TURN EVERY PAGE: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb

A Civil War over Semicolons

By C.J. Hirschfield

(January 24, 2023)

“He does the work. I do the cleanup. And then we fight.”

This dynamic is the core of a dazzling new documentary about the 50-year working relationship between Pulitzer Prize- winning author Robert Caro (The Power Broker, The Years of Lyndon Johnson) and master editor Robert Gottlieb (Beloved, Catch-22, True Grit, The Chosen, etc. etc.).

If you self-identify as a reader, then you will be smiling through much of this film, directed by Gottlieb’s daughter Lizzie Gottlieb, probably the only one who could have convinced these brilliant and feisty 80-somethings to share their respective histories, and the nature of their most unusual and fruitful bond. “Two titanic personalities,” is how they’ve been described; thankfully, they are also hugely interesting, witty, and funny.

Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, 1974. Photo credit: Martha Kaplan.

Caro’s first book was The Power Broker, a biography of legendary New York urban planner Robert Moses. Caro recalls thinking “Nobody’s going to read a book about Robert Moses.” But in 1970 the writer says that his entire life changed when he found both the agent, Lynn Nesbit, and editor Gottlieb, who remain with him to this day. “I knew it would be a masterpiece, but it needed work,” says Gottlieb, whose healthy ego is only matched by his enthusiasm and tireless work ethic.

Now in its 41st printing, The Power Broker weighed in at nearly four pounds in paperback, with 1246 pages, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Many of its and Caro’s fans are featured in the film, including Barak Obama (“It helped me shape how I think about politics,”) Bill Clinton, and Conan O’Brien. Adding a little Hollywood star power, actor Ethan Hawke reads key book passages, and publisher Lisa Lucas and author/urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter provide perspectives on Caro’s thoughtful writing about communities of color who were impacted by the power exercised by Moses.

Caro’s overriding theme is always the relationship between the means and ends, and how power changes all of our lives.

For the subject of his following book, intended to be a series, Caro originally considered former New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, but wanted to expand his scope beyond the confines of the city where he’d lived his entire life. Amazingly, both he and Gottlieb came up with the same person to be featured: Lyndon Baines Johnson. What they didn’t know was that it would yield four-plus volumes, running to more than 3000 pages in total, detailing Johnson’s early life, education, and political career. The books have taken seven years each. Given that kind of schedule, Caro was worried how he would be able to support himself during the process. “That’s not your problem,” he was told. In the film, agent/publisher Nesbit says of the arrangement “I doubt it could ever happen again.” Says Gottlieb, “We had no way of knowing we’d be at it for the rest of our lives. Volume five is in the works, but don’t ever ask Caro when it will be finished, we are advised. “I don’t want to rush it,” he says.

The film treats us to great anecdotes related to the writing of the Johnson epic saga, including Caro’s decision to move to the poor and remote Texas hill country for three years of research “Can’t you write a biography of Bonaparte?” quipped his researcher/wife who nonetheless enthusiastically joined her husband on the journey. Or the story of how Caro tracked down the man, assumed dead, who held the key to how Johnson stole his 1948 Senate race election through brilliant manipulation of the judicial system and state Democratic political organization. (“He had noble ends, but his means were far from noble,” says Caro). And how the president’s brother, after many years, finally opened up about the family’s pain, poverty and disfunction. And how Caro keeps carbon copies of his writing crammed in piles in a cabinet above his refrigerator.

Caro speaks eloquently not only about Johnson’s triumphs in the areas of voting and civil rights, but also the tragic consequences of of his decisions relating to the Vietnam War.

There are a number of fine documentaries out now by women directors who have chosen their parents as subjects: Nancy Pelosi’s daughter’s Pelosi in the House, Ondi Timoner’s Last Flight Home, and Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead, among others. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the advantages include unparalleled access, a sense of intimacy and a letting down of the guard of subjects.

Lizzie Gottlieb and Robert Caro, Texas Hill Country.
Cinematography: Mott Hupfel.

After 50 years, and on the brink of final collaboration, Robert Gottlieb is currently working on a book by Microsoft’s Bill Gates on the environment. At 89, he politely turned down Bill Clinton’s request to edit his post-White House bio. “I would love to be able to hang up my pencil on the last page of the last volume of LBJ, but it’s in the lap of the gods.”

Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb.       Photo credit: Claudia Raschke.

The film is at its best when the two men describe their unique and successful creative collaboration. About his editing, Gottlieb says “editors have to be cruel to be kind, like grandfathers.” He adds, “Editing is intelligently and sympathetically reacting to text, what the author is trying to accomplish.”

And Caro’s view of his longtime editor? “Gottlieb cared as much about the writing as I did. That doesn’t mean we agreed. He thinks I use too many semicolons.”

Turn Every Page website

Turn Every Page in theaters across America

-In the San Francisco area:

January 20
Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema, San Francisco
Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

January 27
Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill and XD, Pleasant Hill

 

Photos courtesy of Wild Surmise Productions, LLC / Sony Pictures Classics.

If you are in New York there is an ongoing exhibit “Inside the Robert A. Caro Archive at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library


January 20

Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema, San Francisco
Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

January 27
Century 16 Downtown Pleasant Hill and XD, Pleasant Hill

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT

My father, Robert Gottlieb, has been the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker. He has been the long-time editor of writers such as Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Bill Clinton, John Le Carré, and Salman Rushdie. One of his most complicated, celebrated, and mysterious relationships is with the writer Robert Caro – author of the spectacularly successful The Powerbroker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson. While my father is very close to many of his writers, there is something different and special and strange about his relationship with Caro. They have been working together for fifty years and are now in a race against time to finish their life’s work.

Seven years ago, I heard Bob Caro give a speech about working with my father, and from that moment, this film became my white whale. I realized that I was in a unique position to look at the seminal writer/editor relationship of the last half century in America. These men are camera shy and not prone to sharing their process with the public, but I realized that they might open up to me; if I could capture what goes on between them, I could open a window into a secretive creative process, a vanishing world of book publishing, and reveal one of the great untold stories of creative alchemy.

Robert Caro’s notes.
Photo credit: Lizzie Gottlieb .

If you have read the Power Broker and the LBJ books I am hopeful this movie gives you new revelations about the writing process. If you have not read Caro’s books, this movie will reveal to you surprising, sometimes shocking moments in American history.

Caro has been working on his LBJ series since 1974. As he says, he is now on volume five of a three volume biography. I have been filming the two Bobs for five years. I recently apologized to Robert Caro for taking so long to finish the film. He closed his eyes for a long time, then looked at me with great intensity and said, “Lizzie. It’s not about how long it takes to make. It’s about whether it will endure.”

My father is now 91. Caro is now 87. Their collaboration is still as vital and complicated as ever. Caro is on the brink of finishing the final book in his LBJ series. As the publishing world and his avid fan base (including Presidents Obama and Clinton, among millions of others) await the final volume, the stakes for him to finish become higher and higher. The possibility that he might not finish, and that Gottlieb might not get to edit it, looms over every scene. I wanted to capture the delicate power balance between them, the steadfast dedication to craft, collaboration, and the incredible industriousness with which they approach the process of writing and editing. I wanted to really understand what it takes to create something that changes how people understand power, and that will endure.

Lizzie GottliebLizzie Gottlieb - Wikipedia has been directing theater and film in New York for 20 years. She founded an Off-Broadway theater company that developed and produced new plays. As a director, Lizzie has worked with actors including Peter Dinklage, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Amy Ryan, and Michael Ian Black. Turn Every Page is her third feature documentary. Her film Today’s Man aired on PBS (Independent Lens) and at festivals and conferences worldwide. The film follows the life and struggles of her brother Nicky, a young man on the autism spectrum, as he tries to navigate the world as a young adult. Lizzie’s film Romeo Romeo follows a young lesbian couple as they try to have a baby. It’s a story of a marriage, a heartbreak, and a commitment to a dream, with a surprising ending. It also aired on PBS (America Reframed) and won the 2017 NLGJA award for Excellence in Documentary. Lizzie teaches documentary filmmaking at the New York Film Academy. She is the daughter of editor Robert Gottlieb and actress Maria Tucci and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Lizzie Gottlieb discusses her film on NPR.

“Robert Caro, Robert Gottlieb and the Art of the Edit” by Pamela Paul in The New York Times

ROBERT CARO AND ROBERT GOTTLIEB

(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics press kit)

Ina and Robert Caro.
Photo credit: Archival Photo Courtesy of Robert and Ina Caro

Robert A. Caro has been described by The London Sunday Times as “The greatest political biographer of our times.” For his biographies of Lyndon Johnson, he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, has three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has also won virtually every other major literary honor. In 2010 President Barack Obama awarded Caro the National Humanities Medal, stating at the time: “I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was twenty-two years old and just being mesmerized, and I’m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics.” In 2016 Caro received the National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Bibliography:

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974, Knopf)

  • ●  Pulitzer Prize in Biography
  • ●  Chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982, Alfred A. Knopf Inc.)

  • National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction
    The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (1990, Alfred A. Knopf Inc.)
  • National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography
    The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (2002, Alfred A. Knopf Inc.)
  • ●  National Book Award in Nonfiction
  • ●  Pulitzer Prize in Biography

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (2012, Alfred A. Knopf Inc.)

  • National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography

Working. (2019, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
PBS News Hour interviews Robert Caro about his book, Working.

Robert Caro website

Robert Gottlieb.
Photo credit: John E. Barrett

Robert Gottlieb began his publishing career in 1955. As the head of three major institutions – Simon and Schuster, Knopf and The New Yorker, he has shaped the literary landscape of the last 65 years, publishing and editing writers (he has edited over 700 books) like Joseph Heller, John Le Carré, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Roald Dahl, Edna O’Brien, John Cheever, Bill Clinton, and Katharine Graham. Now 91 years old, he is not simply waiting to get to work on Caro’s final volume. He has just completed a biography of Greta Garbo, is editing Bill Gates, helping to run the Miami City Ballet, and is dividing his time between New York and Miami. As stated in his memoir Avid Reader, Gottlieb’s greatest hope is to “hang up his pencil on the last word of the last page of the Lyndon Johnson biography… but it’s all in the lap of the gods.”

More about Robert Gottlieb

“He’s edited Caro, le Carré and ‘Catch-22,’ but doesn’t mind if you don’t know his name” Terry Gross interview on NPR’s Fresh Air

“Robert Gottlieb: Avid Reader, Reluctant Writer” The New York Times, 2016

Robert Caro, Robert Gottlieb, Lizzie Gottlieb & Jordan Pavlin: Turn Every Page | LIVE from New York Public Library.

 

The biographer Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, have been arguing with each other for 50 years as reported by Gal Beckman for The Atlantic.EDF filmstrip.jpg

screen-shot-2019-09-21-at-1.22.34-pm.png

C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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