Get Me Rewrite!

The relationship between a renowned author and a consummate editor can sometimes make for high drama

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

Even after all these years, I am still amazed at the seemingly magical process by which a skilled editor can transform a manuscript—how, after a draft or two (or sometimes more), your prose somehow becomes seamless and your narrative propulsive, the best version of your ideas somehow emerging from the page. The finest editors have an ear like a concert musician, anticipating what you intended to say even before you yourself have said it, and the structural sensibilities of an engineer, capable of creating the architecture required of a piece. At its best, the editor-writer relationship can be transformative, euphoric even. At its worst, in the hands of an ax-wielding butcher, it can feel like losing a limb, no sedation.

Compelling stuff, yes, but not exactly suitable for the big screen. Or so I had thought before watching the recent documentary Turn Every Page, which explores the long-standing collaboration between Robert Gottlieb and Robert Caro. Gottlieb, 92, editor extraordinaire at Alfred A. Knopf, and Caro, 87, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Power Broker, had no desire to appear together on screen, at least not initially. Their partnership, now more than a half-century long, has been a marriage of expediency, one that unfolded over reams of marked-up manuscripts. But because the filmmaker happened to be Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, and because both men are hyperaware that the actuarial odds, as Gottlieb puts it, are stacked against them, both finally submitted to a close-up.

The result is a charming and intimate portrait of how two men gave rise to a series of beloved books—two men, it’s worth noting, who can argue over a semicolon as if it were a potential violation of the Geneva Conventions. In 1970, when Caro was shopping around the manuscript for The Power Broker, his biography of the New York master builder Robert Moses, he had lunch at the Four Seasons with three prominent editors, each of whom made a similar pitch: I’ll make you a star. No surprise, then, given his aversion to the trappings of literary celebrity, that Caro gravitated toward Gottlieb, who, over sandwiches at his desk, focused on the book: It’s good, but it needs work. Here’s how we’ll fix it. Fixing it entailed chopping some 350,000 words, which sounds like some deranged version of death by a million paper cuts. (Note to Caro and Gottlieb: Publish the discarded material, before it’s too late.)

More than a mere biography, The Power Broker was also an inquiry into political power: how Moses amassed and wielded that power in helping to reshape New York City. Caro’s next intended subject—Fiorello La Guardia, the former mayor of New York—offered little chance at this kind of political vivisection. Gottlieb anticipated this and floated an alternative subject: Lyndon Baines Johnson. As it happened, Caro had already considered the idea himself. From this moment of editorial kismet flowed the rest of Caro’s life’s work: four massive volumes numbering more than 3,500 pages in total. Gottlieb now awaits the writer’s fifth and final book on the former president’s life and legacy, as does Caro’s devoted, cultish following.

Unhurried, and with a diligence bordering on the pathological, Caro gives form to his subjects. In Turn Every Page, we learn that he moved to the Texas Hill Country for three years to better understand Johnson’s childhood. (“Can’t you write a biography of Napoleon?” quipped Caro’s wife, Ina, who doubles as his research sidekick.) After a year of not getting much of use from Sam Houston Johnson, Lyndon’s younger brother, Caro finally cornered him at the house where the boys had grown up. As Sam sat at the dining table, the fading light casting the same shadows as during his childhood dinners, he finally opened up about Lyndon’s fights with their father, who dismissed the future president as a failure. And he acknowledged that the mythical tales that locals told about his brother were just that—mythical.

He practically vibrates with self-assurance. (It takes a certain self-possession to reveal, on camera, as Gottlieb does in the documentary, that he collects plastic purses, a fact that his wife did not dare mention to her psychiatrist.)

The documentary covers other mysteries that Caro unraveled, including the controversy that colored Johnson’s victory in the 1948 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Some 200 ballots had mysteriously appeared days after the election—the infamous Box 13—that gave Johnson the victory by just 87 votes. Had there been fraud? Many scholars thought that the truth had been lost to history, but none of them had Caro’s investigative gumption. The trail led him to Houston, where he found Luis Salas, who had served as a Democratic strongman in Texas politics and was thought by locals to be dead. When Caro knocked on his trailer door, Salas knew his moment had arrived. Like a Lonestar Deep Throat, he pulled out a manuscript titled “Box 13,” his account of how he helped steal the election.

Mainly, however, Turn Every Page is a forensic study of the editor-writer relationship—a “service job,” as Gottlieb describes his role, one that differs depending on the author. For some writers, he offers emotional support, playing therapist to the sensitive artist; for others, he refines deficiencies in plot or characterization; and for the heavyweights, or at least those who regard their prose with all the inviolability of the word of God, he might only quibble with punctuation. Which is not to suggest that Gottlieb is without ego—he practically vibrates with self-assurance, forever giving voice to his editorial instincts. (It takes a certain self-possession to reveal, on camera, as Gottlieb does in the documentary, that he collects plastic purses, a fact that his wife did not dare mention to her psychiatrist.)

Gottlieb’s relationship with Caro, for all it has bequeathed to the reading public, appears to have been collegial but lukewarm, punctuated by frequent spats. Once, Gottlieb cut a section about the grass in the Hill Country and “wrote something insulting in the margin,” Caro recalls, the start of “a tremendous battle … an angry, angry battle.” Caro strove to make things obvious to the reader; Gottlieb eliminated excessive handholding. Gottlieb frowned on Caro’s overreliance on the verb to loom. As for the semicolons, a standalone film could be made about them (Caro for, Gottlieb against, at least when used in excess). In the documentary, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, fields a question about this divisive punctuation mark, and the way he stumbles and gathers himself, you’d think he’d been asked about race relations in America. For the record: I revisited Gottlieb’s recent memoir, Avid Reader, which has its fair share of semicolons. Why not deploy all of one’s available tools? Imagine a golfer forgoing a 60-degree wedge, or a trucker refusing to use third gear.

In the film’s final scene, Gottlieb and Caro are shown editing together—something they consented to on the condition that Lizzie film them without sound. In the Knopf offices, the two men search for a pencil to revise Caro’s latest pages, a scene that devolves into a Monty Python skit, as the other editors, ensconced behind the glow of their screens, go in search of this mythical object. After finding a new one, Caro, like a knight tending to his lance, slides it into an electric sharpener, and the two men retire to a room to do battle yet again.

It is a paean to a fading world, one in which someone like Caro could take a monumental five-book swing at an ex-president, and editors and writers labored cheek-by-jowl over the printed page. My actuarial odds are such that my first formative editing experience occurred under the tutelage of a mentor who marked up first drafts with a pen. Slowly, as you made your way through the changes, you’d begin to understand the motivation behind them, the way those changes stripped away the infelicities and the excess and began to give shape to the story half buried on the page. But the skilled editor is attuned to more than pace, rhythm, and narrative tension. As Gottlieb well knows, editors are in the business of managing the writerly ego, which can fluctuate wildly between despair and arrogance, fragility and indomitability. Much of the gig requires coaxing and cajoling, and in some cases, dispensing hard truths, maybe staging a come-to-Jesus intervention.

Of all the stories I’ve heard over the years, one looms large: of the famed critic who corresponded by fax only, resisted all but the most essential editorial changes, and once filed such an abomination of a book review that a total rewrite was necessary. What to do? The editors sent back the draft as a page proof, ready for publication, betting that the critic would realize he had misfired and would submit a revised version. Which is exactly what happened. I’m not sure if that critic ever warmed to the editor’s touch, but in Turn Every Page, one senses that Caro has arrived at a greater appreciation for Gottlieb, now that their struggles are largely behind them: here is someone who cares as much about the writing as he does; here is someone who intends to see him through to the very end.

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Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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