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7 Days: Sonny Mehta and the Knopf Conundrum

The editor had become the number-one topic at every Hamptons din­ner party, where people gossiped about his temper, his flashy clothes, about the gun he sup­posedly keeps in his desk...

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The Knopf Conundrum: Who Is Sonny Mehta and Why Are They Saying These Terrible Things About Him?

September 20, 1989

In the beginning of August, just as the book-publishing business was getting ready to head for the beach, rumors that had until then been festering in the halls of Alfred A. Knopf finally hit the press. First, there were the reports of Knopf staffers demanding that their president and editor in chief, Sonny Mehta, be relieved of his administrative duties. The Cambridge-educated Mehta, known for having successfully marketed high-quality paperbacks at the London-based Pan, had arrived a little more than two years before when Robert Gottlieb — the man whose name was synonymous with Knopf — left to edit The New Yorker. At the time, the hiring of Mehta was seen as a significant publishing coup. But now, Robert Bernstein, the quiet and publicly diplomatic chairman and president of Random House, Inc. (of which Knopf is a subsidiary), responded to the story with a less than categorical denial, fueling still more speculation about Mehta’s fate.

Days later, The New York Times printed a story labeling Mehta an “abysmal” administrator without, he lat­er says, asking him about it. The paper of record went on to report the story that it was only a matter of time before he would be moving back to England to take a post at Century Hutchinson Publishing Limit­ed, yet another subsidiary of the gigantic, Si Newhouse–owned Random House. It looked, from the press reports anyway, as if Ajai Singh “Sonny” Mehta was on his way out. And with that news, talk about the current Knopf editor in chief overtook talk about the former Knopf editor in chief, who was rumored to be having his own troubles at The New Yorker, yet an­other Newhouse property. By Labor Day weekend, Sonny Mehta had become the number-one topic at every Hamptons din­ner party.

People gossiped about Mehta’s temper, his flashy clothes, about the gun he sup­posedly keeps in his desk. They talked about his detainment for cocaine posses­sion in Australia, about the rage with which he is said to attack editors who cross him. While wildly varied and usually fairly inaccurate, many of the stories came down to one seemingly innocuous thing: Sonny Mehta, people were saying with that’s­-what-got-him smugness, doesn’t return phone calls. The publishing world, for all of its heralded entry into the land of conglomerates and bottom lines, cares about such things — it is a world of extremely sensitive egos. People talked, and some­body even called the press. But the fire storm that erupted may have been more than they bargained for. “The press,” said agent Lynn Nesbit with amazement when asked for her view of the affair, “is writing stories about the publishing business the way they used to write about Hollywood.”

If publishing these days bears a resemblance to Hollywood, then perhaps Sonny Mehta is a little like Columbia’s David Puttnam. After all, when Puttnam went to Hollywood, he was another Brit taking on an American industry. Puttnam didn’t try very hard to get along with the sensitive bunch of personalities that make Holly­wood go ’round. He had his own way of doing things, which included being rude to Bill Cosby and Bill Murray. And, at least in Mehta’s case, the charges of poor man­agement had to have been exaggerated: there were more phone calls made by infu­riated people with reports about Mehta not returning phone calls than all the “please call” messages he could possibly get in a week.

Like all good epic tales, the Knopf story boils down to his side, her side, and what really happened. And because it turns out that very little actually happened, the sub­stance of the story lies not so much in what people said as it does in who said it and whom they said it about. Because the ru­mors that have Sonny Mehta moving back to Britain, sharing the responsibilities of his job, or keeping guns in his desk (a plugged replica, it turns out) all come from generally intelligent and well-meaning people who are at heart concerned about their company — and their jobs. Because the Knopf story is about people trying to get along with (or get rid of) people in a company that happens to publish books. The same twitches of personality that caused problems at Knopf might have happened in, say, the lumber industry. The difference is that lumberyard squabbles don’t usually appear in the press.

“I really am saddened that it’s still go­ing on,” says Mehta, “because it’s clear that the company is buying good books and publishing them with complete com­mitment.” And it is. It’s just that Knopf and the agents, editors, and writers who make it the place it is have all become part of a giant gossip mill feeding on itself. “I started in New York magazine,” Mehta says, referring to a piece that ran when he came to the States. “I’m going to end up in there again,” he continues, shaking his head. “I’ve come full circle.”

Knopf’s problems might have re­ceived a lot less ink if Knopf were just another publishing house. But Knopf is different: it is a company with one of the world’s great literary reputations. More commercial books are on its lists today, but it remains a place that can spawn best-sellers that startle the folks who follow books — books like Allan Gurganus’ recent and gargan­tuan novel about the oldest living Confed­erate widow. And Knopf actually makes money publishing these quality books, at least in part because it is an organization filled with people who know their stuff. “The people at Knopf,” says executive VP Elisabeth Sifton, “are highly intelligent and ferociously talented at what they do.”

Also making the gossip newsworthy is the connection between Knopf and Si Newhouse, who has overseen the growth of Random House into a giant comprising not just Knopf and Random House but Pantheon, Ballantine, Crown, and numer­ous other companies and divisions — one of which, Vintage, Mehta also heads. When there is turmoil, however slight, at a pinnacle of the publishing world, people want to know about it.

For the past 74 years, things have been relatively turmoil-fee at Knopf: the Knopf of Bob Gottlieb and of Alfred the Founder (who shared responsibilities with his wife, Blanche) was always a close-knit operation. When the Knopfs put Gottlieb in charge, it was as if a son had been made a parent. “It was a huge change when Gottlieb came in,” remembers Judith Jones, who edits John Updike and Julia Child, among other Knopf standards. “He was young and exuberant and everybody’s daddy.” He ran the house from the corner office, was often found sitting cross­legged on the floor, and, since he almost always ate lunch at his desk, rarely left home. And then, when he left the job it sometimes seems he never wanted to leave, Bob Gottlieb, Knopf’s reigning fa­ther, chose a man he knew from reputation and from that man’s frequent trips to America. Bob Gottlieb the father figure chose a man named Sonny to sit in his place at the family table. The thing is, Son­ny Mehta comes from a very different family.

Sonny Mehta’s first big job in publishing was at Paladin, a paperback imprint that he saw rise to rival the legendary Penguin. In 1972 he moved to Pan, where he published authors as varied as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bruce Chatwin, Michael Herr, and Spalding Gray in paperback. He commissioned some original books (Germaine Greer has said Mehta convinced her to write The Female Eunuch), but bring­ing quality to the masses was his greatest triumph. As opposed to the Knopfian if-­it’s-good-people-will-buy-it ethic, Meh­ta’s school teaches you to push a book hard or watch it die. “The first place a guy stops is not a bookstore,” he says. “If he’s got free time, he’s more likely to spend it in Tower Records. There are very few books that people are waiting to read.”

In the spring of 1987, Mehta walked into Knopf and proceeded, within a few months, to upset the paternalistic camaraderie by making a few Knopf writers stink­ing mad. To name two names: Robert Mas­sie took his latest historical volumes over to Random House, and Pulitzer Prize win­ner J. Anthony Lukas said good-bye, peo­ple said, after never having his phone calls returned. Mehta says there were contract problems with Massie, and as for Tony Lu­kas, he won’t comment — though even the people who cheer for him say it may have been his fault. The family, some Knopfers started saying, was falling apart.

Sonny was playing favorites. He wasn’t catering to agents. He didn’t bother to manage people individually. He was turn­ing away old friends. He was courting young writers, but his critics were asking for the generation that would replace the John le Carres and the Anne Tylers. Sure, author Barry Lopez turned down more money to come to Mehta’s Knopf, but people, as people are apt to do, focused on the losses. Not to mention the fact that Sonny Mehta, a guy who, in the words of one edi­tor, “likes to rock ’n’ roll a little,” was just not the father that Bob Gottlieb once was. The family was not impressed.

“I think Sonny’s a very intense individ­ual,” says Jeff Sterne, VP and associate publisher of Knopf and Vintage. “He comes from a very different background. He comes from Cambridge. People mis­take his self-deprecating comments for cynicism, but they’re not. And he handles silence better than most Zen masters.”

In fact, Mehta speaks quietly most of the time. He might toss off a bit of friendly sarcasm as a greeting, but he rarely has the hearty hello that people have come to expect around the collegial halls of Knopf. He breezes through words with an elegant accent, but it sometimes sounds as if he’s mumbling. His silence and his quiet might easily be taken for rudeness or dislike. People who know him say that his arro­gance can be loud. When a phone rings in the middle of an interview, one hears his voice turn cross — maybe an indication of what Stone calls the “dark side” that has turned some authors off. But Mehta charms his guests, making fun of himself with sharp little jokes that dart off his tongue. His dress is probably a touch more conservative than it was when he was “changing the world,” as he puts it, dur­ing the ’60s at Paladin. But a purple shirt can still shock a world that only recently began to throw out its old tweeds.

When Mehta started in publishing, im­age was an even bigger problem. Though educated in England and Geneva to be a diplomat like his father, he is Indian, born in New Delhi. “English publishing was in the last throes of pretending to be a pro­fession for gentlemen,” he remembers, “and there weren’t too many people who weren’t Brit in the business. There cer­tainly weren’t too many dusky-hued peo­ple. And so I spent a lot of interviews being spoken to slowly and distinctly.”

When he took over Pan from the British literary figure Clarence Paget, Mehta ran headlong into the old school. “It was one of the most frightening things I ever did,” he says, testing the jumbled specks of gray in his Van Dyke beard, “because Paget was a grand old man, I was around 30 at the time and clearly not an ex-Etonian. I had long hair and various types of ethnic garb.”

Before long, however, Mehta and his wife, author Gita Mehta, had secured that most uncomfortable of positions: they were outsiders on the inside, members of the club who were always seen as somehow “other.”

“I’m just a reporter from Portland, Oregon,” says Geek Love author Katherine Dunn, still sounding a little shocked, “but Sonny hired a limousine to pick me up at the airport and let me stay at his pad for a few days. It was great.”

Sonny Mehta pushed Katherine Dunn’s book hard. He had to, if only to still the talk that, while he published Gottlieb’s authors well, he had yet to bring in a stable of his own. Katherine Dunn was going to be Son­ny Mehta’s Jay McInerney. Mehta went out to Oregon to meet Dunn and to visit Powell’s, Portland’s biggest bookstore, to see the people who bought and sold his books. “Most publishing houses,” Dunn says, “think that if you want an electric typewriter, then you must be pretty hotsy­-totsy. They don’t use modern marketing techniques. They don’t think it would be genteel. So when someone like Sonny comes in and markets a book and doesn’t do it in the La Brea Tar Pits manner, he looks pretty damn bizarre.”

Bizarre, and maybe not quite successful enough. When the ballots were counted, Geek Love wasn’t a best-seller or a smash­ing success, but Knopf sold something like 30,000 copies. Not bad for a relatively un­known author. Not bad for a novel about bunch of carnival freaks. But given the hype, people were disappointed.

The numbers Mehta brought back on some of the other Knopf books were more impressive. He came in and sold 2 1/2 times as many John le Carre books than ever before. Toni Morrison, whose Tar Baby sold 80,000 copies a few years back, wowed the accountants with 190,000 of Beloved this time around. Under Mehta’s direction, Knopf doubled the sale of Anne Tyler’s books without even convincing William Hurt to star in another movie.

With all of the mergers and acquisitions going on in the publishing world, with a whole lot of books on best-seller lists that aren’t making a whole lot of money, and with the sheer number of books in your av­erage bookstore, there is a lot of pressure on publishers these days to market better than they ever have before. And Sonny Mehta is a marketer. Says Random House publisher Joni Evans: “He is aggressive. He gets marketing people and sales man­agers and rights people and publicity peo­ple all working at full speed.”

But Mehta is more. He is a reader. “He knows what’s good,” says Evans. And he’s a gambler. “With a book like The History of Luminous Motion,” says Atlantic Monthly Press’ Gary Fisketjon, speaking of Scott Bradfield’s first book, which Mehta recently published, “it’s much more difficult. It’s a first novel, and you’ve got to come up with a new approach and a new package, and you’ve got to get totally lucky. If you hit one out of ten you’re lucky. And he hits one out of ten.”

While Geek Love may not be that one out of ten, it is a case study of the Mehta meth­od of publishing. First, he brought in the author and showed her around. Now, they’re not against authors at Knopf, but a few of the old-timers would rather see the authors back home behind their typewrit­ers. One longtime Knopfer, for example, speaking longingly about Gottlieb’s soft­ball games and picnics past, admitted that Mehta wouldn’t be averse to people run­ning around the bases. “But you know what he’d say?” the fellow asked. “He’d say, ‘Great! Let’s invite the authors.’ ” The boundaries of the family are different with Mehta. Writers, to an influential few at the heart of the Knopf team, are like the cousins whom you invite to your house only for Christmas dinner.

Next, Mehta simply waited for everyone to do what they do best. Even when asked about one of the more notorious affronts to tradition — the addition of a fifth leg to the sacred Knopf logo, the Borzoi dog, on Geek Love’s cover — Mehta prefers to pass the question on to the appropriate person. “Hey, Carol!” he shouts out into the hall at Knopf’s Carol Carson, jacket art director. “Will you confirm that I didn’t know that you put a fifth leg onto that fucking dog?” he asks. “Hey, Sonny!” she shouts back. “It happened at the printing plant!”

Generally, when a guy walks into a new place, he gravitates to­ward the offices of the people he already knows. As head of Pan, Mehta had visited Knopf countless times, looking for American titles that might work on the other side of the Atlantic. When he came, he’d generally say hello to Gottlieb and to associate publisher and se­nior VP Jane Friedman. So, when Mehta arrived at Knopf to stay, the British new­comer turned to Friedman. He also turned to Jeff Stone, another jeans-and-beard man with a we-can-work-this-out nature.

“He got somewhat comfortable with Jeff and me,” Friedman says of Mehta, admitting that at that point a staffer or two might have begun to feel a little edited out, though, the truth is, a number of people felt excluded from Mehta’s loop. “But we only spoke to each other when there was something to say. In other words,” says Friedman, “business was going on as usu­al, but it just so happened that a lot of the business involved Jeff and Jane and Son­ny. But it also involved Ash Green [a long­time editor at Knopf] and Judith Jones and Janice Goldklang, our promotion director, and Nina Bourne, our advertising director. I mean, everyone was involved. Sonny is an involver of people.”

Apparently, some people didn’t feel too involved. Some people felt put off, as if the ship of state was sailing without them. It’s tough to say exactly how many people, as the numbers shift with the various moods and editorial obligations at the East 50th Street Random House building. It is clear, though, that even the key players weren’t sure what the staff was feeling. “I wish somebody had said something to us,” says Friedman. “They kept telling me that something is wrong,” says Stone, “and I’d say, ‘What’s wrong?’ ”

One thing that was wrong is that bad tidings were reaching the office of Bob Bernstein. He heard all kinds of things, at least some of them via what was on the surface a well-meaning memo written on Mehta’s suggestion by Elisabeth Sifton, an editor hired away from her own Viking imprint to take the office right next to Mehta’s corner pad. Though described by a few nervous insiders as Sifton’s mana­gerial Mein Kampf, the memo, written a few weeks after she arrived, really only addressed systems issues — specifically, the system by which a manuscript passes around the floors and down the center staircase at Knopf. Sure, the author known more for her intelligent editing than for her administrative skill was sug­gesting that some of the paper be directed away from people such as Stone and Fried­man, but she still saw Mehta as ultimately in charge of the show. The gossip mill missed that fact; what it saw was that Sif­ton was openly grumbling about what were undoubtedly the very real manage­ment problems at Knopf. The fact is, in a telephone business, if you don’t return people’s calls, they might just stop calling.

“Anyone who knows me well,” says Sif­ton, “knows that I’m a perfectionist.” What people have taken as a wild urge to change the organization of Knopf, she de­scribes as a misunderstood character trait. “I’m always brooding about how things could be made better,” Sifton says. Still, even if the memo had suggested that ev­eryone drop by her office on Friday after­noons for cake, cookies, and beer, there would have been talk. Memos from people near the top do that to people.

Clearly, the memo writers and com­plainers, who, reports suggested, were visiting the president’s office in droves, were finding a sympathetic listener in Bob Bernstein. And for all of his hedging deni­als to the contrary, Bernstein had conver­sations with people in the industry last spring about replacing Mehta. The troops got wind that something was up. People figured that the statesman and human­-rights advocate Bernstein might succumb to the corporate Bernstein, the man who won the battle of wills with Random House publisher Howard Kaminsky, who resigned two Columbus Days ago after Bernstein reportedly made it clear that he didn’t like Kaminsky imagining himself in his office.

Nestled deep within the soft blue cata­comb walls of corporate Random House, Bernstein, quiet and calm in his sparsely decorated corner office, says that there are absolutely no plans for Mehta to leave. And contrary to what one might infer from press reports, no Martin Luther led a group to the president’s door to post a peti­tion against Mehta. He admits that Knopfers have come to him about their leader. But, with a grin, he insists, “I have never had a group of people larger than one approach me about Sonny.” A group wasn’t necessary. He got the message.

A few decades ago, according to Brendan Gill’s book Here at The New Yorker, back when Alfred A. was running Knopf, Shirley Jackson, a New Yorker writer, was for some reason angry at Mr. Knopf. Preoccupied with witchcraft, she designed herself a little wax image of Knopf and stuck a pin in it. Knopf, who was skiing near Jackson’s home in Bennington, Vt., broke his leg — in three places.

There have been no reports of voodoo at The New Yorker for some time, but its edi­tor, Robert Gottlieb, has a kind of mysteri­ous influence at Knopf. He still edits a number of its important authors (John le Carre, Doris Lessing, Chaim Potok, Eliza­beth Kendall, Janet Malcolm, and, until her recent death, Barbara Tuchman); he has an assistant fielding his calls, mar­shaling his manuscripts through the pro­duction process, who sits outside Mehta’s office; and, though Gottlieb now faces a weekly deadline, he finds time to drop in and check out the occasional book jacket.

To speak to Elizabeth Kendall is to get a strange perspective on Knopf. She’s never met Mehta. “I deal directly with Bob Gott­lieb,” she says. He edits her and she keeps in touch through Gottlieb’s assistant. “Bob Gottlieb is still very much a part of Knopf,” Kendall says. “In what way, I’m not sure.” What seems clear is that he hasn’t let go.

Mehta says that Gottlieb is tireless and that his continued presence at Knopf doesn’t create a leadership problem. But there are people of a different mind. “A big man leaves here and yet is still around,” says Jeff Stone. “I guess it cre­ates a certain amount of tension.” Toni Morrison, who is not just a Knopf author but an ex-Random House editor and a fan of both Gottlieb’s and Mehta’s, believes Gottlieb’s continued presence hurts Mehta, if only because some of the people who miss Gottlieb after 19 years together use him as an institutional shoulder to cry on. “You’ve got to look at where the com­plaints are coming from,” says Morrison. Some people, she says, are known to make regular therapeutic calls to The New Yorker. Just about the only person who won’t comment on Gottlieb’s interest in Knopf is Gottlieb. A woman at The New Yorker returned a phone call to him. “There’s no chance on this one,” she said.

The people at Knopf still talk about Gottlieb, however. They talk about “the way Bob used to do things” as opposed to the way Sonny does things now. They reminisce about the way Gottlieb ran the office, which bore less resemblance to a managerial flowchart than to a perfectly designed jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which he had memorized long ago. It was a system that worked — then. Now there is Mehta, who gets grumpy when bothered with what he considers other people’s little problems. “To some extent, people were babied with Bob,” says editor Judith Jones. “Maybe some people miss that sort of thing.”

“As far as I can understand,” says Mehta, “I succeed two deeply individualis­tic if not deeply idiosyncratic and certainly profoundly more distinguished publishers than I am myself. One was Alfred, and one was the legend Bob Gottlieb. And I came into a company where a lot of people had been working together in a particular way for a long time. They grew up in a particu­lar way together.” He pauses for an excru­ciatingly long moment. “You walk around this place,” he continues, “and a newcom­er is someone who has been here for about five years. So I’m really just off the boat in more senses than one.”

Editors at Random House point to William Loverd, director of publicity at Knopf, the vice president of Random House responsible for corporate PR, and a man who has Bernstein’s ear, as the one who brought the staff’s discontent with Mehta to his boss’ attention. Loverd won’t say he did, but he won’t say that he didn’t either. For the record, he says this: “There have of course been discussions ever since Son­ny arrived about how things are going and how the house can be improved, but they have most certainly never risen to the point of alarm.” While Loverd says it nev­er reached the point of alarm for him, he makes it clear that Mehta is just not his kind of guy.

Bill Loverd has been at Knopf just about since the day he graduated from Colgate. In a lot of ways he is typical of the average Knopf family member. He is intelligent, charming, and warmhearted, and he speaks of fine books with joy and a certain reverence. Complementing his impeccable charcoal-gray pin-stripe suit, he wears a shirt that’s roughly the same color as the corporate blue of the Random House office walls, and a brass bar holds his yellow paisley tie crisp and tight. His hair is graying neatly on the sides, and he looks as if he shaved five minutes ago. And because Bill Loverd is in public relations, he always returns his calls.

In a way, the contrast between Bill Loverd and Sonny Mehta epitomizes the personality differences that have generated all the gossip at Knopf. Loverd greets you with a wholesome hello; Mehta, his shirt open at the collar and tucked into jeans, cracks a joke. Loverd went to college in Hamilton, N.Y.; Mehta was partially brought up in the Third World (albeit as a member of its highest class). Lo­verd talks about the jacket of a book; Mehta, in lingo left over from his paperback days, talks about its cover. Bob Gottlieb had been known to wear jeans, but his demeanor was somehow more meticulous, more refined, more Knopf.

Take, for instance, Bill Loverd’s press releases, which are typically Knopf: a box of royal blue frames a headline, and quotes of praise tumble beneath it. Loverd works hard on these releases, seeing them as compact examples of the quality a reviewer can expect from Knopf books themselves. “You see this says that this is obviously an impor­tant work,” Loverd says, showing off the latest example. And it obviously is. But somehow the tight, blue press re­lease doesn’t work for Geek Love; it doesn’t convey that this is a book about a family of traveling freaks. Somehow the Geek release’s orange lettering, coming as it does where we have come to expect black, looks forced. The fact is that the Loverd-administrated press release and the Sonny-inspired book jacket come out of two very different spirits — even if both spirits ultimately want the same thing: to publish good books and to sell them well.

“I came into Knopf to try to maintain everything it stands for in international publishing,” Son­ny Mehta is saying, his desk absolutely littered with books. “So what if in the course of doing it somebody puts another leg on a dog and then we try to go out and publish the book in a more aggressive way?”

This is a more emphatic and simply more cold-blooded way of looking at things than Knopf is used to — at least the Knopf of Bob Gottlieb, the Knopf that Bill Loverd grew up in, the Knopf that always shied away from throwing big book parties. But it is a decidedly contempo­rary way of looking at publishing, of imagining a way to make enough money to pay for the next set of great and potentially classic books. It is a way that makes sense, and it is ultimately what must give Mehta some comfort when he thinks about what he insists are just rumors about his job.

For at least a very brief moment, Mehta may not have to worry: it is often said that neither Bernstein nor Newhouse likes his personnel moves to appear inspired by re­ports in the press. Still, over the long haul, Mehta has to worry that the little things he does might be misread or exaggerated and whipped around a gossip mill characterized by both its speed and the eloquence of its slurs.

If Mehta does leave Knopf, some people will be very happy. “When The New York Times uses the word abys­mal, they mean it,” says one literary figure, who insists on anonymity. “The man is awful.” Some people, on the other hand, will be very disappointed. “I will be inconsol­able should Sonny Mehta leave Knopf,” says Toni Morri­son. Says writer Richard Ford: “Sonny is a wonderfully intelligent, sweet-tempered man. To think for a moment that people would gun him down is absurd. He holds high­est what all editors and publishers should at their best hold highest, and that is the sanctity of the best possible writers. Everything he does he does for them.”

In the end, Mehta seems content to let others talk and to spend his energy publishing books. He even seems content to let Knopf’s problems work themselves out: “It’s one thing to perceive intellectually and it’s another to ne­gotiate a whole set of personal histories and relationships that have built up over quite a period of time and which you find yourself inheriting. Actually, it’s presumptuous to try to understand things too quickly. It’s like moving in and becoming a stepfather. You have to allow people a chance to develop a familiarity. It takes time. And I think that’s what has been happening. I have been becoming a sort of stepfather.”

And, besides, Mehta seems to want to stick around America a little longer. “It’s been a traumatic experience for them,” he says of his Knopf colleagues, “and it’s been a traumatic experience for me too. I’ve had to give up a place where I’ve worked with people, some of them as long as 15 years. I’ve only had three jobs in my career. You know, by nature I’m a very settled bloke.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 2, 2020

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