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by John Helmer, Moscow 

If Alice Mayhew (lead image) hadn’t been a real person, the New York book market and the US Government would have had to invent her. Now that she’s dead (1932-2020) – “a veritable best-seller machine”, memorialised Vogue – she’s an invention that will be easy to replace. Best-sellers, like money, are fungible.

Mayhew has been the Simon & Schuster editor responsible —  according to the acknowledgement pages at the back of many well-known American books —  for editing the best-sellers of politicians who had been driven from office; or journalists who had done the driving of them from office;  or politicians hoping to return to power again,  together with other well-known officials and ex-officials;  for all of whom there was always a concealed but guaranteed money patronage,  paid up in advance, profitable for them; profitable for Simon & Schuster; profitable for Mayhew.

In other lines of business, that’s called log-rolling, ramping the market, pump and dump,  restraint of trade, bribery, corruption. The Washington Post called it 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.”  

It was Somerset Maugham who once explained there are three rules for writing best-selling fiction, “but nobody knows what they are”.    Mayhew knew.

The New York Times in its obituary had difficulty identifying exactly what it was that Mayhew did as an editor.  “She is particularly adept at unearthing submerged themes, 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.” One of her Jewish authors added, without explaining that Mayhew had been educated in Jesuit schools and Fordham University, “her faith in narrative came partly from her religious training. She would always invoke the fact that most of the Bible is a narrative, starting with “In the beginning….”  This is pure hocus-pocus concealing that what Mayhew, Simon & Schuster, and a group of connected literary agents did was market rigging and party-political financing channelled through advances on royalties, and book sale guarantees.   

That was the reality; the books were the make-believe. Bob Woodward was a regular exemplar. John Dean, Jimmy Carter, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and John Bolton took turns. According to Woodward, Mayhew “edited every one of my 19 previous books over 44 years and gave me a lifetime of wisdom and love.”   

According to Jill Abramson, the notorious liar whose book Mayhew produced in 2019 —  its title was Merchants of Truth: the Business of News and The Fight for Facts  — Mayhew  “ was an absolute believer in the power of the non-fiction narrative to be every bit as gripping as the best fiction.”

This is commercial hustle masquerading as truth, and lying masquerading as fiction. When confronted with criticism that her editing of political books produced fakes, Mayhew, who said as little as possible in public for the half-century of her time at Simon & Schuster, replied:  “I never told John Dean what to put in his book, and, ah, that’s a lie, L-I-E, that is spelled, L-I-E”.     

Since Mayhew was personally responsible as editor of a book of lies and libels about me, and also responsible as editor for refusing to publish a book she had commissioned from my late wife Claudia Wright, I knew better than most what Mayhew did, and why. I know that the house tribute to “Alice’s absolute loyalty to her authors” was maudlin prevarication.        

In the mid-1980s Mayhew commissioned Claudia to write the first history of US espionage in the Arab world. That was titled The Jackals’ Wedding: American Power, Arab Revolt. The title phrase was an old Iraqi saying — they screw once, then they tear each other apart. It meant a union of opposing, antagonistic forces – an alliance that cannot last. The book opened with the Iraqi wariness of the jackal’s reputation for scheming and manipulativeness. The bedouin also used to say: by the time you have proved you are a jackal, not a fox, your skin has already gone to the tannery.

From the days, forty years ago,  when the New York Times and Washington Post could tell the difference between Claudia Wright’s truth and Alice Mayhew’s lies.  

In 1987, with all but two chapters to complete the book – one on US operations against Saddam Hussein, one on Muammar Qaddafi – Claudia telephoned James Jesus Angleton, the former head of the CIA’s counter-intelligence staff and the Israel desk, to check a detail which had been revealed to her by one of the CIA’s Arab desk officers. By that time, they were all retired from the Agency’s payroll, but not from their old loyalties. Angleton learned from Claudia that Simon & Schuster was her publisher. After shortening the telephone conversation with her, he had a longer one with Mayhew. She was persuaded not to publish Claudia’s book – and not to communicate with her or me again.

With Angleton, Mayhew shared a Jesuitical Catholicism and a prejudice for Israel. Because of the financial success attributed to her and the house for the sales of books she promoted, no one dared to question Mayhew, or if they did, she refused to answer. When Mayhew published Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s Book of Gutsy Women – and each of the Hillary books before that one – they were scratching each other’s backs all the way down Sixth Avenue to the bank.

When a lawyer for Claudia and me showed up at her office in 1994, Mayhew hid behind her general counsel. She was preparing to publish a book by a KGB defector, Yury Shvets, claiming Claudia and I had been Soviet spies. The manuscript had started as a novel, but Mayhew had rejected it, insisting she would only publish the book if it was the truth. My lawyer told her that adding my name and Claudia’s to the book plot didn’t make it less a pack of lies. So Mayhew sent the proofs to the FBI and requested they confirm the truth. The Bureau refused. They had real Soviet spies on their mind at the time – Aldrich Ames of the CIA had been arrested in February 1994; Robert Hanssen of the FBI continued reporting on US double agents and US operations to identify them until he was caught in February 2001.

But Mayhew wouldn’t be persuaded to pulp her investment in the fabrications about Claudia and me. Instead, she had Simon & Schuster send a lawyer’s letter disclaiming liability. This declared that the publisher had done no fact-checking of the book and had been unable to verify any of Shvets’s claims. When the book appeared in June of 1994, Mayhew authorised the dust jacket to say the book was “a compelling exposé of Soviet spying in America and is as electrifying as any spy thriller – except that it is all true.”

The book of what really happened can be read here.  The book which Angleton and Mayhew didn’t want to be read will be published shortly.

In its statement on Mayhew’s exit, Simon & Schuster said she left no immediate survivors. Of course, that isn’t truer than anything else Mayhew did. True enough, though, is her  riddance.  The same has been decided by Simon & Schuster’s control shareholder, ViacomCBS. It has announced the publishing house is for sale.  

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