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He's edited Caro, le Carré and 'Catch-22,' but doesn't mind if you don't know his name

Robert Gottlieb describes editing as a service job: "Our job is to serve the word, serve the author, serve the text."
Thomas Victor
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Courtesy of the Estate of Thomas Victor, LLC / Sony Pictures Classics
Robert Gottlieb describes editing as a service job: "Our job is to serve the word, serve the author, serve the text."

At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book editor of his time. He started out in 1955 and has been working in publishing ever since — serving as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. The list of authors he's edited include Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton.

"He's edited and published so many of the great writers of the last 70 years — and he's still at it," Robert Gottlieb's daughter, documentary filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb, says.

Lizzie Gottlieb's latest film, Turn Every Page, centers on her father's decades-long editing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro. Caro's 1974 bestseller The Power Broker was an exhaustive investigation into how urban planner Robert Moses reshaped New York City and how he used and abused power.

Robert Gottlieb says he knew after reading just 15 pages of Caro's manuscript for The Power Broker that he was holding a masterpiece. Still, it took him a year to edit the book, not because Caro had written poorly, but because Caro had written enough to fill two volumes.

"There was no way that I could publish two volumes about Robert Moses. I remember saying to Bob [Caro], 'Maybe we can interest readers in one book about Robert Moses, but there's no way I can interest them in two,' " Robert Gottlieb recalls. "We finally decided, after years of discussing it in an amicable way, that we'd cut 350,000 words out of the original manuscript."

The use and abuse of power is also at the heart of Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro, now 87, is writing the fifth and final volume, and Robert Gottlieb is waiting to edit it.

"I think I was drawn to this story because here are these two guys who have been working together for over 50 years and are really in a race against time to finish their life's work," Lizzie Gottlieb says. "And the relationship between them is wildly productive — but also peculiar and contentious and dramatic."


Highlights from the interview with Robert Gottlieb

On the relationship between editor and writer

I can't think of many cases of writers I've worked with whose work I really loved and whose person I didn't like at all. There are people who are more difficult than other people, and more needy. It's a very emotional relationship. There's a transference that occurs as in psychoanalysis. The editor represents many things, and different things to every writer. It's a financial relationship. It's an approval relationship. It's a technical relationship. It can be a close one or it can not. Some writers don't want to be social with their editors. Others need to talk to them constantly. And if you would let them, would like to read to you what they've written that day over the telephone. Not for me. So your job, being a service job, is to supply the writer with whatever you intuit he or she requires and needs and can make the most of.

On his dynamic with Robert Caro

Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb pose in 1974 with Caro's book, <em>The Power Broker.</em>
Martha Kaplan / Courtesy of Wild Surmise Productions, LLC / Sony Pictures Classics
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Courtesy of Wild Surmise Productions, LLC / Sony Pictures Classics
Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb pose in 1974 with Caro's book, The Power Broker.

I don't really believe there is a power dynamic between author and editor, when the relationship is wholesome. Both have to be strong, have strong opinions and feel free and safe in expressing them in as polite a way as possible. We had disagreements along the way, certainly, and we could both get excited about them or by them. But on the whole, for 50 years of work, it's been productive, to my mind, pleasant, except when it wasn't. And it's gotten better and better. And in fact, our relationship has gotten better and better through the years. So I can say today, which I could not have said 50 years ago, that we are friends.

On editing as a service job

"For 50 years of work, it's been productive, to my mind, pleasant, except when it wasn't. Robert Gottlieb (right) says of working with author Robert Caro.
Claudia Raschke / Courtesy of Wild Surmise Productions, LLC / Sony Pictures Classics
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Courtesy of Wild Surmise Productions, LLC / Sony Pictures Classics
"For 50 years of work, it's been productive, to my mind, pleasant, except when it wasn't. Robert Gottlieb (right) says of working with author Robert Caro.

I feel as an editor, it's my job to make the case that I need to make and then it's his job to eventually agree or disagree. You know, I never cease explaining or telling young people who want to be editors, it's a service job. Our job is to serve the word, serve the author, serve the text. It's not our book, it's not my book. It's his book or her book. But it's a very gratifying job. And I love the editing process. I love it as an editor. And since I've done a lot of writing myself, to my astonishment, I love being edited because it's the process that I like. I don't care whether I'm the editor or the editee. It's fun and it's interesting to see how you can make something that you believe is good even better.

On correcting Bill Clinton's assumptions about working with an editor

It was in a room filled with people — all his assistants and secretaries and who knows who else — and there was little me. ... I think he said something like, "Ask any of these people who work for me, and you'll hear, I'm sure, that I'm very good to work for," some words like that. And I said, "Actually, Bill, in this instance, I'm not working for you. You're working for me." If you can have a silent gasp, it was a silent gasp around the room, and he sailed right past it.

We never had a moment's difficulty. At one point I wrote in the galleys of the book ... I wrote, "This is the single most boring page I have ever read." And when he wrote back, when he sent the galleys back, he wrote next to that, "No. Page 632 is even more boring." So you can see what our relationship was. It was really a wonderful, friendly, happy business from start to finish.

On making a name for himself as the editor of Catch-22

I was very nervous about it because it was such a huge success and we had publicized it in such an extraordinary way that it was really what made me into a known quantity in the publishing world. And I stayed away from the book. I was always afraid that if I reread it, I wouldn't love it as much as I had loved it. And when its 50th anniversary came around and there were various celebrations and acknowledgments and events surrounding that, I thought I better read it again because I want to see what I feel about it now in case I'm asked. So I did read it again for the first time in 50 years, and I was unbelievably relieved and excited by loving it all over again. And I was sort of amused when I came upon a passage that I didn't quite like and then remembered that I had really not liked it 50 years before. And by then the editing process was over and it was too late to do anything about it. So as I say, I may not be talented, but I am consistent.

On if he ever wished for more visibility as an editor — such as having his name on the cover

I thought editors should be unseen and unheard. Do the work. Shut up. Get on with it.

Not at all. I always wanted to be unseen and unheard, which is what editors should be. That didn't work all that well for me because for whatever reason, starting with the success of Catch-22, but for whatever reasons, I became, in the business, well known. Outside the business, no, who cares? No, I never wanted to be. And I would distress my publicity directors because people wanted interviews with me and I wouldn't do them because I thought editors should be unseen and unheard. Do the work. Shut up. Get on with it.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.