Sonny Mehta, Uneasy King of Knopf

Ten weeks out of an intensive care unit, Sonny Mehta could be found in Bemel-mans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, hunting for cashews in a silver bowl. He asked for a glass of Côtes du Rhône and popped a cashew. Mr. Mehta, the editor in chief and president of Alfred A. Knopf Inc., and president of the Knopf Publishing Group, underwent triple-bypass heart surgery in mid-July. What did it, anyway? Was it the three packs of cigarettes a day? The glamorous life style? Or possibly a severe reaction to the demands of a new corporate parent, German media giant Bertelsmann A.G.?

“Was it the merger or was it the cigarettes?” he 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.”

He went on. “I don’t have a glamorous life style. 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.”

But immoderate behavior, always part of publishing’s raffish charm, doesn’t rank high on Random House Inc. chief executive Peter Olson’s list. Or so it would seem. After Mr. Mehta’s surgery, the 49-year-old Mr. Olson, who favors pre-breakfast workouts at the Harvard Club, told Mr. Mehta’s loyal subjects, “Sonny has some life style issues he’s determined to conquer.”

If so, Mr. Mehta wasn’t starting tonight, as he quaffed almost three glasses of wine in two hours–to no effect. How was it being back? “It’s as black as it’s always been,” he quipped.

And maybe getting blacker. It had been more than a year since Bertelsmann, the world’s largest publisher of English-language books, acquired what is now known as “old” Random House from S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr.’s Advance Publications, thereby snapping up two of the nation’s most prestigious houses, the Random House Trade Group and Alfred A. Knopf, the 84-year-old flagship imprint of the Knopf Publishing Group. The group comprises Knopf, Vintage Books, Pantheon Books, Schocken Books and Everyman’s Library.

With flair, edge and gravitas, Alfred A. Knopf has set a high-water mark in American publishing. It was a bit sleepy when Mr. Mehta arrived from across the pond in 1987. Now it pulls at the chattering classes like an undertow. Knopf authors include Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Michael Crichton, Susan Minot, Toni Morrison, Anne Rice and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Today, the story of trade publishing could be said to be the story of Mr. Mehta writ large. As Sonny goes, so goes a certain tenor of the business. If things get too cramped under Bertelsmann, and he leaves, it would serve notice on an entire world and a way of living in it. And then who knows what might befall the house Alfred A. Knopf founded in 1915?

“I don’t think Sonny is in love with his situation,” said one publishing executive. “If the right opportunity came along in England–something like running Channel 4–he’d take it.”

What did Mr. Mehta do on his summer vacation, besides editing Timeline , Mr. Crichton’s new novel?

“Mostly, I thought about whether life is worth living without cigarettes,” he said. Now he’s into gum. “Do we know the complete truth about chewing gum?” he said. “I’m resolved to make the best of it. They tell me I’ll never be in the marathon, but I was never in great danger of that.”

He has been taking naps and walking seven miles a day. There are “dog people, sleeping people and running people,” he said. “And then there’s me trying to live my pathetic life.”

Mr. Mehta, 56, has deep brown eyes and wears filament-thin spectacles the color of pilot lights. A thatch of beard. Plenty of hair, some gray around the temples and mouth. He’s known for not speaking more than he has to. Some say it’s a Brahmin thing, some a Machiavellian one.

Knopf senior editor Jonathan Segal 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.”

And when he reads Michael Crichton, said Mr. Segal, it’s because he actually likes his books. “Sonny has a genuine fascination with Michael Crichton. He gets a genuine thrill, not a lip-service thrill.”

Mr. Mehta also thrills to the Savile Row suit and the well-stitched shoe. He likes shooting and cricket. He also likes humidity.

“He’s competitive the English way,” said an acquaintance from Mr. Mehta’s London days. “He was laid back to the point where you were afraid he’d 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.”

Mr. Mehta’s friend, journalist Christopher Hitchens, calls this Mr. Mehta’s “fuck-off capacity.”

Life under Mr. Newhouse’s Advance Publications was freewheeling: Lincoln Town Cars, long lunches, large author advances. Now, under Bertelsmann, said a former member of the Knopf Group, “They’re more exacting about the budget. Under Newhouse, it was ludicrous. Nothing was ever questioned. Anything Sonny wanted to get through–a book, a way around house policy on parties and expenses–he got through.”

It was the sort of atmosphere that would make Reinhard Mohn, the 78-year-old chairman emeritus of Bertelsmann, cringe. Mr. Mohn, who grew up in a house where alcohol and tobacco were forbidden, prides himself on eating in the company cafeteria. “Mohn is obsessed with figures,” said one who has a longtime familiarity with Bertelsmann. “Bertelsmann has a huge central accounting unit. They have about 400 people who process and analyze figures all day.”

So at “old” Random, expenses for hotels and airline trips have been trimmed. The mailroom has been outsourced to Pitney Bowes. The book room–a sort of on-premise mini-warehouse that doubles as a barometer for which books are arousing interest–lost its staff and operates only two hours a day.

And Knopf, always known for beautifully designed books, now finds itself, along with the rest of old Random House, with a new paper merchant. “They awarded a contract to a merchant we had not previously worked with,” said Andrew Hughes, vice president of production and design for the Knopf Group. “It’s a matter of opinion whether you think it’s as good as the paper we used in the past. The mill said they’d make enhancements.”

“Bertelsmann thinks there’s no reason why things can’t be done cheaper and more efficiently,” said a Knopf Group employee. “Maybe there’s a disconnect between the rigidity of their plan and the creative atmosphere that needs to be fostered. It’s all about how you can create the kind of books where you fly out and spend days working with the author.”

Mr. Mehta maintained that nothing has changed. “Peter Olson has left us alone,” he said. “If there are any changes, they haven’t happened yet.”

Asked about Bertelsmann’s approach, one Knopf Group employee said, “They’re smug, and even arrogant: ‘What a quaint little place you guys have here. We’re going to show you how to really run it.'”

There was certainly nothing quaint about the dinner last April at Marriott’s Camelback Inn and Resort, in Scottsdale, Ariz. The occasion was a Random House Inc. sales conference, an event that marked the beginning of the integration of Bertelsmann’s American publishing holdings. Fifty tables of 10 were set up around a burbling fountain. From wicker baskets, people chose ping-pong balls marked with table numbers. Some of the Knopf Group staff quietly exchanged their balls or took more than one, so they could sit together.

Toward the end of the evening, lots of people from the Bertelsmann side were doing high fives. Then Mr. Olson and another man picked up David Naggar, a young vice president of sales and development, and threw him into the fountain.

It was a representative moment out there on the Arizona flats. Mr. Mehta and Mr. Olson have two things in common: an ability to get to the top of the heap and a healthy regard for the bottom line. Their differences are far greater, even down to sartorial style: Mr. Olson in suits or khakis, Mr. Mehta in a black wool pullover and jeans with a steel kara–a Sikh symbol of restraint and gentility–around his wrist. Speaking of Bertelsmann’s attitude toward Mr. Mehta, one member of the Knopf Group staff said, “They wish he would get out and play basketball with them. They bond in that way. But he’s not a basketball kind of guy.”

Mr. Olson’s and Mr. Mehta’s worlds had first collided a year before the raucous party, at the time of the London International Bookfair, when Mr. Mehta received word to return to New York. It seemed that Mr. Newhouse–like Bennett Cerf before him, and Alfred A. Knopf before him–had decided to sell.

Ajai Singh (Sonny) Mehta, whose first name means “unconquered” in Sanskrit, spent his childhood in New Delhi, the son of a high-level civil servant of the newly independent India. Diplomatic leaders including Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Minh came to the house.

Mr. Mehta read English and history at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge. He married Gita Patnaik, now a novelist, in the 1960’s. They have one son.

Starting out his career in London, Mr. Mehta impressed the industry by publishing both the commercial and the “literary” as head of Paladin Books and then of Pan Books, with its classy Picador line. His first triumph was The Female Eunuch , by old university pal Germaine Greer.

Author Tim Binding was an editorial director of Picador. “What made Picador work was that it didn’t run on rules,” said Mr. Binding. “Every book has to find its way, an individual way. Picador became a brand because you knew all the books had value. Formula wasn’t what Sonny did.”

Mr. Mehta carried that ethos across the Atlantic. Alberto Vitale, the then-chief executive of Random House, let him do his thing. As one publishing veteran put it, “Alberto had a certain civilized quality. Olson is pure management.”

After the Bertelsmann merger was announced, members of the Knopf Publishing Group gathered in Mr. Mehta’s corner office. One recalled, “He said he knew these guys, and they were good guys and cared about books, and they wanted us to keep doing what we’re doing. I didn’t believe him. But I thought, look, if he can deal with this, we have a responsibility to deal with it, too, and not panic.”

But Mr. Mehta didn’t have time to panic. In fall 1998, news began to trickle out that the Knopf Group’s prized trade paperback imprint, Vintage Books, would be merging with Anchor Books, the trade paperback imprint of Doubleday, part of what used to be Bertelsmann’s Bantam Doubleday Dell Group. Most saw it as a classic power grab on Mr. Mehta’s part. Knopf insiders contend it was Mr. Mehta’s attempt to change something before something was changed for him. This spring, Mr. Mehta told his team, “We’re going to be doing Anchor,” and finished the meeting with, “Let’s hope you don’t fuck it up.” Then he went to lunch with Peter Olson, after which Mr. Olson spoke with the staff. He explained that henceforth Vintage, a $100 million imprint, would have first dibs on the best books in the entire company. “In a family,” said Mr. Olson, “you don’t like to have a favorite child, but sometimes you do.” He added that Mr. Mehta would let him know if the other divisions got out of line.

“I welcomed it,” said Mr. Mehta. “Trade publishing has been a part of my life since my late 20’s and a complete passion of mine. I’m very proud of what Vintage has done.” Clearly, it was a vote of confidence for Mr. Mehta, known worldwide as a trade paperback wonder boy. But what about his beloved hard-cover imprint?

One night at the end of September, Mr. Mehta stepped from an elevator into a tiny space with a single large door. He led a visitor into his home. Bookcases stretched to the ceiling against lemony walls. In a library-like sitting room, the shelves were so crammed, from Balzac to Ian McEwan, it was difficult to unwedge a book. Of the 10,000 or so volumes in this part of his home, one that Mr. Mehta likes to show off is a 1933 limited edition of Tropical Winter , by house author Joseph Hergesheimer. The pages are an electric salmon pink. “That Alfred A.,” said Mr. Mehta. “He could really do it.”

Mr. Mehta has spent much of his time in this room, with a glass of wine, a pack of cigarettes and a manuscript. In the early hours of Aug. 13, he woke with something wrong in his chest. First he telephoned his doctor, then his wife Gita, who was in London, where they keep a second home. He went to the hospital .

Knopf tried to keep the news quiet, but Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum gave a statement to the New York Post ‘s Keith Kelly. Mr. Mehta’s colleagues were not pleased. “Stuart proved he doesn’t have the class and the finesse that Knopf does,” said one Knopf Group insider.

After Mr. Mehta was out of surgery, Mr. Olson’s first impulse was to dash over to Knopf. Knopf’s top brass dissuaded him. “We sort of thought it was like Al Haig: ‘I’m in charge here,'” said a Knopf Group member.

When Mr. Mehta returned to his office two and a half months later, new wall-to-wall gray carpeting had replaced the smoke-choked version. “We gave him his space,” said one staff member. “We knew he didn’t want any attention.”

Mr. Mehta poured a glass of wine and sat in an armchair. He slipped his foot from a Belgian loafer and placed it on the table. Above his ankle, the skin was puffy. “They took the veins from my left leg,” he explained. He played with his small black cigarette holder. He’s down to two a day, “to keep the memory alive.”

What is it like, being bought?

“It’s a shock,” said Mr. Mehta. “One day you’re minding your own business, the next day you’re somebody else’s business. It’s the first time it’s happened to me.”

He talked a bit about reading. “There was a time when every book was neither a good book nor a bad book, when I read as a civilian. When they cease to surprise or cease to excite, it’ll be time to go. It doesn’t come with quite the rush–I suppose it’s sentimental to feel this way about the past.”

A doorbell rang and in walked Daniel Halpern, a poet and a co-founder in 1971 of the Ecco Press, which Rupert Murdoch’s Harper Collins purchased in February. The two men talked about a new novel by a 31-year-old writer named Nomi Eve. Knopf had just paid $525,000, outbidding Ecco for the book, a history of a Jewish family. “The voice is very fresh,” said Mr. Mehta. “It’s the kind of thing we’ll do well with.”

“How much higher would you have gone?” said Mr. Halpern. Mr. Mehta demurred and rose to take a call from playwright Wendy Wasserstein, whom he was meeting before the opera the next night.

“Under Si, it was a holiday,” said Mr. Halpern. “Now …” He trailed off, and instead told a tale about Mr. Mehta. In 1996, Ecco was having cash flow problems. “Sonny called from the car on the way to the airport to see if he could call some people to help,” said Mr. Halpern. “He had his financial guy help us go over our numbers. He basically did everything he could to help Ecco survive as independent press,” said Mr. Halpern. Now people are watching to see if Ecco might have more cash to spend than Knopf.

Mr. Mehta ambled back from the kitchen bearing a new bottle of wine. “I had this in London,” he said. It was a South African red called “Faithful Hound.”

Mr. Mehta spends a good deal of time in England. “I fully intend to indulge my enthusiasm for England by visiting it as frequently as possible,” he said. “And people at Knopf may take a petition saying, ‘We don’t want the old fart back.'”

To understand why Mr. Mehta’s heart attack sent shock waves through a certain swath of the industry, it helps to think in terms of small graces. For instance, back in March, the poetry community lost distinguished editor and book designer Harry Ford. Mr. Mehta sent a note around the Knopf Group that described Mr. Ford as a man who was “always there for his poets and their books and for poetry … a gentleman of the old school and a connoisseur of fine food, fine wine and a life well lived.”

“Harry will be replaced,” said Mr. Mehta. Knopf turns little if any profit on its poetry books, most of which are sheet-fed (instead of roll-fed) at the Stinehour Press, a letterpress printer in Lunenburg, Vt. Four months before Mr. Ford’s passing, John Updike, upon receiving the 1998 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, called Mr. Ford a “perfect knight of the print world.” Mr. Updike’s address was bound into a pamphlet and sent to 5,000 “friends” of the author and publisher along with a note from Mr. Mehta. It cost Knopf a little over $5,000 to produce.

“It’s like saying, ‘Here’s something important that goes outside what we normally do,'” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, in Miami. “That’s the kind of thing that Sonny has done over the years, which has drawn him closer to independent booksellers.”

“Sonny and all our editors in chief have been interested in the design aspects of publishing, in keeping that tradition alive,” said Virginia Tan, design director of Alfred A. Knopf. “Sonny cares deeply about the looks of the books. It emanates from the top on down.”

Outside Mr. Mehta’s 21st-floor office on a recent afternoon, Knopf senior editor Robin Desser and a visitor were discussing a book she had edited, a memoir called The Rooms of Heaven: A Story of Love, Death, Grief, and the Afterlife , by Mary Allen. It’s about Ms. Allen’s hopeless love for a handsome, witty carpenter given to alcohol and drugs. He commits suicide before the two are to be married, and she tries to contact him in the afterlife. Like so many of Knopf’s 150 books published this year, it hasn’t received a whole lot of attention. It had a first printing of 25,000 copies, and sold 15,000. But Ms. Desser had thought it belonged on the Knopf list, and Mr. Mehta agreed.

“A lot of decisions when it comes to acquisitions at other places are done by committee,” said Ms. Desser, who also edited the best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha . “It’s not so easy to find an environment where you’re given the freedom to go in and say, ‘I have this very strange thing, here’s why I want to do it, here’s how I think we should do it, what do you think?’

“Sonny doesn’t think like a corporate drone,” Ms. Desser said. “I’m fortunate in that, rightly or wrongly, I feel protected from this corporate environment by this very creative person whose own creativity hasn’t diminished.”

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.