The Austin Chronicle

The Writer, The Editor, and the Filmmaker: The Story of Turn Every Page

By Richard Whittaker, January 28, 2023, 6:00am, Picture in Picture

Cities are always in flux. Looking out of the window of the Fairmont, I mention to Lizzie Gottlieb that just about everything she could see of Austin – the convention center, the skyscrapers, even the restaurant we are sitting in – none of it existed a couple of decades ago.

In a different world, one in which a single conversation never happened, maybe Robert Caro would have been the one to tell the story of that growth. After all, that’s where his career was heading after the success of his first book, 1974's The Power Broker. His epic examination of the career of New York urban planner Robert Moses was out and an unlikely smash, and now he had to find a subject for a follow-up. He was contracted for a similarly deep dive into the career of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. But instead, he and editor Robert Gottlieb sat down, and talked, and came out with another idea, one that would end up defining their careers and their relationship: Caro’s epic, four-volumes-and-counting biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Known collectively as “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” it’s a work that has surpassed simple political biography, and has instead put Caro’s books in rarified company, up there with Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Machiavelli’s Il Principe, even arguably Cicero and Marx. His subject is not about one politician, but about the nature, acquisition, and use of power in American politics.

Like most private conversations, the duo of Caro and Gottlieb have disagreed on who exactly conceived of this grand idea: but their irascible razzing of each other, of the idea that their work somehow fuses into one through arguments and exchanges, is all part Lizzie Gottlieb’s new film, Turn Every Page – The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (in cinemas now from Sony Pictures Classic).

It’s a story of a five-decade working relationship, viewed through the lens of the two Roberts’ push to get the fifth and final volume finished before … well, the inevitable. “When the film premiered at Tribeca,” she said, “somebody asked them in the audience and you could see them bristle. My father shut that down. He said something like, ‘Oh, yes, we love sitting around talking about what happens after we die.’” Caro, on the other hand, “I think he does have a plan, but as he says, it doesn’t help him to think that way.”

Turn Every Page isn’t a love-letter to her dad and his pal, or a film about literary lions as mythic figures. Instead, it’s about the hard slog of writing and editing. “This movie is about work,” Lizzie said. “It’s about joy in work, and it’s about industriousness.”

The joy may be what’s kept them going at a point far beyond which anyone would expect either man to be dealing with the slog. “There’s something about them being as old as they are that makes it feel like there’s something bigger at stake,” she added after placing an order for a salad. When Caro started on what would become 1982’s The Path to Power, it was one of many projects with which Gottlieb has been associated: but now, with Caro aged 87 and Gottlieb turning 92 in April, “this project has emerged as the Holy Grail, the be-all and end-all, the ultimate thing they are hoping to finish.”

[inset-1-right]Gottlieb himself is worthy of a documentary: The former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, and no slouch as a writer himself, his fingerprints have been over countless manuscripts (he is literally the man who came up with the title Catch-22) by era-defining authors, many of whom he worked with “over decades and decades,” and who became part of young Lizzie’s life. “Toni Morrison and my father were very, very close. Doris Lessing would come and stay with us several times a year, and Nora Ephron lived with us when she was getting divorced.” Legendary writers became “extended family but,” she added, “I never met Bob Caro.”

There’s a sensation that Turn Every Page is also Lizzie’s way to find out more about this massive relationship in her father’s life. A challenge since, like many writers, Caro was not interested in talking about himself, or revealing his process, much of which involves spending year after year in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, researching, researching, researching. Meanwhile, Gottlieb would be busy on dozens of projects. Lizzie found herself coming back to the fable of the fox and the hedgehog, drawn from the words of the Greek poet Archilochus ("a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing").

It’s not hard to see which one is which. Caro, the hedgehog, accumulating facts on his spines that will finally all come together as a book; and Gottlieb, still editing, still writing, still traveling, sitting on the board of the Miami City Ballet. Lizzie said, “I think maybe part of being a great editor is being able to adapt yourself and find interest and excitement in all sort of different environments and different projects, so I think he had to do many things as part of his being. It’s part of what he needs to do in order to do what he does.”

While the film allowed her to explore Caro, it also meant turning the camera on her father, and that most peculiar of careers, the editor. “I have two completely opposite answers to that. One is that I always knew, and the other is that I didn’t know until I made the movie.” Proximity to the work creates its own blind spots (as she noted, Lessing may have been a great writer to many, but to her she was Aunt Doris who taught her to make apricot pudding), and making the movie allowed her to explore and explain what an editor like her father does, which is this “weird, secret, private process.” It’s a process that varies constantly in its tasks, from vast structural decisions to bloody arguments about semi-colons, but for Lizzie Gottlieb it comes down to one commitment: “Dedicating yourself to making each book be the best version of itself that it can possibly be.”

But the film is about Caro and Gottlieb, and so Lizzie had to find a way to keep them in balance. “I tried to hang everything off their relationship and their work together,” she said, “and the alchemy of that collaboration.”

[inset-2-right]It’s an alchemy born of similarities (both men have an urge for rigorous perfectionism that seem rooted in childhoods with distant or dismissive parents), but also of those wildly different approaches to their work. And stripping it back to Caro and Gottlieb … Huh. The name sounds like a music hall comedy double act, and that’s not far from Lizzie’s thinking. “I wanted it to feel fun, like a buddy movie, because it’s a film about two old men who spend their time sitting in chairs, thinking it words.” Think Matthau and Lemon (“My husband kept making me look at the opening credits of The Odd Couple”) but if they never shared a screen. It may be surprising to some that Gottlieb has not edited a single page of Caro’s fifth book, his work-in-progress, and will not until the draft is done. Until that point, “his job in relation to Caro now is to wait – or, as he says, like in King Lear, ‘To love and be silent.’ Whereas Bob Caro’s got to sit down every single day and push that forward.”

That decision to focus on their relationship meant a lot of trimming for Lizzie, starting with the decision of who to interview. Her father, of course, and Caro, as well as peers within publishing, but of all the authors with whom her father had worked the only one featured was Bill Clinton. In one of this details that Caro would appreciate, it took place on January 6th- “the January 6th,” Gottlieb noted. “He was so gracious and lovely to do that.” However, he was being lovely and gracious to the daughter of the man that edited his own autobiography, and Lizzie was well aware that she was not simply a documentarian who had stumbled across this story. While it was not a first-person narrative, he said, “I never set out to make an objective film. I knew that my presence had to be up front and important to it.” A far remove from her father’s view of editing as an invisible art. “My dad’s joke is, ‘No one wants to hear an editor say, ‘Leo, don’t just do war, do peace too.’”

But amid the humor and the portraiture, Turn Every Page is a look at the kind of relationship that seems impossible in the modern publishing industry, where volatility and cost-cutting would make a half-century project like this impossible. “It’s a vanishing world,” Lizzie said, “and companies are more profit-driven, and there’s not as much time, and nobody would support a five-volume, 50-year project financially anymore.” Maybe not, but there are still editors, like her friend, Knopf editor-in-chief Jordan Pavlin, who still have long-term relationships with writers. Equally importantly, she said, “there are readers,” and she has seen them come out to the screenings.

A symmetry: Caro’s books work on a roughly seven-year cycle of research, writing, editing, publishing. Coincidentally, Turn Every Page took about seven years from when Lizzie first sent a handwritten letter to Caro, asking him whether he’d be interested in being part of the project. Now she’s taking it around the country for screenings in advance of its release this weekend by Sony Pictures Classics, a period that she called “one of the most gratifying professional experiences of my life [but] then part of me just wants to lie on the floor, weeping.” The idea for Turn Every Page gripped her completely, and has kept that grip for seven years – but what now? She has some ideas, “so I’m trying to stay calm.”

That mood may be helped by the ultimate accolade: a compliment from Caro who, after initially politely rebuffing her project, not only became involved but kept abreast of who else was being interviewed. After all, the best works take seven years.

Turn Every Page – The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb is in cinemas now. Read our review and find showtimes here.

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