Many of his books examined familiar professions and institutions, with titles like “Madison Avenue, U.S.A.” (1958), “Wall Street: Men and Money” (1960), “The Schools” (1961), “The Lawyers” (1967), “About Television” (1972), “The Bankers” (1974), “The Builders: Houses, People, Neighborhoods, Governments, Money” (1978) and “The Diplomats” (1983).
The titles made them sound perhaps like quickie surveys, but they proved to be serious books, often years in the making, that treated complex subjects with respect if not total justice. Reviewers and professionals often cited oversimplifications and said readers might be misled. The very title of “The Lawyers,” for example, suggested to one reviewer a wallow into the murkier gimmicks of the legal profession.
“It is nothing of the kind,” Thomas Lask observed in The Times, noting that the author devoted five years to the book. “It is a highly researched, many-faceted presentation of what a lawyer is, how he is trained, what he does to earn his money, how many different kinds there are, what opportunities are open to him and how he makes out financially in comparison to the rest of us.”
Mr. Mayer’s dissection of Madison Avenue won The New Yorker’s nod of approval for his “skill in assimilating his findings, organizing his material and presenting it, with a nice leavening of anecdote, illuminating shoptalk and fascinating lore.”
One of Mr. Mayer’s most ambitious projects detailed New York’s 1968 teachers strike, a crisis over decentralization that closed the city’s public schools when a newly created community school board in the largely black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn fired many white, mostly Jewish teachers and administrators. The teachers’ union demanded reinstatements. Families boycotted the schools. Chaos and violence erupted, and accusations of racism and anti-Semitism swirled for months.
Mr. Mayer’s 23,000-word recapitulation in The New York Times Magazine, and a follow-up book, “The Teachers Strike: New York, 1968” (1969), were largely criticized along partisan lines. But Murray Kempton, in a New York Post column, “Homage to Martin Mayer,” wrote, “What counts is that Mayer has pursued the details; even those of us who argue with him are in his debt for that risk.”
Despite some negative reviews, Mr. Mayer’s “The Bankers” was a best seller in 1975, and his computer-age update, “The Bankers: The Next Generation” (1997), was a hit with readers and critics. Jennifer Kingson Bloom, in The American Banker, called the sequel “the first popular book to examine what it means to be a banker in the age of electronics and mergers.”