the White House. Part of it—the impossible and lunatic Deep Throat cloak-and-dagger derring-do—was dreamed up. Those parts were a hoax, a relatively harmless hoax designed to sell books and make a movie.

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