Documentary proves to be in the form of a true page-turner


Berl Falbaum
Veteran Political Journalist/Author

After seeing the documentary, “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb,” I will never again complain or whine about the edits, revisions and/or deletions made in my columns by the editors of The Detroit Legal News.

Not after I saw how Gottlieb helped Caro with his books, and other authors he edited.

Caro, the biographer/historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and Gottlieb, the publisher, are giants in their field, and the film examines their combative relationship over a little more than half a century.

As Gottlieb, explains: “He does the work. I do the cleanup. Then we fight.”

And fight they did with some of the most explosive battles over the use of the semi-colon. Gottlieb thinks a semi-colon “is worth fighting a civil war about.”

(Since I don’t know how my editors feel about semi-colons, I did not use any in this column.)

Caro made his mark in 1974 with “The Power Broker,” a biography on Robert Moses, the man responsible for just about every highway and parkway in and around New York City.

Caro took his manuscript totaling one million words -- yes, one million words -- to Gottlieb who, after reading the first 15 pages, recognized that he had a masterpiece but it was too long.

So, Gottlieb told Caro they had to delete 350,000 words -- yes, that’s 350,000 words -- which is equal roughly to three additional books. The book, 1,200 pages, some 50 years later is in its 41st printing.

The material deleted was excellent but the reason they cut a third of the book: The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, would not have able to print it because the spine would not have been able to support more pages.  

Through his career, Gottlieb has served as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, editor-in-chief and publisher at Alfred A. Knopf, and editor of The New Yorker. He has published more than 600 books.

Among other all-time greats that Gottlieb edited are, in fiction: John Cheever, Chaim Potok, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and John Heller of “Catch-22” fame. Indeed, it was Gottlieb who recommended the title, fearing that Heller’s choice of “Catch-18” would be confused with “Mila 18,” a book written on World War II written by Leon Uris and published at about the same time.

Non-fiction writers have included: Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, Nora Ephron, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, and Bob Dylan.

After completing “The Power Broker,” Caro turned his attention to former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He planned to write a trilogy – “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” -- and has already published four volumes. He is working on a fifth and final one.

Now, Caro is 87 years old and Gottlieb is 91. Both understand that they ae running out of time, but refuse to hurry the process or take any shortcuts.  Caro won’t say when he will finish, stating, “You can’t speed up the research.” Gottlieb, of course, can’t do anything but wait for his “client” to complete the book.

Caro was attracted to Moses and Johnson because he was enamored by the concept of power, how it was amassed and used. His two subjects were the embodiment of power and all its subtleties.

To say that Caro, who still writes on a typewriter and makes copies with carbon paper, is obsessive is, to put it mildly, an understatement. When he interviewed Texans in Johnson’s hometown, he was disappointed in responses, feeling that Texans did not trust him because he was an “outsider.” What did he do? He bought a house in the Texas Hill country and lived there for three years while continuing his research.

Once, when he wanted to interview Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, he took him to the family home, sat him at the table where the family had its meals to recreate, as closely as he could, the atmosphere experienced by the Johnsons.

Consider the daunting task he faced when he started the Johnson project; He walked into the former president’s library in Austin and faced documents totaling 32 million sheets of paper.

But he always remembered the advice he received as a young reporter at Newsday when an editor told him: In investigative reporting, turn every page. Thus, the title of the movie. Each of Caro’s five books required seven years to complete.

The movie should be watched by authors, editors, anyone who ever thought of writing a book, and/or readers who are curious about what it takes to publish a book, particularly one of high quality. It certainly should be used in university writing classes.

The film was produced and directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb. It took her five years to complete because Caro and Gottlieb rebuffed her countless times. But she prevailed -- with restrictions.

For instance, she could not interview them together nor could she witness an editing session between the two. When Caro and Gottlieb finally appear side-by-side at the end of the film, she was not permitted to record their conversation.

Note to my editors: The promise I made in the opening paragraph not to gripe about edits? I have no intentions of keeping it. So, take this: ; !

(Berl Falbaum is a veteran political columnist and author of 12 books.)


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