Monday, January 23, 2023

Turn Every Page: the adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb: must see

There were four people in the tiny Carlton Cinema viewing room yesterday, including moi. While waiting for the film to start, I asked the woman in front if she was a writer or an editor. She's a retired journalism professor. Of course.

The film is Turn Every Page: the adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, and it's glorious, I loved every minute. Filmed by Gottlieb's daughter, it's about two giants of the American literary scene, Caro, 87, author of five massive books, almost 5000 pages, his entire life's work — all those books and hundreds more edited by Gottlieb, 91, spry, witty, generous, sharp. The film explores their lives and decades of working together, bitter fights about commas and semi-colons. As Gottlieb says, "A semi-colon is worth fighting a civil war over. We read with our breath. With a semi-colon there's tension; you know something's coming." (Yes, I took extensive notes all through. And I've wrestled with proper use of semi-colons myself; they're important.) (Does that work?)

When Gottlieb undertook to edit Caro's first book, the enormously influential The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, he told the writer they'd have to cut 350,000 words - not because the words were bad, far from it, but because the book was simply too long to be contained within covers. Caro says about the gruelling cutting process, "I don't think anything in my life was harder than that." We see a meticulous man, cautious and stubborn, who must do incredible amounts of research but whose wife is his only research assistant. 

"He does the work, I do the cleanup, then we fight," says Gottlieb. Caro has a marvellous Bronx accent: "I awlways type with a cawbin." (He types on a Smith-Corona and makes a carbon copy.) Lawng, awfice, tawk. (long, office, talk.) 

Gottlieb, who like Caro had an unhappy childhood with an angry, judgemental father - is there an important pattern here? - read as a boy to escape home, and knew he'd be a great editor because he was a great reader. He boasts that he's very fast at his work and tackles new projects immediately. "Not reading a manuscript as soon as it arrives is like cruelty to animals," he says, with his usual twinkle. 

How I loved both these men. I watched as both a writer and an editor, but also as someone familiar with their milieu, the Jewish intellectuals of NYC, which includes some of my family. And I have to say, watching Caro at work brought back my own massive research project, my first book Finding the Jewish Shakespeare about my great-grandfather, which I undertook with absolutely no idea what I was doing. And yet I did what Caro does, interviewed important parties, travelled to dig up raw material, somehow cobbled it together into what I hope is a compelling narrative. 

Most moving is the idealism of both men. Caro wrote his books about the powerful but unelected Moses and the consummate politician Lyndon Johnson so Americans would understand the machinations of political power and be able to make informed choices, Gottlieb because editing is about making books better, helping writers achieve their vision. They're spectacular human beings who both, incidentally, are in happy longterm marriages. 

Anyone interested in words and the creative process, I hope you can see this film. 

 Caro, left, and Gottlieb.

The sun is out! I'm at my south-facing desk absorbing those rays. This weekend, I'm ashamed to say, I barely moved from my kitchen chair except to go to the film. As I listened to CBC's Cross Country Checkup, which was about the evils of drinking, I had a sip of wine. Lynn wrote from France that my last post was wrong, French authorities recommend drinking far less, but that in a country where people still haven't made any obvious link between smoking and lung cancer, even with warnings on cigarette packages and increased prices, there is absolutely no chance  we will ever be advised to drink no more than 2 glasses a week. 

I drink so little now, but something odd: I slept really badly all through my Covid time and the weeks after, my Dry January. Since I started drinking a bit of wine a few days ago, I've been sleeping wonderfully. Hmmmm.

"Every subject is interesting the deeper you get into it," says Gottlieb.

PS Just found out that my cousin, a New York lawyer who specializes in artists, represents both Gottlieb and his daughter the filmmaker. Had no idea. Woo hoo! 

PPS He sent Lizzie, Gottlieb's daughter who made the film, this blog post, and she wrote back, Aw. Thank you for sending this! It makes me so happy to know the film is reaching people and affecting them. Hope you are well! 





  1. If you want to smoke in Paris don’t light up. Just walk the streets and breathe normally. A pack a day from second hand smoke. Could not escape it. Coming from Canada it is astonishing. SC

  2. SC, do I know you? You've interesting things to say!