Greetings again from the darkness. Writing well is difficult. Very few are really good at, even though many of us try. Editing well is difficult. Very few of us put much effort into it and it shows. Documentarian Lizzy Gottlieb uses her inside track to provide a fascinating look at the relationship between writing and editing at the highest level. Her father, Robert Gottlieb, is one of the most renowned literary editors of the past 50 years, and his relationship with Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist-turned-biographer/author, Robert Caro, goes under the microscope. The result is an insightful peek behind the curtain of their process.
Ms. Gottlieb spent five years on the film, and the two subjects set the ground rules … they refused to be interviewed together in the same room. Because of this, the film begins with each man providing their own personal profile, dating back to their childhood and how they began honing their particular set of skills. Mr. Caro speaks to his newspaper background and how he transitioned into the years long process writing his 1974 classic, “The Power Broker”, a massive biography of Robert Moses and the development of New York City. Ms. Gottlieb provides a contemporary point by noting the book’s COVID resurgence, as it’s frequently seen on the bookshelves of folks during Zoom interviews.
Mr. Gottlieb recalls his first interview and job at Simon and Schuster, and how he worked his way up to Editor-in-Chief at the publishing house, prior to holding the same position at Knopf Publishing, and The New Yorker. Estimating that he has edited between 600 and 700 books, it’s fascinating to hear his recollections on coming up with the ‘22’ for Joseph Heller’s classic, “Catch-22”. Gottlieb also edited such fine writers as Michael Crichton and Toni Morrison, while also fine-tuning a most unusual personal collection unrelated to books.
Most importantly, we get the sense of Mr. Caro’s incredible dedication to deep research in the segment about his multi-volume biographical series, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” It’s a bit stunning to witness Caro show his process of utilizing actual carbon paper for copies of all the work he types out on his Smith-Corona. He makes no apologies for being old school in his approach to work.
Ms. Gottlieb’s goal was to document the two men finishing up Caro’s final volume of the LBJ series. Both men are in the 80’s and have worked together on 5 books spanning 50 years … and though the film does end, the final book remains a work in progress. Caro’s literary agent Lynn Nesbit admits the two men’s relationship has been contentious at times, and they’ve been known to have some colorful battles over punctuation … especially semicolons.
This is not a true bio of either man, but rather an expose’ of their working relationship and the painstaking process of completing a book. Their shared commitment to the highest level of work speaks to the pride, ego, and intelligence of each. One of my favorite lines comes from Mr. Gottlieb when he states, “He does the work. I do the cleanup.” The director does finally succeed in getting the two men on camera in the same room for editing … with one big catch. And that comes, of course, after a frantic hunt for a number 2 pencil.
The film opens on December 30, 2022