The thrilling documentary “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” opens with white-on-black credits accompanied by the jerky pecks of a typewriter, which will be music to some viewers’ ears. Robert Caro, the author at the center of the documentary, writes towering books of non-fiction – “The Power Broker”, his 1,280-page study of how Robert Moses literally shaped New York City, and “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”, his four-volume biography currently awaiting its fifth and final volume – but types these imperially detailed and engrossing tomes on an old electric typewriter, X-ing passages as they go, saving every page with an extra sheet and a piece of carbon paper. You can’t get much more analog than this. As “Turn Every Page” reveals, Caro is still wedded to the methods of the last century; the digital revolution has not touched it. It’s up to us to decide if this is just a charming quirk or a mysterious integral part of the fact that Caro was hailed as the greatest biographer of her time. I would say the latter.
“Turn Every Page,” which is about Caro’s relationship with her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb (it’s really the story of the two men), is a love letter to many aspects of the entertainment world. edition that have more or less been abandoned. . The film was directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, who is Robert Gottlieb’s daughter, and while it sounds like a cozy family affair, the film is meticulously unbiased and revealing. The real family in question is the brotherhood of Caro and Gottlieb, who have worked together for 50 years. The two hardly ever see each other outside of editing sessions, but when they’re poring over a manuscript, they’re like literary high priests operating on their own unique plane — which translates, amusingly, to a partnership that everyone, including them, describes as fantastically controversial. They argue on every page, every semicolon. (Caro loves his semicolons; Gottlieb hates them.)
Caro, who is 86, and Gottlieb, who is 91, both started out as nice Jewish boys from New York, and in different ways each took a missionary approach to what writing could be. Gottlieb has a look and demeanor that may remind you of Woody Allen, but he’s like a Woody Allen who escaped neurosis. (He was in analysis for eight years, but he quit. It worked!) For all his beagle geek earnestness, he was the worldliest of schmoozers and quickly rose in the literary world, probably making more than any other character to establish the power and mystique of post-war book publishing.
The film presents Gottlieb as an accomplished editor, going through each manuscript he turned in the night he got it, examining it as an idealized reader/critic. In the 1960s and 1970s, he built Knopf into a singular empire and got a head start on realizing that bestsellers that didn’t pretend to be art could fund literature. Gottlieb has some great stories (he discovered the manuscript for “Catch-22” and renamed it, changing “18” to “22”), and he estimates he has edited 600-700 books. (Its authors include John Cheever, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Doris Lessing, Bruno Bettelheim, Barbara Tuchman, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, and Michael Crichton.) But his work with Caro sits on top of a particular mountain.
While Gottlieb, at times, can seem quite the dandy (he was so gifted that he somehow found time to moonlight as a programmer and distributor for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet), Caro , shrunken but still handsome, with her Newbrow Lowbrow York accent is as modest as her books are monumental. He started out as a reporter for Newsday, and when he started writing his biography of Robert Moses, he had no contract or connections. The book took him seven years to complete, in part because he was compelled to tell the story not just of how Moses transformed New York, especially with its road network, but of the communities whose life he disrupted. life. Caro is a top-down, bottom-up biographer of American power.
Yet he despaired of ever finishing the book. He was broke, with a family. So his wife and researcher, Ina, sold their house on Long Island and moved them to a seedy apartment in the Bronx, which they hated. Fortune smiled when Caro met agent Lynn Nesbit, who glimpsed the staggering extent of her talent and arranged meetings with four major publishers, including Gottlieb. Three of them took Caro to lunches at the Four Seasons and said they would make him a star, which Caro said he was not interested in. (Who doesn’t want to be a star? When you listen to Caro, with his gnome modesty, you think: this man.) But Gottlieb, who knew in 15 pages that “The Power Broker” was a masterpiece, commissioned sandwiches in his office and talked about how he would shape the book. He won the job.
They had to cut Caro’s million-word manuscript down to 700,000 words. And there was no fat on it! Nothing that was supposed to go. The book simply couldn’t get any bigger than that – its spine would literally snap – so the pair huddled together for 10 months to shrink a third of the manuscript. Caro never thought the book would sell, but ‘The Power Broker’, published in 1974, is now in its 41st printing; it sold for half a century. That’s because it’s a study of how the world really works – money, power and ego. This would become Caro’s big theme. By telling the story of Robert Moses and then Lyndon B. Johnson, he somehow unveiled the secret history of the 20th century.
There’s a breathtaking scene in the documentary when Caro, sitting in Lyndon Johnson’s childhood home, recounts talking to Johnson’s brother, who was suffering from cancer at the time, and making him say the truth about Johnson. The false folkloric anecdotes that had followed Johnson for years disappeared, as the brother told the darker story of what really happened. Caro began to piece together the story of how Johnson, who as president spearheaded legislation (civil rights, medicare) that revolutionized people’s lives, also slit throats and trashed ethics for do it. The author decided he wanted readers to feel Johnson’s “desperation”. He taped a card to a lamp that read, “Is there despair on this page? The revelation, uncovered by Caro’s dogged reporting, that Johnson stole the Texas Senate election in 1948 lays the groundwork for a deeply human view of how politics and corruption go hand in hand in America.
In “Turn Every Page”, we never see Caro and Gottlieb in the same room – at least, not until the end, when they sit down together for an editing session, although the two men have no not allowed to film with sound. (That’s how top secret their editing process is.) Yet what these two aging but vital figures keep telling us, with the keen affection of their cross-comradeship, is what the publishing can be: a sacred quest to create something that binds readers like religion does.
Caro, as we see, has a cult following of people who revere his books (including Conan O’Brien, Ethan Hawke, Lisa Lucas and David Remnick, all interviewed), and who await the fifth volume of Johnson’s Biography as if it was a stone tablet about to be passed down. “Turn Every Page” is rooted in a time when people could feel that way about books. We can therefore say that the film is nostalgic for a lost era of publishing. But the term “nostalgia” doesn’t do justice to why books like these once mattered, and perhaps still do. They’re immersive, they’re part of the story – but more than that, they’re the foundations of a civilized society. They are books that remind us, in an age of broken attention spans and narcotic media, that the big picture is the real picture. Everything else is just fragments.