Nobody in history has built like Robert Moses. The Pharaohs of Egypt. No Emperor. No King has ever built on the face of the earth on the scale that this one human being has. —Robert Caro
Robert Moses was the dominant force in the creation of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs and his political influence determined the positioning of the United Nations on the east side of Manhattan. A visionary urban planner, at the height of his career, he held twelve offices. As Long Island State Park Commissioner and head of the Triborough Bridge Authority, Moses initiated 700,000 metres of New York parkways, all the major bridges that connect Manhattan to its surrounds, 658 playgrounds, numerous dams and beaches, including Jones Beach State Park, the most popular beach in the United States, the Central Park Zoo, Lincoln Center and Shea Stadium.
Moses was arguably the most powerful man in the history of New York City. So why aren’t his name and legacy common knowledge like those of Edison, Ford or Rockefeller?
This is due largely to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, written by Robert Caro, edited by Robert Gottlieb and published by Knopf in 1974. After this well-researched and controversial book was released, portraying Moses in a somewhat negative light, and casting doubts on the benefits of his vast achievements, his reputation began to wane. Moses has often been referred to as “the man New Yorkers love to hate”.
Turn Every Page (2022) is an extraordinary film documentary exploring the fifty-year creative relationship between the author of the Moses biography, Caro, and his long-time editor, Gottlieb. It was produced and directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, Gottlieb’s daughter, produced by Topic Studios and distributed by Sony Pictures.
The film’s title comes from something that Caro was told when he was younger, by his boss, Alan Hathway, editor of Newsday. Hathway recognised the tenacious talent of the fledgling reporter and assigned him to more investigative work. Caro recalls that when he told Hathway that he didn’t know how to be an investigate reporter, “[Hathway] looked at me for what I remember as a very long time … ‘Just remember this one thing,’ he said. ‘Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.’” Owen Gleiberman of Variety wrote that Turn Every Page “is really the story of both men … a love letter to many aspects of the publishing world that have more or less fallen by the wayside … [taking] us back to an era of book publishing as religion”.
Robert Gottlieb, who is now ninety years old, has been called the most important editor-publisher of the post-war period. During his career, he has edited between 600 and 700 books. His daughter Lizzie wanted to show the special working relationship between her father and Caro. Her documentary focuses on perhaps their final book together, the fifth volume in Caro’s Lyndon Baines Johnson series.
When she asked the two men to be a part of her project, both initially said no, believing that “the work between a writer and an editor is too private for anyone else to see”. They both eventually relented, although Caro was the more resistant. He finally agreed but refused to be in the same room as Gottlieb during filming. Gottlieb replied, “He does the work; I do the clean-up. Then we fight.”
She said she grew up in a house that was always filled with the writers her father published. But never Caro, whom she only met recently.
Caro refers to himself as an “old newspaper man”. He writes on a classic ribbon typewriter and still makes carbon copies (remember those?) of each page. Each night he takes home the carbon paper and places it on a dedicated shelf above his refrigerator. He is still only a “two-fingered typist” but very accurate and fast.
The original manuscript for The Power Broker was a metre high. Gottlieb had no problem wading through it. He said, “You have to be a reader to be an editor.” As there was no spine invented that could hold a book that size and two volumes were out of the question commercially, Gottlieb and Caro had to cut over 350,000 words from the manuscript to bring it down to a more “manageable” 700,000 words.
Caro did 522 interviews for The Power Broker, including seven with Moses himself. When it was published, it was an immediate success.
Turn Every Page starts with President Obama recalling that he read The Power Broker when he was twenty-two and it was instrumental in inspiring him to go into politics. The Power Broker is a mammoth tome 1256 pages long and weighing two kilograms. It has been described as focusing on what power is and what it does to people who don’t have it.
Caro explored urban power with Robert Moses; now he wanted to address national power through the story of Lyndon Johnson. Originally intended to be three volumes, it swelled to five, with the final book as yet unfinished. Titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson, it is divided into periods.
Volume One, The Path to Power (1982) is about Johnson’s life up to his unsuccessful attempt to win a US Senate seat in 1941. Former President Richard Nixon called The Path to Power a “terrible book”, expressing disbelief at its popularity and saying “it makes [Johnson] feel like a goddamn animal … because he was”. Volume Two, Means of Ascent (1990) starts from Johnson’s defeat and covers his second attempt and subsequent successful election to the Senate in 1948. Volume Three, Master of the Senate (2002), looks at Johnson’s iron rule as Senate Majority Leader and examines his battle to pass a landmark civil rights bill through Congress without destroying his party. We should recall Johnson’s power base was in Texas and the South. Volume Four, The Passage of Power (2012) explores Johnson’s tenure as Vice-President, the Kennedy assassination, the transition of power and his accomplishments, as President, in the months following. Volume Five is yet to be titled but will deal with Robert Kennedy, the last part of Johnson’s term as President, and the Vietnam War. Caro began it in 2018 and is still writing it. Caro remarked:
I’m working on a section now: what was it like being old and sick in America before Medicare and Medicaid … what was it like to be getting old and know you’re going to be sick and know you’re not going to have any money? Suddenly you come across a political genius—there’s no other word for it—a man who can take this legislation and pass it and change and transform people’s lives for the better.
Former President Bill Clinton commented:
Caro knew just how to get to Johnson, in so far as another human being could. What was it about this man that was special? Positive and negative. How could a guy with so much self-confidence, in the Senate, and the ability to pass this achingly difficult Civil Rights bill; how could he be so insecure and so worried about looking weak that he thought he had to keep tip-toeing towards disaster in Vietnam? Caro tries to figure out a way to answer questions like that in a way that does not dehumanize the subject he’s writing about.
After Johnson died in 1973, his widow, Lady Bird Johnson, spoke with Caro several times but then stopped without giving him a reason.
Lyndon Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1948 by only eighty-seven votes. Caro said: “Stolen elections are a big part of American politics—it’s just a big part that’s never really been examined in the depth that I think it should be examined in.” He wanted to show people what a stolen election really is.
Johnson was 30,000 votes behind on election day. Caro wanted to know where those 30,000 votes came from that suddenly pushed Johnson over the top by that extremely thin margin. Authorities had found a box of lost votes from Voting Precinct 13, in the Texan hill country, a week after the election. Luis Salas, a former South Texas election judge and “enforcer”, told Associated Press reporter James Mangan in 1977, “Johnson did not win that election; it was stolen for him. And I know exactly how it was done.”
Everyone told Caro that Salas was dead, but he found him living in a caravan in Houston. Caro just showed up, knocked on the door, introduced himself, and told him he was writing a book about Johnson. Salas interrupted him and said, “Then you want to know about Box 13.” Salas had written the whole story down—what he had done and what he had witnessed. Together, they went to the local 7-11 store and used a Xerox machine to copy it for Caro.
Salas said that Texas political boss George Parr had ordered 200 handwritten votes, written in identical ink, and listed in alphabetical order, from people who hadn’t voted, added to Box 13. This was the main revelation of Means of Ascent.
Gottlieb and Caro have worked on two projects together: the Moses biography and Caro’s five-volume work on Johnson. Near the end of the documentary, Caro and Gottlieb finally allow Lizzie Gottlieb into their editing room, to film them working together—but with restrictions. Caro insists that all footage of them editing should have no sound: “It’s sort of a private thing.”
There is a charming scene where the two of them are wandering around the studio looking for a pencil for Gottlieb. No one has one. Finally someone comes up with an eraser (good) and a mechanical pencil (not good!). Gottlieb says no—he needs a yellow pencil. They finally find an unsharpened yellow pencil and Caro says that he knows how to sharpen it.
I was reminded of a story by Bonnie Laing, “An Ode to the User-Friendly Pencil”, where the author is persuaded by friends to get a computer for writing. She realises her trusty pencil was a better fit: “Recently I acquired a computer. Or perhaps I should say it acquired me. My therapist claims that acknowledging the superior partner in a destructive relationship is the first step toward recovery.”
Robert Gottlieb (91) was raised and grew up in Manhattan. He did Freudian analysis four days a week for eight years, saying, “I did not want to become the angry person that my father was … I doubted everything else about me but never my editorial judgment.”
When he met his wife, actress Maria Tucci, he told her, “I’m damaged goods. I’m not good with children or dogs.” She thought, “The first thing we’re going to do is get a dog. Then have a baby.”
Gottlieb joined Simon & Schuster in 1955 as an assistant and within ten years had become the editor-in-chief. He was responsible for discovering Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; he persuaded Heller to change its title from Catch-18! In 1987, he became editor of the New Yorker.
Gottlieb has written biographies of Sarah Bernhardt and the children of Charles Dickens, and has edited novels by John Cheever, Doris Lessing, Chaim Potok, Salman Rushdie, John le Carré, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Michael Crichton and Toni Morrison, amongst many others, and autobiographies by Bill Clinton, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.
For twenty years he wrote a dance column for the New York Observer, and for many years was a member of the board of directors of the New York City Ballet and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Miami City Ballet, publishing books by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Margot Fonteyn.
Elizabeth Alice “Lizzie” Gottlieb is the daughter of Gottlieb and Tucci. She graduated from Amherst College magna cum laude and began her career directing theatre in New York. Her first documentary, Today’s Man (2008) was about her brother Nicky, who has autism.
Robert Caro, as a child, at his mother’s insistence, attended the exclusive Horace Mann School in New York going on to graduate cum laude from Princeton University. He once said that Princeton was a mistake (he only went there for the parties) and he should have gone to Harvard. After he graduated, he married Ina Sloshberg, the only other researcher involved in all of his books.
Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle Awards and was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2010.
Caro and Gottlieb have some quirky habits. Gottlieb obsessively collects women’s retro plastic pocket books. He has hundreds of them and keeps them on shelves above his bed. His wife hates them and even thinks many of them could be poisonous.
Caro types all his manuscripts on an ancient Smith Corona Electra 210 typewriter using a cotton ribbon which produces a bolder type than the standard nylon ribbon. He has owned fourteen of these typewriters at one time. When Smith Corona ceased production, he used his collection to supply his own parts. Many of his admirers have sent him this particular model typewriter as a gift. Once the cotton ribbon was discontinued, his wife located an obscure supplier who agreed to make them for Caro—but only if he ordered 1700 at a time!
Robert Moses once said, “If you elect a matinee idol mayor, you’re going to have a musical comedy administration.” This paralleled Frank Zappa’s famous quote of the late 1980s, “Politics is the entertainment branch of the military-industrial complex.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Moses initiated the renovation of San Juan Hill in Manhattan, a historic black neighbourhood, in order to build the Lincoln Center. Before Harlem, there was San Juan Hill. It was the location of the first public housing projects in New York. Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk lived there, as did the inventor of the Charleston, James P. Johnson. In the 1940s, the New York City Housing Authority called it the worst slum district in New York and, in 1947, it became an area for planned redevelopment.
The 1961 film of West Side Story was filmed in the ruins of the San Juan Hill ghetto. Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake also takes place in the middle of the slum-clearance project but steers clear of politicising the classic Romeo-and-Juliet musical, except for one scene of a Puerto Rican demonstrator holding a sign saying “Robert Moses Fuera [Get Out Of] San Juan Hill”.
Moses commented, “You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”
Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian:
Around 500,000 people, who happened to find themselves in the way of Moses’s vision, were evicted from their homes. Did he drag New York into the modern age, forcing through much-needed public works and eradicating intolerable slums, against opposition from corrupt politicians and landowners? Or did he nearly destroy the city, subjugating its human inhabitants to the sovereignty of the car?
When The Power Broker was published, Moses denounced it in a twenty-three-page statement, published by the Bridge and Tunnel Club. He said: “Ninety-eight percent of the ghetto folks we moved were given immeasurably better living places at unprecedented cost.” He particularly singled out Caro’s closing comments, “It is impossible to say that New York would be a better city if Robert Moses had not shaped it. It is possible to only say that it would be a different city.” Moses asks us to imagine what New York might look like today without his initiatives: “Surely it could not have been left in a powerless and brokerless state of chassis and suspended animation?”
One alternative we can consider is the failed attempt of Moses to build a highway through SoHo and Little Italy in 1955, as part of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Anthony Paletta wrote in the Guardian: “The Lower Manhattan Expressway was an effort to tie up the loose ends of local roadways by extending Interstate 78—all 10 lanes of it—from the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.” It was planned to pass through Washington Square Park, the centre of Greenwich Village, and, according to Anthony Flint, in his book Wrestling with Moses, “displace 416 buildings that housed 2,200 families, 365 retail stores, and 480 other commercial establishments”.
One of the locals, Jane Jacobs, petitioned the mayor and organised the community, soliciting the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, leading protesters, and even spending a night in jail. Paletta says, “An organic network of support was developed, drawing on a diverse set of local residents, Puerto Ricans, Italians, intellectuals, labourers and, rumour has it, the mafia—united by a common opposition to their homes and businesses becoming a merge lane.”
The deadline kept getting pushed back again and again and, by 1968, Mayor Lindsay decided to abandon the project. Tom Wolfe wrote in 2007, “Over the past 40 years, the rebirth of Lower Manhattan from Chelsea to Tribeca, of northern Brooklyn, of Astoria and Long Island City in Queens, has taken place without razing a single building in the name of ‘urban renewal’.”
Many of the objections Moses faced in his time are still echoed in current issues. He said:
Charges of arrogance, contempt for the so-called democratic process, lack of faith in the plain people, brutal uprooting and scattering of those in the way are as old as recorded history. In such periods the left wingers, fanatical environmentalists and seasonal Walden Ponders have a field day. They believe Steve Benét’s termites, who eat steel columns and beams, will soon level the tall buildings and bridges of every metropolis and enable us to retire to unspoiled and untrammelled nature.
Regarding the reference to American poet Stephen Vincent Benét’s “termites”: Benét was a poet more widely read in the 1930s than Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens. His books sold in the tens of thousands. He received the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his long narrative poem on the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body. “Metropolitan Nightmare”, written in 1933, was a humorous premonition of what might lie ahead for the industrial vision. The final stanza closes:
So, one evening,
Talking with an old watchman, beside the first
Raw girders of the new Planetopolis Building
(Ten thousand brine-cooled offices, each with shower)
He saw a dark line creeping across the rubble
And turned a flashlight on it.
“Say, buddy,” he said,
“You’d better look out for those ants. They eat wood, you know,
They’ll have your shack down in no time.”
The watchman spat.
“Oh, they’ve quit eating wood,” he said, in a casual voice,
“I thought everybody knew that.”
—and, reaching down,
He pried from the insect jaws the bright crumb of steel.
Near the end of Turn Every Page, Ethan Hawke reads a striking passage from Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent:
… one of the greatest issues invoked by the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson: the relationship between means and ends. Many of the ends of Lyndon Johnson’s life—civil rights in particular perhaps, but others too—were noble: heroic advances in the cause of social justice … many liberal dreams might not be reality even today were it not for Lyndon Johnson. Those noble ends, however, would not have been possible were it not for the means, far from noble, which brought Lyndon Johnson to power.
This eerily echoes something Robert Moses said at a 1959 New York Builders Association luncheon:
All progress calls for courage, determination and a stomach for a fight. The question of method is always in dispute. There will always be people who say they agree with your purpose but don’t like the way you go at it. Action is a rough business compared to thought. If the ends doesn’t justify the means, what does?
Owen Gleiberman wrote, in his review of Turn Every Page: “[Caro and Gottlieb] in telling the story of Robert Moses and then Lyndon B. Johnson, [were] in a way, uncovering the secret history of the 20th century.” The film is not only a wonderful glimpse at the half-century of a private creative writing relationship between two men, it is also a forensic look at the mechanics and wonder of editing. Daniel Fienberg, of the Hollywood Reporter, said the film was “as heartfelt as it is brainy”.
Caro said of his relationship with Gottlieb, “We have these unbelievable angry exchanges, but it’s always worth it to me. Sometimes we can spend two hours discussing whether to combine two paragraphs.”
Gottlieb was recently approached to edit another book for Bill Clinton, My Life after the White House, but he decided against it. He told Clinton, “I’m eighty-nine years old, I just can’t do this any more—and you’re not going to write the book I think you ought to write.”
When he completes the fifth and last volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro has plans on tackling his memoirs. I wonder if Robert Gottlieb will be game to edit it?