Turning every page: Exploring the relationship between Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb
A new documentary takes a look at the LBJ biographer and his editor: “They’re in a kind of race against time to finish their life’s work.”
When it comes to biographies, there are perhaps no authors more influential than Robert Caro.
In 1974, after seven years of research, Caro released his first book, “The Power Broker” – a 1,100-page biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses. After that, Caro turned his attention toward a subject more familiar to Texans: Lyndon Johnson.
Currently sitting at four volumes and more than 3,000 pages, Caro has spent the last five decades documenting the 36th president’s rise from a poor boy growing up in the Texas Hill Country to eventually signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and extending the war in Vietnam.
In his career, Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and three National Book Awards, but he doesn’t do it all alone. In his equally long and illustrious career, Caro’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, has edited hundreds of books written by the likes of Toni Morrison and Joseph Heller.
In the publishing world, the relationship between Caro and Gottlieb has become legendary. It’s also the subject of a new documentary directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, who joined the Texas Standard to talk about the documentary. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s talk about the title of the new film.
Lizzie Gottlieb: So, “turn every page” is the advice that Robert Caro was given when he was a young reporter at Newsday in New York. His boss gave him this piece of advice. He said, “when you’re doing research, turn every page, kid.” He said, “turn every damn page.” And Bob Caro has taken that to heart in his research of doing absolutely everything to uncover the truth of what has happened in American politics. And I thought it also kind of represents my father’s work. He’s edited something like 700 books, and they’re both unbelievably industrious and diligent. And so it felt like the right title for this movie.
I think it’s safe to say that most people are not very familiar with the relationship between Robert Caro and your father. Whereas for you –
I mean, it’s part of the air I breathe. My father ran Simon & Schuster, and then Knopf, then the editor of The New Yorker. So I grew up in this house surrounded by writers.
This must have been somewhat cathartic then, to go down this path.
Well, interestingly, of all his writers, so many of them were close family friends. And in all those years, I never met Robert Caro.
So there was something strange and different about their relationship. They’ve been working together since 1970, and they’re still at it. They’re trying. They’re in a kind of race against time to finish their life’s work together. And I was really interested in the creative alchemy that happens between these two people. As you say, people don’t really know how books get made. They don’t really know that process, even if you’re a reader. I was in the unique position to be able to bring people into this secretive world, an unusual process, and this quite thorny and very productive relationship.
I love how you characterized it just then, and I love the way that you use the word “alchemy.” As far as I know, they have not allowed anyone to actually visibly witness that editing process. How did you convince them to let a camera in on that?
Well, that’s a good question. They both were absolutely against it.
It’s like the Supreme Court: there shall be no cameras here. There’s this almost sacredness, it seems to me.
That’s exactly right. And, you know, also, my father says nobody should know what an editor does because an editor’s work should disappear. And his joke is, nobody wants to hear an editor say “and then I said to him, ‘Leo, don’t just do war. Do peace, too.’” It’s only showing off, right? So there is something sort of sacred and private and secret about what goes on between a writer and editor. But my dad says he can never say “no” to me. So I kind of took advantage of that and just pushed and pushed. And finally he said, “Well, you can talk to Bob Caro, but he’ll say ‘no.’” And then I had this long process of trying to convince Bob Caro to trust me. This man who spent his life trying to get other people’s stories out of them. I think he was aware that I was trying to convince him to collaborate with me, and he eventually did.
And so upon witnessing this, what was your feeling?
I mean, taking this in was an incredible, privileged feeling to be able to spend this time. It took me seven years to make this movie and to be able to learn about – they’re both so industrious and they’re so adorable and they’re so dedicated to what it is that they do. And they care about every element. So they care about, you know, uncovering the truth about how Lyndon Johnson stole the Senate election of 1948. But they also care as deeply about punctuation. You know, they have had screaming fights apparently for five decades. And you say, “what do you fight about?” And they say, “we have very different feelings about the semicolon.”
That’s incredible. Part of this, of course, and a big part for a lot of our listeners is LBJ. You got a chance, as I understand it, to actually go into the Texas Hill Country where so much of what this creative process has been about is located. I mean, what was that like for you and what do you feel like?
Going with Robert Caro to the Texas Hill Country was probably one of the most magical experiences of my life. We went into LBJ’s boyhood home, and I sat there with Robert Caro in the house that Johnson grew up in. And Bob Caro tells a story in the film sitting in that house about when he got Sam Houston Johnson, Lyndon Johnson’s brother, to come back to the house that they had grown up in, and to sit there at dinner time with the shadows coming into the room the way they had when they were kids. And he somehow gets Sam Houston Johnson to open up and say things that he had never said before about their childhood and about Lyndon’s very difficult, very painful relationship with his father. So Bob Caro pulls this story, the sort of untold story out of Sam Houston Johnson. That reveals something about how Lyndon Johnson became this unusual president that he became. And I got to sit there with Bob Caro in the same space, with the same shadows coming into the room and have him relive that experience himself. It was an incredible kind of life changing thing for me to be there. And it’s a big scene in the movie.
Well, I find it fascinating that the process of the biographer, in a sense, has taken on so much a part of the LBJ story itself. Now, you know, it’s not often that that happens. Usually the biographer is at a distance, but now people are waiting for the next, you know, Caro installment.
You know, there are obviously many people who don’t know who Robert Caro is. But I find, as I’ve gone across the country with this movie, that there are people – a lot of grown men – I mention that I’m working with Robert Caro, and they start weeping and they say, “Where is volume five? When will he finish?” You know, Caro’s 87 years old. And then they say, “Are you sure you should be wasting his time with a movie? He should be writing! Don’t distract him.” And my producer said, “We should put a sign on the poster that says, ‘no Lyndon Johnson books were harmed in the making of this movie.’”
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