Turn Every Page

Writer Robert Caro (left) and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb, from the documentary film Turn Every Page. (Sony Pictures)





Pity Lizzie Gottlieb. Daughter of one of the finest book editors of the twentieth century, she is fascinated by his prickly but immensely fruitful relationship with Robert Caro, one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century. She wants to make a documentary about that relationship.

Neither man will allow her to film an editing session. They do not even want to be interviewed in the same room.

She forges ahead, spending five years on the project, interviewing Colm Toibin, David Remnick, Maria Tucci, Bill Clinton, Ethan Hawke, Conan O’Brien, and others, and finding all sorts of quiet ways to show the genius of both Robert A. Caro and Robert A. Gottlieb. Finally, worn down, they agree to be filmed editing—together, seated side by side—Caro’s latest manuscript pages.

With no audio.

No doubt exasperated, she agrees; at least she will have the visual of these two grumpy geniuses at work. The day comes. They show up at the venerated offices of Alfred A. Knopf. There is an awkward half-hug, at least a twelve inches between them and a split second before they step back to their own dignity.

And then, as your bottom edges forward on its plush cinema seat and you hold your breath, waiting for this momentous silent event…you see instead the two geniuses wandering the halls of Knopf Doubleday, looking for No. 2 pencils.

They have not brought their own. This last bit of filming happened maybe a year ago; today, Gottlieb is ninety-one, Caro eighty-seven. They are used to an earlier time, one in which a cup of pencils adorned every desk and conference table. In their home offices, those pencils are always sharp. For half a century of collaboration, pencils have been within easy reach.

The young editors at Knopf look up from their work, startled by the request, then rummage, hoping to help. Shiny monitors, no pencils. Finally one holds out, with a triumphant flourish, what she thinks will win the day: “Will a mechanical pencil do?”

One of the men—I will not remember which, because I am already chuckling in anticipation of their response—barks, “No.” The other shakes his head ruefully. They move on to the next office.

At last, they find a pencil, and they walk back—slower, these days, but erect—to the conference room.

Watching Turn Every Page, you realize that Gottlieb managed to be editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker without screens. Caro managed to write The Power Broker and four volumes of a brilliant and definitive biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson without screens, and he is working on the fifth without a screen. He still uses a Smith Corona Electra 210 typewriter (“Hunt and peck!” one of the moviegoers shouts with delight). He writes his drafts longhand. He types with carbon paper (a gasp from the audience) and stores the carbon copies at home above his refrigerator. Both men edit on typescript, in pencil. Efficiency be damned.

Those of us spoiled by today’s slick technology groan at the thought of all that “extra work,” all the later inputting, all those penciled arrows when cut-and-paste would be so clean. But pencil lets you see where you have been. It also lets you change your mind. What you cut is not lost in the ether; it is right there grinning I-told-you-so beneath that pencilled X. And the time “wasted” with all the friction of lead on paper, fingers hunting and pecking on hard round keys, is time in which to think.

Gottlieb also points out, when called upon to defend his anachronistic ways, that he is fast. He reads a manuscript the night he receives it, because he knows any delay will leave the writer breathless with agony—but also because he is excited to read it. Editing, for him, is “making public your own enthusiasm.” The ego lies in his confidence in his own opinion, because he is a stellar reader, his aesthetic and structural judgment pristine. But he has never needed to pretend the work is his own. He does what an editor should do: honor, and clarify, the author’s voice.

Caro is not fast. “I don’t like to feel rushed,” he told Texas Monthly in 1990, and it is even truer today. The entire world is waiting for him to finish that fifth volume. But he has always ignored deadlines, and by prioritizing exhaustive research and refusing to stop until he understands, he produces books that stun the reader. Not only has his work won two Pulitzer prizes, two National Book awards, the Francis Parkman prize, three National Book Critics Circle awards, the Mencken Award for Best Book, a gold medal in biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Humanities Award, bestowed by an ardent fan, President Barack Obama—not only that, but the work has changed how we think about politics, development, and society.

There is a priceless sequence in the documentary of COVID interviews with intellectuals and pundits, each with their bookcase behind them, each with the bright spine of The Power Broker prominently displayed on a middle shelf. Lizzie circles the book in red in each frame. Caro’s book has become not only an explanation but a talisman, evidence that you understand how power works in America.

Though power is his abiding fascination, he does not pluck it out of context. When an “old newspaperman” in New Jersey told him he should be an investigative reporter, Caro said he knew nothing about it and was given the simplest of directions: “Turn every page.” To this day, that is how he works. Researching LBJ’s early years in Texas’s Hill Country, he confided to his wife that he could not understand how these people think, how they live, how they operate. Most writers would have written from that distance, and a bit of a sneer would have bled through. Caro’s solution was to move to rural Texas. Luckily, Ina Caro, the only research assistant he has ever trusted, thought it would be a great adventure.

They lived there for the best part of three years. The commitment should surprise no one, because Caro’s histories go all the way back to the glaciers. Gottlieb once begged him to cut a passage on—no joke—the grass growing in Texas. When he finished his first draft of The Power Broker, he and Gottlieb had to carve away more than three hundred thousand words (the equivalent of three or four books). In the doc, Gottlieb admits how painful that was; it was not as though the words were empty, excessive, shallow, or ornate. They were, all of them, well-crafted and arguably important. But you simply cannot stuff that many words into a single book; they will break its spine. And only New Yorkers even knew who Robert Moses was.

With the LBG biography, multiple volumes were understandable. Still, though, Caro and Gottlieb cut, shaved, finessed, clarified. They made the books so thoroughly readable, intelligent, clean, and lively that even with today’s famously short attention spans, readers bought and read them.

Gottlieb also edited Toni Morrison, and that, you sense from his remarks on camera, was sheer delight, because they shared a sensibility about language. Editing Caro has not been sheer delight; the two battle it out sentence by sentence. Genial, almost impish, Gottlieb has always invited writers to his home for dinner, for parties—but he has never invited Caro. Yet when Gottlieb left Knopf to be editor in chief of The New Yorker, he promised Caro that he would continue to edit his books. Their shared project is a serious one, and neither feels any need to embellish it with chitchat. Gottlieb just wants to live long enough to edit the final pages of the final volume.

The doc is a celebration of this legendary partnership, but it is also a reminder of just how much can still be done with a Smith Corona and two No. 2 pencils. The only other tools a writer really needs, despite our consuming obsessions with the latest hybrid laptops and writing software and high-speed connection and chatbots, are unrushed time, unquenchable curiosity, a love of the written word, and an editor who will argue with you about your semi-colons.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.