Mayer was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father was in the United States Navy, so the family moved many times during his childhood before settling in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, Mayer graduated from high school in 1961. While attending school at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Mayer decided to enter the field of children's book illustration. To that end, he created a portfolio of sketches and peddled them wherever he could. Though his professors feared the young artist would never be good enough to make a living as an illustrator, Mayer was not dissuaded.
Mayer moved from Hawaii to New York City in 1964, pursuing further instruction at the Art Students League of New York, where he met an artist named Marianna who became his first wife. He also met an art director who told Mayer that his portfolio was so bad that he needed to throw it away. Though offended, Mayer did. During his spare time from his job at an advertising agency, the artist created a completely new portfolio. These new sketches persuaded editors at Dial Press and Harper & Row to give him some illustration work.
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