Remembering Jeremy Tarcher, 1932–2015

by Dean Sluyter

You may not know his name, but if you meditate, practice yoga, use alternative diets or medicine, cultivate right-brain creativity, or consume information about any form of inner development, then an unlikely character changed your life. A dapper New Yorker with the patrician voice of a Franklin Roosevelt, transplanted to the poolside culture of Beverly Hills, was one of the key shapers of the more conscious, expansive world you live in today.

Jeremy Tarcher pioneered mind-body-spirit publishing in the United States some forty-five years ago. Before he came along, such books were scarce, relegated to the fringes of the industry. Jeremy—my mentor and my friend—changed that.

That’s not something anyone would have predicted. Jeremy’s path was a series of accidents. The son of an ad man and a lawyer, he grew up on posh Central Park West, Catcher in the Rye country. In fact, he once told me he was convinced that he was Holden Caulfield. Like Salinger’s young hero, he was a seeker, a nonconformist, and a bright, failing student. But unlike Holden, he was always genial and charming. He was having too much fun to study—as he put it, he refused to waste the best years of his life reading.

The ironic result is that the only college he could get into was quirky St. John’s in Maryland, with its four-year, symposium-style investigation into the Great Books: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, Marx, Freud—all the canonical Big Minds. There, Jeremy fell in love with books and received his intellectual grooming.

His entrepreneurial grooming began with another accident. Jeremy’s sister, Judith Krantz (future author of such mega-bestselling novels as Scruples) returned from a visit to Paris with a smuggled copy of Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion, which was banned in the U.S. as obscene. She gave it to Jeremy, who promptly went into business, lending it out to fellow students at twenty-five cents a head.

In 1957, yet another life-changing accident took place. Jeremy happened to see a children’s TV program starring Shari Lewis and her signature puppets, Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, and promptly fell in love. He was working as a TV producer himself and wangled an introduction. He not only married Shari but became her producer. Eventually they moved to Los Angeles, where they were a dynamic creative team, even writing a Star Trek episode together.

But Jeremy was nervous about being a Hollywood husband with a career that depended on his wife’s. With his new show-biz connections, he hit on the idea of producing celebrity humor books by the likes of Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Johnny Carson. A publisher was born.

Soon California was experiencing the first rumblings of the conscious-lifestyle revolution: yoga, meditation, psychedelics, transpersonal psychology. After a visit north to the Esalen Institute, Jeremy was drawn into that revolution. The New York publishers wrote it all off as Left Coast flakey, but Jeremy saw this vacuum as an opportunity, and Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc. brought the world such groundbreaking works as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, The Aquarian Conspiracy, and Seven Years in Tibet.

There were bumps along the way. An exasperated swami once threw Jeremy out of his ashram, declaring, “You’re the worst prospect for meditation I’ve ever met!” And many of Jeremy’s authors were, well, characters. Bikram’s outsized personality, for example, is notorious, but the book that Jeremy got out of him helped make yoga a household word. He also published Flashbacks, one of several memoirs by the erratic psychedelic evangelist Timothy Leary. (I once asked him how it was. He replied, in his best FDR inflection, “Well, it doesn’t contain any more lies than the others.”)

Author Philip Goldberg recalls his first meeting with Jeremy. “I was trying to sell a book on intuition and its practical applications, a new idea at the time. No one in New York was interested, and my agent finally called to say he was giving up on it. But he added, ‘You know, there’s this … guy out in L.A. who does fringy stuff like that.’ So I flew out and, as I was crossing Sunset Boulevard to Jeremy’s office, Neil Young passed me going the other way. Then, just as I entered the office, Tim Leary came out. I considered it a good sign.” Jeremy bought the book on the spot, but (combining, as usual, his New Age enthusiasm with shrewd marketing sensibility) he changed the title from The Intuitive Mind to The Intuitive Edge.

Jeremy’s writers found him wise, witty, gracious—and demanding. Unlike most publishers, he read every draft of every book after his editors had worked it over. He was famous for his probing, prodding marginal notes. He knew that books about supposedly obscure, lofty topics like enlightenment require more clarity, precision, and feet-on-the-ground humility than other kinds of writing. He served on the board of Esalen for years and was fond of quoting the board’s unofficial motto: “You always teach the workshop you need, and you’re always your own worst student.”

I first met Jeremy around 1996. My idea for a book about the unintentional enlightenment teachings of jokes, nursery rhymes, and pop songs had been rejected all over New York. Jeremy loved the book precisely for the oddball quality that had doomed it elsewhere, and, although he had recently retired as publisher, he insisted on editing it himself. I was living in New Jersey, and our process consisted of mailing drafts back and forth across the continent, carrying on a wonderful Socratic dialogue in their margins. “Boy,” I thought, “this publishing thing is great!” Only later did I learn that that was not how the publishing industry worked—that was just Jeremy.

The success of Tarcher Inc. inspired other publishers to enter the mind-body-spirit field. Tarcher eventually became an imprint at Penguin Random House, guided into the next generation by the astute Joel Fotinos, who for years continued to consult on the phone with Jeremy several times a week. (He can still do a killer Jeremy impression.) After I moved to Santa Monica in 2010, I occasionally visited Jeremy in his Westwood condo. By now he was widowed and in failing health, but still seeking and challenging. Once he attended a kirtan I was leading and asked a perfect, sly, innocent Jeremy question: “Why do you repeat those mantras so many times?” He also started a book of his own but soon gave up, saying, “I wish I could go back and apologize to all my writers. I never fully realized how difficult it is to write a book till I tried it myself.”

The last time I saw Jeremy was earlier this year. I had received the first advance copies of my latest book, the fruit of 45 years of teaching meditation. Everything had been arranged: launch party, book tour, workshops, radio interviews. But I realized that something was missing. I needed the godfather of my writing career to bless this new project. I scooted over to Westwood on my Vespa and sat with Jeremy in his living room, where he had been playing chess with his caretaker, a gentle, burly former football player. Jeremy was quite ill, but he lit up at the sight of the new book. I told him that he was indeed the godfather, that his DNA was in my book and those of a whole generation of writers he had mentored, and there it would live on. He gave his smiling approval, we took a few selfies together, and we said goodbye.

Dean Sluyter is the author of Natural Meditation. He leads workshops and retreats throughout the U.S.: deansluyter.com.