152 Minutes With Robert Gottlieb

I love this book publishing and New York City story —LWH

By Matthew Schneier

The 91-year-old book editor waits for his 87-year-old star writer, Robert Caro, to turn in his latest book.

The life of the editor Bob Gottlieb, at a spry 91 years old, is nowadays largely limited to a single room on the second floor of his East 48th Street townhouse — by choice, not necessity. He can bound up Second Avenue just fine to the diner that he considers an extension of his home, where the waitress knows he takes his chocolate milkshakes extra thick. But everything he needs, his library and his pencils, is right here, so why go farther? To receive guests like this one, he didn’t even have to put on shoes or tame the gull’s-wing sweep of his silver hair. Burbling away in a leather club chair in his book-lined office (they are arranged according to a system, he says with a point to his head, that’s “up here”), with piles of more books on the floor and in the corners, beneath giant MGM publicity posters of Marion Davies, Clark Gable, and Norma Shearer from the early 1930s, he is a man in his element. “I don’t want to go anywhere because there’s nowhere I want to go,” he says in his fluty register. “My life is very calm, just the way I like.”

It is here that he waits for one of his most famous writers — and he has edited many of the past century’s most famous ones, including Cheever, Rushdie, Lessing, and Naipaul — to turn in a long-awaited manuscript. Assuming, that is, the pair beat what Gottlieb notes dryly are the “actuarial odds.” Robert Caro, 87, whom Gottlieb has edited since his first book, The Power Broker, published in 1974, is at work on the fifth and final volume of his Lyndon B. Johnson biography. Their long relationship is the subject of a documentary, Turn Every Page, directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, which arrives (well before the Johnson book) on December 30.

Gottlieb is perhaps the longest-serving man in publishing, a living link to those days when a successful book editor and his stage-actress wife could buy themselves an entire Manhattan townhouse like this one and stuff it full of books. Their house, and his office, looks out onto the private, semi-communal Turtle Bay Gardens, shared with their neighbors on the block. “Bob never goes into the garden, you have to understand,” says Gottlieb’s wife, Maria Tucci, who has come home with lunch. “He says real Jews don’t like nature.”

Among their fellow Turtle Bay Gardeners over the years were Janet Malcolm and Gardner Botsford, the late New Yorker writer-editor couple, whose teenage daughter, Anne, became their babysitter. Katharine Hepburn lived along there, too (next door to Stephen Sondheim), and when Gottlieb was editing her book, he’d nip across to her house for meetings, entering through her back door.

Gottlieb joined Simon & Schuster in 1955 and eventually became editor-in-chief, then ran Alfred A. Knopf. In 1987, S. I. Newhouse hired him to take over The New Yorker from William Shawn and then fired him a few years later in favor of Tina Brown (Newhouse must’ve felt guilty because he promised him his New Yorker salary for life). Then it was back to Knopf.

Even at 91, he continues to work on occasional projects as an editor-at-large. (His next, Flora Macdonald: “Pretty Young Rebel,” out in January, is by Flora Fraser, whose mother and grandmother he has also edited.) What Gottlieb does, what he has always done, is read — widely and voraciously, if not, he says, as quickly as he once did.

At the moment, he is making his way through a recent biography of George III, the essays of V. S. Pritchett, and the work of the Soviet novelist and journalist Vasily Grossman, though I also spot copies of Janet Evanovich and Colleen Hoover, the currently best-selling romance writer. An editor, he notes modestly, is really just a reader — although he also likened the editing process to psychoanalysis, including the occasional transference.

Editors, as any editor can tell you, live in the shadow of their writers, reacting quietly behind the scenes, unheralded and little known. This is, evidently, how Gottlieb prefers it. “This glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing,” he once told The Paris Review. “The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one,” he said then and believes today. “The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames.”

He insists editing is neither an art nor a craft. It’s just “what I do,” he says. “I’m not an abstract thinker. I don’t think, really — I just react, which is what editors are supposed to do.” When I tried to press him further, he waved me away. “Don’t you feel like an idiot having to ask questions like that?”

Turn Every Page attempts to answer some of them. The film is a tender portrait of the two men that is saved from schmaltz by their occasional testiness, Caro’s in particular. According to Gottlieb, it has always been thus. “He was very wary about revealing himself,” he says of Caro. “I used to joke when we first met each other — I felt that if I said to him, ‘How are you?’ that was too invasive a question.”

Fifty years later, and thanks in part to the film, he adds, “he’s finally acknowledged that we are friends.” Until making it, Lizzie Gottlieb had barely met Caro, and it took some persistence to wear down his resolve. Her father was easier to crack. “Anything she wants is hers by definition,” he says.

Caro was a broke former Newsday reporter when he started work on The Power Broker, his megalithic study of Robert Moses. He delivered to Gottlieb a manuscript that, at over a million words, would be impossible to fit in a single volume and suggested publishing it in two. “We may be able to get people interested in Robert Moses once,” Gottlieb tells me — he’s said this before — “but we certainly can’t do it twice.” They set about trimming it by a third, but the finished book is still 1,200 pages. It won the Pulitzer Prize and is in its 66th printing.

Caro was not going to be limited by single volumes after that. From the start, the Johnson biography was planned to be three, though since then it’s grown to four published and one more on the way. “I don’t see anything while he’s writing,” Gottlieb says. If he has any idea when the book will issue from Caro’s Smith Corona, he isn’t saying. (Gottlieb himself uses a Mac.)

Turn Every Page plays up the drama of the editing process, emphasizing the (offscreen) sparring between the two men on subjects great and small. (There were, apparently, many blowups about punctuation, most especially the semi-colon: Caro for, Gottlieb against.) According to Gottlieb, these contretemps barely count. “I would say if there were any real disagreements between us,” he says genteelly, though I doubt he would tell me or anyone. The men did allow Lizzie to film them working together side by side — but only with the sound off.

This hands-on, cheek-by-jowl editing, once rare, is now basically extinct. “Publishing has grown more and more corporate,” he says. “I think it’s all changing. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with any of that.” Yet he remains chipper and uncynical, certain that Americans are still avid readers like him. (Avid Reader is the title of his memoir.) He seems less like a lion in winter than a springy Candide, though he thinks of himself more as a Norman Vincent Peale — mid-century author of The Power of Positive Thinking and, probably not irrelevantly, a best-seller.

I ask him if he was able to resist the impulse to try to edit his daughter. “We had one disagreement about the film,” he says. “I suggested she put an exclamation point at the end of the title. Because, to me, Turn Every Page is an exhortation. But she resisted.” He relented. “It’s here to take advantage of,” he says about his editorial guidance. “If it’s not an advantage to you, forget it.” Just to be safe, this article includes not one semicolon

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