For five decades, Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb have been arguing over semicolons. Caro, a world-famous biographer, is a fan. Gottlieb, his equally famous editor, is not. “He does the work, I do the clean-up. Then we fight,” Gottlieb chuckles.
Turn Every Page, a documentary from Gottlieb’s daughter Lizzie, chronicles the parallel careers of these two literary titans. Caro is 87 years old and Gottlieb is 91 and both are as sharp as ever. For those of us who wear our “Read a Fucking Book” pins from Left Bank Books proudly, Turn Every Page is a pure delight, brimming with warmth and wit.
Lizzie was raised amongst writers. “It was a very vibrant, exciting house to grow up in. So many of [my father’s] longtime writers were very, very close family friends. [But] Robert Caro, I don't remember him coming over once,” she said in a recent interview. Their relationship was a mystery, one made harder to solve by the fact that they refused to be interviewed together.
Explains Lizzie, “I'm trying to make a buddy film about two guys, and they won't let me see their actual relationship. That seemed hilarious and endearing and maddening, and like an irresistible challenge. I wanted the audience to feel like they were coming along with me on this challenge of trying to get these two men to relent and open up.”
Turn Every Page teases out Caro and Gottlieb’s differences. Gottlieb is soft-spoken and delicate, while Caro’s voice is a resonant baritone. As young men, the bespectacled Gottlieb was the spitting image of Woody Allen, while Caro resembled a Kennedy-type politician with his chiseled jawline. If our desks reveal our personalities, then Caro and Gottlieb couldn’t be more different. Caro’s is pristine, while Gottlieb’s is cluttered with knick-knacks. “Their spaces are a character in the film,” says Lizzie.
Caro and Gottlieb have been working together since The Power Broker, Caro’s 1974 biography of New York City’s urban planner Robert Moses. Among its fans is none other than Barack Obama. To trace how Moses remade New York in the early-to-mid 20th century as an unelected bureaucrat, Caro conducted 522 separate interviews. Readers daunted by Caro’s 1,336-page doorstopper can at least be grateful for Gottlieb, who cut over 300,000 words from the first draft.
Caro’s next obsession was Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s currently working on volume five of what was intended to be a three-volume biography. For some, the prospect of sifting through 45 million papers in the Johnson library would cause an aneurysm. For Caro, it’s like waking up on Christmas morning every day. Not surprisingly, Gottlieb is forever trying to keep Caro on the right side of the line between exhaustive and exhausting. Yet Gottlieb’s unwavering support shines through as he translates Caro’s dazzling insights for the reader.
If Caro is a mega-writer, then Gottlieb is a mega-reader. A montage of just a few of the 600-plus books he’s edited resembles a Great American Novels course list: Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever. When he’s sent a manuscript, he always finishes it that night, sleep be damned. About his promotion to editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Gottlieb opines, “I had read more than anybody in the world, of course.”
Lizzie was inspired by Caro and Gottlieb’s work ethic, epitomized by their respective mottos: “Turn every page” and “Get it done.” She explains, “Their two mottos became a North Star for me and my producers. We kept looking to them for inspiration and clues about how you make work that is as meaningful as it can possibly be. When we were faced with a fork in the road, we would say, ‘What would Robert Caro or Bob Gottlieb do?’”
As a crash course in the Caro-Gottlieb school of writing, Turn Every Page lingers on their old-school writing apparatuses: typewriters, carbon copies, and no mechanical pencils, ever. Caro in particular sees himself as part of a lost breed. With a rueful laugh, he characterizes himself as the last person walking through Manhattan without headphones.
“It's worked for [Caro] for 50 years. So why change it?” reflects Lizzie. “Younger generations maybe feel like all of these tools help us so much. But look how much he's able to do without them. There's a lot to be learned for all of us in terms of just sitting down and doing the work.”
Beyond new tech, publishing has been transformed by an emphasis on short-term profits. Caro’s agent remarks that his contract, which lets him take around seven years to write a book, would never be granted today. One wonders whether such a longstanding, patient editor-writer relationship could begin today, either.
But Lizzie’s experience touring her film around the country has convinced her that there are book lovers everywhere, from the biggest metropolis to the humblest town. “There are readers everywhere, and they're not going to go away. And there are writers everywhere, and they're not going to stop writing. So the art of the book is alive and well in our country. One can be doom and gloom about the changes in the publishing industry. But we can be hopeful about books surviving,” she says.
Turn Every Page celebrates just that kind of literary obsessiveness, right down to finding the perfect punctuation.
Turn Every Page screens at Grand Illusion March 4-8.