The new doc explores a writer-editor partnership over 40 years in the making.
The working relationship between author Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb, now over a half-century-long, has delivered five completed books with a sixth on the way. Judged by the numbers alone, that may not seem like an especially impressive output. However, the extraordinary amount of acclaim and influence these works have garnered tell a different story. One could convincingly mount a case for the two having the most significant author-editor relationship of our time. Perhaps even one to rival such legendary collaborators as Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins or T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Their union—and its literary accomplishments—is the subject of Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. It’s an entertaining new documentary from Lizzie Gottlieb (Robert’s daughter) that offers an intimate and entertaining look at the two men, their landmark works, and their ongoing efforts to bring their latest and presumably last project to completion.
Their story began in the early 1970s when Caro, then a writer for Newsday, began researching the largely unreported story of Robert Moses. Moses was the urban planner who literally and controversially shaped the growth and urban development of New York City. Along the way, he amassed an extraordinary amount of power and influence that he was not afraid to use. Caro began to convert his research into reams of text.
Meanwhile, Gottlieb was already a legend in the publishing industry, boasting such feats as not only discovering the manuscript for the then-unknown Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but giving it its title as well. The initial manuscript, reportedly standing two feet high, ended up in the editor’s hands. Together, the two set about reducing it by about 350,000 words. The result, 1974’s The Power Broker, has been hailed as one of the great examinations of political power. It is frequently taught in schools and remains a perennial best-seller to this day.
Yet, as massive of an accomplishment as The Power Broker was, it almost pales in comparison to the work that would consume Caro for more than 40 years. The result, a deep-dive multi-part examination of the life and work of Lyndon Johnson, published its first volume in 1982. Over four decades later, the fifth and final chapter is still forthcoming. Allowed to work at his own pace without the pressure of publisher-enforced deadlines looming over him, Caro’s immersed himself in the most minute details of his subject. At one point, he moved to Texas for several years to examine first-hand the poverty that shaped Johnson and his thinking. He then reported the information in a manner that succeeded at being simultaneously informative and empathetic.
[T]here is a certain edge to the proceedings that keeps the film from being too self-congratulatory.
Gottlieb filled his downtime waiting for Caro’s pages to arrive by editing the likes of Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, Bob Dylan, Bill Clinton, and The New Yorker. He and Caron were clearly on the same page, but that did not keep the editor from doing what he needed to in order to make the results read better and cleaner. Debates between the two covered everything from the necessity of semicolons to Caro’s alleged overuse of the word “loom.”
Since the 2012 arrival of Caro’s fourth LBJ book, The Passage of Power, both Caro and Gottlieb published books chronicling their respective working processes–Gottlieb’s Avid Reader and Caro’s Working. In a sense, the younger Gottlieb’s film serves as a companion piece to those works. It examines the two men in a light that is undeniably favorable without ever becoming fawning.
The two discuss their respective methods and what happens when the time comes for them to collaborate on molding the manuscript into a completed work. For the most part, they’re interviewed separately. Towards the end, though, one brief sequence allows viewers to observe the duo together at work. While devoid of sound, for literary buffs—presumably the film’s target audience—this moment feels absolutely priceless.
It is true that Turn Every Page is mostly a celebration of its two subjects and their accomplishments. Still, there is a certain edge to the proceedings that keeps the film from being too self-congratulatory. Even as it celebrates Caro and Gottlieb’s storied careers, it implicitly acknowledges significant changes in publishing. The conditions that made these tremendous works possible essentially no longer exist in today’s climate.
The film also finds the two recognizing the most significant potential hurdle to completing the final LBJ book. The inescapable march of mortality looms large over the 91-year-old Gottlieb and 86-year-old Caro. As entertaining as Turn Every Page is—especially for those interested in literary matters in general and the Caro-Gottlieb collaborations in particular—this factor almost makes you wish it didn’t exist. Let those two get back to work while they still can.
You can dogear Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb in select theatres now.