As a word nerd, former employee of Random House and someone who has experienced the legacy of Robert Moses in my daily life on the streets of New York, the documentary film Turn Every Page is of particular interest. Its subjects are Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. Caro is author of the seminal The Power Broker, about urban planner Robert Moses, along with four volumes on Lyndon Johnson. Gottlieb, his Knopf editor of a half century, has worked with notable authors from Bill Clinton To Toni Morrison to Nora Ephron, and came up with the title to Joseph Heller’s legendary book (it would have been Catch-18 if not for Leon Uris’s Mila 18, which came out a few months before).
For those who watched virtual interviews with journalists, authors, pundits, etc during the first year plus of the pandemic, the one commonality shared by many on camera was the appearance of Caro’s The Power Broker prominently featured on the shelves behind them (the New York Times even wrote about this in May 2020). Weighing in at a not slight 1,246 pages, one can’t be certain all the talking heads have read it, but as a signifier, its value is clear.
After years spent on that tome, Caro turned his attention to the 36th President, with the guidance of Gottlieb; Caro had chosen Gottlieb for The Power Broker after going out to lunch with several prospective editors, because Gottlieb was the only one who didn’t tell him he could make Caro a lot of money. Instead, Gottlieb told him he would need to make a lot of cuts to the voluminous word count, and they did, to the tune of hundreds of thousands (350,000 from the original manuscript, more or less). The first volume came out in 1982, with the subsequent three published about every decade.
Helmed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, the documentary was shot over the course of more than five years, after the duo initially refused to participate. Interestingly, she remarked early on that although many authors came to the family home throughout her childhood, Caro was never one of them. Her affection and warmth for her subjects is evident and that even though there’s a bit of an antagonism between the two men (there’s a whole segment on the strong feelings each has about Caro’s use of the semicolon), they’re both forthcoming, funny, charming, and most certainly, friends. And that they both want to finish the fifth volume before they run out of time (Caro is 87 and Gottlieb is 91) is keenly felt by them; but Caro, who keeps the new pages he writes every day in a stuffed cupboard above his refrigerator, doesn’t want to leave anything out or rush the last chapter.
Even as readers are on tenterhooks feverishly awaiting the arrival of the long percolating concluding volume (hilariously conveyed by host Conan O’Brien at a Q&A, telling the audience that no one was allowed to ask Caro because if anyone was going to get to, it would be O’Brien), we are gifted with this lovely portrait of this unique friendship between these two Jewish men, the craft of writing and the importance of investigative journalism. Whether you’re as obsessive about Caro as he is about LBJ or you’ve never read anything by him (I’m in the latter camp), you’ll find abundant pleasure in this fascinating portrait of editor and author.
Turn Every Page has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes. In theatres now.