New Delhi: A legend at Alfred A. Knopf, where he was only its third editor-in-chief in its over 100-year history and which he considered the “best job in the world”, winner of Lifetime Achievement Awards for publishing in India, the US and Britain, named Person of the Year by Publishers Weekly, and the brother-in-law of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, whose sister Gita Mehta he was married to, Sonny Mehta died in New York on Tuesday. He was 77.
“The job at Knopf, as Mehta recounts, basically fell in his lap. A call from Si Newhouse – the billionaire at the helm of the company that owned Random House at the time – led to an impromptu dinner. Weeks later a job offer came, from then-CEO Robert Bernstein. The transition, though, was not a seamless one,” an article in Publishers Weekly said.
“For starters, Mehta was inheriting a staff that idolized its departing leader, Robert Gottlieb, who had decamped to become editor of the New Yorker. Then there was the simple matter of Mehta’s background: some questioned putting a London paperback publisher in charge of one of New York’s most prized hardcover imprints,” the article added.
The India-born Mehta would have none of this and dug in his heels, his sharp instincts helping him navigate in just the manner he wanted and arguably making him the best-known publisher in the trade.
During a chat, the Observer wrote that Mehta “spoke softly, in an accent that reflects his upbringing as the son of an Indian diplomat, his years at Cambridge and a storied career in publishing. A dapper dresser, he wore a navy linen suit and a light blue chambray shirt. Mr. Mehta’s corner office was filled with books published under his watch, as well as personal objects like a stuffed bear with the word ‘Grandpa’ embroidered on the foot. When I walked in, he put down his iPad, on which he said he was reading a ‘very entertaining’ obituary of Jackie Collins in The Times of London”.
The son of Amrik Singh Mehta, one of independent India’s first diplomats, Sonny Mehta was educated at the Lawrence School Sanawar and Sevenoaks School in Britain, where he won a scholarship to Cambridge University, acquiring degrees in History and English Literature while also editing the Granta magazine.
Beginning his career in 1965 in London with editor and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, Mehta moved to Granada Publishing in 1966 to co-found a new publishing house, Paladin. There, he commissioned books such as as Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” and opened up British readers to American writers with books like Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” that set in motion a genre known as gonjo journalism – written without claims of objectivity.
Moving to Pan Macmillan in 1972, he published writers like Jackie Collins and Douglas Adams who went on to become household names. At Pan, he also relaunched the Picador imprint and published a clutch of Booker Prize winners, among them Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Edmund White, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift.
In 1987 Mehta moved from London to New York to head Alfred A. Knopf as President and Editor-in-Chief, being hand-picked by his predecessor, Robert Gottlieb. He later became the Chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Under Mehta, Knopf published six Nobel literature laureates, apart from several winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. He also published the writings of US Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – and Pope John Paul II.
Mehta also helmed new translations of Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil and Albert Camus, as also bestsellers like Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” and the “Fifty Shades” trilogy of E.L. James.
The likes of Pantheon, Vintage Books, Schocken and Everyman’s Library coming aboard Knopf led Mehta to be described as the world’s most important anglophone publisher.
Little wonder then, that he told Vanity Fair in 2015: “On a good day, I am still convinced I have the best job in the world.”
Mehta’s is a legacy that will endure for a long time to come.