• Renata Haidle

Who Was Peter Mayle?

This article was first published on Perfectlyprovence.com.

If you do a basic search about books set in Provence, it is quite possible that Peter Mayle is one of the first names to pop up, and for good reason. This is the man who is responsible for ultra-famous books such as A Year In Provence, Toujours Provence, and Encore Provence, after all. He is also the author of the novel A Good Year, which inspired the eponymous Hollywood film starring Russell Crowe and the French cinema darling Marion Cotillard.

But you probably knew all that, and, being an ardent admirer of Provence, I knew it as well. What I didn't know was how Peter Mayle ended up being the go-to name when it comes to Provence-themed literature.

Peter Mayle's house in Ménerbes - watercolor by Amanda Ashworth
Peter Mayle's house in Ménerbes - watercolor by Amanda Ashworth

A Brighton native, Mayle started his career in the late '50s, as a Shell Oil employee. Working in their London PR office as a trainee, he discovered early on that he had little interest in the oil business. Advertising seemed much more attractive, and he made the fortunate decision to contact David Ogilvy, who was handling the Shell account at the time, and ask for a job. Ogilvy offered him a position as a junior account executive, and thus began a Mad Men-like career that was going to last 15 years. Ogilvy sent him to New York, and it didn’t take long before another ad agency recruited Mayle and sent him back to London. Shortly after, he ended up buying out the UK side of operations, together with an associate, after the US company ran into financial trouble. After successfully handling big-name accounts such as Sony and Olivetti, it was Mayle’s turn to be bought out by BBDO, one of the top US advertising companies at the time. The acquisition, although financially auspicious, came with the requirement of a new London-New York commute on a regular basis.

If you ever watched an episode of Mad Men, the famed series depicting the advertising world of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you have a pretty good idea of the destructive stress, relentless pressure, and unhealthy lifestyle advertising men and women were subjected to on a regular basis. No wonder that Mayle got tired of it eventually, and decided to quit his lucrative advertising job in favor of becoming a full-time writer. From his new Devon residence, he authored a series of educational books, a few children’s books, as well as humorous and irreverent ones based on a character he called Wicked Willie - I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to what that might’ve referred to.

In the late ‘80s, Mayle made a second life-changing decision, when he left England behind yet again, to start a new adventure in a quiet little corner of rural France. He chose Ménerbes, a fortified town in the Luberon mountains, in the Vaucluse department. All you have to do is pick up any of his best-selling books to find out how that went for him.

A victim of his own success, he ended up relocating yet again several years later, this time to Amagansett, NY, to get away from fans who were coming from all over the world to see the location of all his famous literary pieces.

"We had people coming up the drive from Japan, from Australia, from Germany, from Sweden, from England, from America. At the beginning, it was really quite exciting... Then it just increased in volume until we were getting four, five, six visits a day," Mayle recounted in an interview with the Baltimore Sun in 1996. "Well, I just didn't want to deal with these visitations for the rest of my life, and it was just impossible to get away from it."

Lourmarin, Peter Mayle's last residence in Provence
Lourmarin, Peter Mayle's last residence in Provence

You might guess by now that his strong affection toward France brought him back eventually. A different home in a new location, close to picturesque Lourmarin but far removed from the curiosity of tourists, allowed him to peacefully return to a life he loved. He continued writing in the same style and about the same topics, until his passing in 2018. His last book, My Twenty-Five Years In Provence, was published posthumously six months after his death.

Peter Mayle gave us the “expat in France” dream, and, for a number of lucky readers of his books, he represents the spark that brought that dream to fruition. In the murky days of a less-than-desirable Brexit transition, I can’t help but wonder what Mayle would have made of it. Knowing him, he would probably adapt once more, and write yet another best seller, with the same resilience and humor he displayed time and again during his long and prolific writing career.