The enthralling documentary “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” opens with white-on-black credits accompanied by the staccato 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 nonfiction — “The Power Broker,” his 1,280-page study of how Robert Moses literally shaped the city of New York, and “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” his four-volume biography that’s currently awaiting its fifth and final volume — but taps out these imperially detailed and captivating tomes on an old electric typewriter, X-ing out passages as he goes along, backing up each page with an extra sheet and a piece of carbon paper. You can’t get much more analog than that. As “Turn Every Page” reveals, Caro is still married to the methods of the last century; the digital revolution hasn’t touched him. It’s up to us to decide if this is merely a charming quirk or somehow mysteriously integral to the fact that Caro has been hailed as the greatest biographer of his time. I would say the latter.
“Turn Every Page,” which is about the relationship between Caro and his longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb (it’s really the story of both men), is a love letter to many aspects of the publishing world that have more or less fallen by the wayside. The movie was directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, who is Robert Gottlieb’s daughter, and if that makes it sound like a cozy family affair, the film is meticulously evenhanded and revealing. The real family it’s about is the fraternity of Caro and Gottlieb, who’ve been working together for 50 years. The two almost never see each other outside of editing sessions, but when they hunch over a manuscript, they’re like literary high priests operating on their own unique plane — which translates, amusingly, into a partnership that everyone, including them, describes as fantastically contentious. They argue over every page, every semi-colon. (Caro loves his semi-colons; Gottlieb hates them.)
Caro, who’s 86, and Gottlieb, who’s 91, both started out as nice Jewish boys from New York, and in different ways each one 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 stopped. It worked!) For all his beagle-ish geek earnestness, he was the worldliest of schmoozers and rose quickly in the literary world, doing more than probably any other single figure to establish the power and mystique of book publishing in the postwar era.
The film presents Gottlieb as the consummate editor, whipping through every manuscript he’s handed the night he gets it, scrutinizing it as an idealized reader/critic. In the ’60s and ’70s, he built Knopf into a singular empire and was way ahead of the game in realizing that best-sellers that didn’t pretend to be art could bankroll literature. Gottlieb has great stories (he discovered the manuscript of “Catch-22” and retitled it, changing “18” to “22”), and he estimates that he has edited 600 to 700 books. (His 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 a special mountaintop.
If Gottlieb, at times, can seem quite the dandy (he was such an overachiever that he somehow found the time to moonlight as the programmer and marketer for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet), Caro, wizened but still handsome, with his lowbrow New York accent, is as unassuming as his books are monumental. He started off as a reporter for Newsday, and when he began to write his biography of Robert Moses, he had no contract, no connections. The book took him seven years to finish, in part because he was compelled to tell the story not just of how Moses transformed New York, especially with its highway system, but of the communities whose lives he disrupted. Caro is a biographer of American power from the top down and the bottom up.
Yet he despaired of ever finishing the book. He was broke, with a family. So his wife and researcher, Ina, sold their home on Long Island and moved them to a cruddy apartment in the Bronx, which they hated. Fortune smiled when Caro met the agent Lynn Nesbit, who glimpsed the staggering breadth of his talent and set up meetings with four major editors, one of whom was Gottlieb. Three of them took Caro to lunches at the Four Seasons and said that they would make him a star, something Caro says he wasn’t interested in. (Who doesn’t want to be a star? When you listen to Caro, with his gnomish modesty, you think: this man.) But Gottlieb, who knew within 15 pages that “The Power Broker” was a masterpiece, ordered sandwiches in his office and talked about how he would shape the book. He won the job.
They had to cut down Caro’s million-word manuscript to 700,000 words. And there was no fat on it! Nothing that needed to go. The book simply couldn’t be any bigger than that — its spine would literally break — so the two men huddled together for 10 months whittling out one-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 has sold for half a century. That’s because it’s a study in how the world — of money, power, and ego — actually works. This would become Caro’s grand theme. In telling the story of Robert Moses and then Lyndon B. Johnson, he was, in a way, uncovering the secret history of the 20th century.
There’s a breathtaking scene in the documentary when Caro, seated in Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood home, recounts talking to Johnson’s brother, who was ill with cancer at the time, and getting him to tell the truth about Johnson. The false folksy anecdotes that had followed Johnson around for years fell away, as the brother told the darker tale of what had really happened. Caro began to assemble the story of how Johnson, who as president spearheaded legislation (Civil Rights, Medicare) that revolutionized people’s lives, also cut throats and trashed ethics to do so. The author decided that he wanted to make readers feel Johnson’s “desperation.” He Scotch-taped an index card on a lamp that said, “Is there desperation on this page?” The revelation, uncovered by Caro’s dogged reporting, that Johnson stole the Texas Senate election in 1948 lays the foundation for a profoundly human vision of how politics and corruption dance together 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, though the two men didn’t allow it to be filmed with sound. (That’s how top secret their editing process is.) Yet what these two aging but vital figures keep telling us, with the spiky affection of their cross-referential camaraderie, is what publishing can be: a holy quest to create something that binds readers the way religion does.
Caro, as we observe, has a veritable cult of people who worship his books (they include Conan O’Brien, Ethan Hawke, Lisa Lucas, and David Remnick, all of whom are interviewed), and who are awaiting the fifth volume of the Johnson biography as if it were a stone tablet about to be handed down. “Turn Every Page” is rooted in an era when people could feel that way about books. So you might say that the film is nostalgic for a lost age of publishing. But the term “nostalgia” doesn’t do justice to why books like these once mattered, and maybe still do. They are immersive, they are history — but more than that, they’re foundations of a civilized society. They are books that remind us, in an age of shattered attention spans and narcotic media, that the big picture is the true picture. Everything else is fragments.