Robert Caro, Gottlieb and the mystic chords of memory
Robert A. Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, know each other so well.
After a half-century together, the pair have lived in each other’s minds for so long that they can anticipate what the other will say. Their collaborations on such epics as “The Power Broker” and the yet unfinished “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series have established Caro as a leading historian and helped confirm Gottlieb — whose roster has included Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing and Joseph Heller — as one of publishing’s most accomplished editors.
But the two Bobs — the subjects of a new documentary, “Turn Every Page,” made by the editor’s daughter Lizzie Gottlieb — are also known for how they diverge.
Caro, from his office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Gottlieb, speaking by phone from his home on the island’s other side, shared contrasting memories on personal and editorial matters during recent interviews with The Associated Press.
Whether Gottlieb has ever praised Caro:
Caro: “I can honestly say that say that no such remarks have been made to me. The only remark that ever fell anywhere near that category is when we finished editing ‘Means of Ascent’ (his first Lyndon Johnson book). We worked on it all summer. And we were cutting it for some New Yorker excerpts and I think he said, ‘Not bad.’”
“He likes to believe that,” Gottlieb, who in the film called Caro a genius, responds. “I can’t imagine working with someone that long without at least saying, ‘Hey, pretty good.’”
Caro: “He thinks I use too many semicolons. That sounds small. It’s not small in our editing process.”
Gottlieb: “I don’t believe that’s so. He is more focused on this than I am.”
Whether Caro cares more than Gottlieb does about sentence rhythms:
Caro: “He doesn’t believe it’s as important as I do.”
Gottlieb: “It’s in his head, not mine.”
They do agree on their happiness with the documentary releasing Dec. 30 and their regard for Lizzie Gottlieb, who thought of the film after seeing Caro present her father with an award in 2014. Lizzie Gottlieb, who also made “Today’s Man” about her brother, approached the two men separately and was initially turned down by both. Robert Gottlieb came around within weeks; Caro, months later, impressed by her willingness to keep asking.
“She reminds me of me,” Caro, a former investigative reporter for Newsday, says. “She won’t quit and that’s a big reason I agreed to it.”
Caro and Gottlieb may differ on details but the record is otherwise laid out clearly in “Turn Every Page,” the title inspired by advice from a Newsday editor on approaching research.
Caro and Gottlieb first met in the early 1970s, when Caro was struggling to find a publisher for his first book: “The Power Broker,” a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses. He was broke, had sold his home on Long Island and was living in presumed obscurity with his family in a Bronx apartment. Gottlieb, meanwhile, was head of Alfred A. Knopf.
In what he calls the week that changed his life, Caro found both the agent and editor who remain with him now. He spoke with the agent Lynn Nesbit, who assured him that his work was well known around town and that, with a phone call, she could solve his money problems. Nesbit recommended a handful of editors, Gottlieb among them.
“He had interesting things to say about ‘The Power Broker,’” Caro recalls. “I didn’t agree with a lot of the things he was saying, but he was speaking at a level, analyzing the book at a level that other editors weren’t.”
Their longevity is miraculous if only because “The Power Broker” might have ended even the closest of partnerships. Caro’s original draft ran more than 1 million words and had to be narrowed to around 700,000 — equivalent to a couple of books in its own right — just to make a single volume physically possible. Their arguments were long and angry, sometimes ending with one of them “stalking out of the room,” Caro recalls. But the finished text, released in 1974 and running more than 1,200 pages, was a Pulitzer Prize winner now widely regarded as a classic of city governance, urban planning and the realities of politics.
Author and editor had only begun. Caro had been under contract to write a book on former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, but feared repeating material from his Moses research. He looked instead to a leader who would fit his ambition to document the uses and effects of political power on a national scale: Lyndon Johnson. Gottlieb had similar thoughts, and remembered the two bringing up the late president (who died in 1973) at the same time during a meeting.
A planned three-volume series has expanded to five, with the end date still undetermined a decade after the fourth book, “The Passage of Power,” was released. Caro, who is planning a trip to Vietnam for research, says he is not close to finishing.
He praises Gottlieb for accepting, without hesitation, the ever-growing scale of his work. He and Gottlieb long ago forged an unspoken agreement that Gottlieb never asks when the manuscript is coming, and Caro shows him nothing until he has a finished draft.
“I get so much mail, all with the same question: ‘When is Volume 5 going to be finished?’” Caro says. “That you feel really good about, because it’s encouraging. But some then say, ‘Do you know how old you are?’”
The two Bobs were in their 40s when the Johnson project began. Caro is now 87, Gottlieb 91.
“Bob and I don’t sit around and talk about it,” Gottlieb says. “We know how the clock ticks.”
The banter between Caro and Gottlieb at times seems fraternal. They are both “nice little Jewish boys from Manhattan,” Gottlieb observes, bookish children who went on to Ivy League colleges (Gottlieb studied at Columbia, Caro at Princeton) and the very heights of achievement. Both are well spoken, confident in their abilities and what they’re after. Both have even been known to wear horn-rimmed glasses.
They have just enough in common for their differences to matter.
For decades, the two never socialized. Lizzie Gottlieb came to know Heller, Lessing and some of her father’s other authors well, but says she had never met Caro until he turned 80. Time, and “Turn Every Page,” helped bring them closer. When Gottlieb is asked if he now thinks of Caro as a friend, he quickly answers yes. Caro’s response is a work in progress, as if issued in succeeding volumes.
“Well, it’s gotten a lot friendlier,” he initially responds. “I certainly didn’t think of him as a friend when we were doing ‘The Power Broker’ or the first volume of (the Lyndon Johnson series). I’m not the kind of person who thinks of my editor as a friend.”
But are they friends now?
“Now we have lunches together. I love to talk about books with him,” Caro says.
So they’re friends?
“We’re friendly, but he’s still my editor.”
He then explains how they don’t fight often anymore, that revisions work far more smoothly and quickly than years ago.
“Things have evolved,” he concludes. “Are we friends now? Yes.”
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