Turn Every Page
An editor gave me some advice at the start of my career. “It never hurts,” he said, “to make one more call.” By that I believe he meant that just that little bit of extra effort could spell the difference between a story and a scoop, that there’s no substitute for doing the work.
Robert Caro received similar advice as a young reporter at Long Island Newsday, not long out of Princeton. Caro’s the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the masterful multi-volume biography of Lyndon Bains Johnson, as well as of The Power Broker. That’s his seminal exploration of the acquisition and exercise of power through Robert Moses, the urban planner and the most powerful unelected official in New York City history.
“Turn every page,” Caro’s editor told him when the reporter claimed he didn’t know the first thing about investigative journalism. “Never assume anything. Turn every page.”
“Turn Every Page” is also the title of a new documentary, opening at the end of December, that explores the relationship between Caro and his editor over the last half century, Robert Gottlieb. The documentary is directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, Bob Gottlieb’s daughter.
Maybe you haven’t heard of Bob Gottlieb. But he’s to commas and semi-colons what Caro is to the dissection of political power. Someone in the documentary describes him as the most important editor of the post-war period. His authors -- as if Robert Caro doesn’t suffice -- include Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Nora Ephron, John Cheever, Bill Clinton and Salman Rushdie.
It was Gottlieb who came up with the number “22” in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. As the editor explains to his grandson during a visit to the Strand bookstore, the original title was Catch-18. But Leon Uris’s World War II novel Mila 18 was about to be published, so the unknown Heller relinquished the number.
In the wrong hands, a documentary chronicling a fifty-year relationship between a writer and his editor, even a writer and editor as celebrated as Caro and Gottlieb, could have been as riveting as watching paint dry. Lizzie Gottlieb agreed with that assessment when we got together recently at a coffeehouse near her Brooklyn home. “A film about two very old Jews sitting in chairs contemplating word choice does not seem like a cinematic bonanza,” she said.
The idea for the movie came to her when Caro gave her father an award and described their epic fights over the semi-colon. “Everything is of total importance,” Bob Gottlieb tells the camera admiringly, referring to Caro’s work process, as well as his own. “The first chapter of a book and the semi-colon can be of equal importance. I too think a semi-colon is worth fighting a civil war about.”
Gottlieb believes Caro uses them too freely. Caro counters that they’re indispensable to the rhythm of his writing. Indeed, the documentary spends over three minutes having writers and editors such as the New Yorker’s David Remnick weigh in on the semi-colon. Of all common punctuation marks its deployment may be the most subjective.
But the larger point – and it’s the key to their communion – is that attention to detail rises to something like a spiritual practice. Anything less than the daily pursuit of perfection isn’t worth doing at all.
What makes the film sing – I can’t believe it won’t earn a basket of awards -- is that it’s about many things at the same time. Where to start? It’s about the race against time as Caro, at 87 years old, strives to complete the fifth and final volume of his Johnson biography while Gottlieb, at 91 patiently awaits the privilege of editing it.
It’s also about the intricacies of Caro’s exhaustive research. After he saw a rough cut of the movie Lizzie said the historian wanted to add something about his struggle to get Lyndon Johnson’s despair onto the printed page. “He talked about how hard it is and how much it matters,” Lizzie said.
The documentary is also about the delicate, largely invisible and sadly vanishing art of editing a book manuscript by two of the century’s greatest practitioners. Bob Caro agreed to cooperate with the seven-year project (Lizzie’s father resisted initially and was convinced his author would do the same) because he’d never seen a movie about a writer and his editor and he thought it might be meaningful.
“But I don’t want to be filmed in the same room with your father, ever,” Caro told her. “It might get contentious.”
Lizzie agreed, hoping Caro would eventually relent, and he did. Mostly. The film’s final scene shows them poring over a manuscript in Gottlieb’s midtown office. But Caro wouldn’t allow audio. You hardly notice, partly because Turn Every Page is infused with lightness and spontaneity, with as much humor as pathos.
There’s a wonderful montage early in the documentary of cable TV talking heads, all of whom have a prominently displayed copy of The Power Broker on their bookshelves, courteously circled in red by the filmmakers. It’s become a signifier of intellectual rigor. Whether or not any of them have read it seems beside the point.
And preceding that climactic editing scene the camera tracks Caro and Gottlieb as they scour the desks of editors and assistants at publisher Alfred A. Knopf for that most ancient, and increasingly obsolete, piece of editing equipment, a pencil.
Turn Every Page is finally about Lizzie Gottlieb’s affection for her father. Theirs is a robust intellectual exchange that dates back to her childhood when Bob helped her every night with her math homework. “There was a lot at stake for me,” Lizzie told me. “At 91 every moment I have with him is important to me.”
It’s also what makes Turn Every Page worth watching. More than once. The documentary is as beautifully crafted as a Caro biography and as sharp as Bob Gottlieb’s pencil, when he’s finally able to find one.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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