Director Lizzie Gottlieb was throwing a birthday party for her father, acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb, at her Brooklyn brownstone home when she struck up a conversation with one of the many guests. “A nice older gentleman came up to me and said, ‘What do you think of the Barclay’s Center on Flatbush Avenue and how do you think it will affect the neighborhood?’ I started giving completely uninformed, random opinions.” Mid-sentence, she came to a realization. “It was Robert Caro and I spoke to him about New York City’s infrastructure.”
One of the most respected living authors of the written word, 87-year-old Robert Caro has actually authored just six books, from The Power Broker, his 1974 opus about New York city planner Robert Moses, to an epic that is still unfinished . Series focusing on the life of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (more on that later). It is a body of work that places a strong spotlight on power; from the thirst of some, how to get it, and how the world – and the powerless at large – are shaped by their whims. As a result of his painstaking and exhaustive research, vivid storytelling, and poetic prose, Caro has become a cult figure. The latest facet of his story is the new documentary Turn Every Page. Directed by Lizzie, the film focuses on Caro’s creative relationship with his 91-year-old editor, Robert Gottlieb, who also happens to be Lizzie’s father.
“I heard Bob Caro give a speech about my dad when he presented him with an award, and he talked about everything from their incredibly productive relationship to arguments about the use of the semicolon,” Lizzie recalls of her earliest inclination to take over the project. “I thought, ‘This has got to be a movie.'” The title is titled after a well-known Caro-ism that alludes to the dogged research quest he undertook as a young journalist in Long Island, New York, and serves as Remembering the immense success and influence of Caro and Gottlieb. “I wanted to lift the curtain on this alchemy of a creative collaboration that has lasted 50 years.”
That the two men are still pillars of their craft after first meeting in the early ’70s is a testament to their talent and an inherent passion that fuels their longevity. Lizzie has had a front row seat to her dad’s stunning career since she was a child. Lizzie recalls, “Growing up, there were always people on the top floor and hilarious dinners. My house was full of life, animated and fun to be a kid growing up in that house.”
Aside from his work with Caro, the list of books published by Gottlieb reads as some of the most monumental of all time, from the works of Nora Ephron and Toni Morrison to Chiam Potok’s The Chosen. Gottlieb edited a novel by Joseph Heller originally titled Catch-16, but because another book that came out had the number 16 in the title, he suggested 22 instead. As a result, Catch-22 was born, both literary disgrace and indelible phrase. When President Clinton penned his autobiography My Life in 2004, the former commander in chief was also edited by, yes, Gottlieb (Clinton also appears in the documentary).
Along the way, his legend was inevitably interwoven with that of the enigmatic Caro. “When I called Bob Caro about his involvement in the film, he said he doesn’t speak publicly about his writing process, but would be willing to consider it because he’s seen my other films,” explains Lizzie, who previously directed the 2012 documentary Romeo , Romeo on a lesbian couple’s desire to have a baby. “As our conversation progressed, he said, ‘I’ve never seen a film about a writer and an editor, and I think it might make sense, but my only stipulation is that I won’t be in the same room as your father before the camera.’ It was an irresistible challenge to do a buddy film with two guys you wouldn’t see together.”
Coincidentally, Caro was on the verge of something of a renaissance when the author drew back the curtain on his trial in his only personal work to date, Working, 2019. The following year, the Zoom era of the pandemic made it clear that the familiar spines of his books were essential shelf items for writers, politicians and journalists (The New York Times called The Power Broker “the breakout star of the Covid-19 era”). In addition to a recent theatrical release of the documentary, Caro is also the subject of an exhibition of his archives at the New-York Historical Society.Robert Caro, left, and Robert Gottlieb in 1974. Photo: AP
According to Lizzie, in times of fake news and misinformation, Caro serves as a counterweight to all of this. He’s a person who’s still working doggedly to uncover the truth about how power works in America, for better or for worse. I think it feels like a meaningful touchstone; It is reassuring and reassuring to know that the work he has done and continues to do can be trusted. He reveals the effects of power on the powerless, which we are all grappling with right now.”
But with impressive longevity comes an unavoidable fact: As Caro and Gottlieb age, they find themselves “in a tortoise-like race against time to complete their life’s work,” as Lizzie puts it. It is a fire that burns beneath his subjects and drives the documentary forward. “For me, a film really works and becomes dramatic, emotional and meaningful when it’s about something big. Now more than ever, the stakes are so high for them, for us readers and for me, the daughter of one of them.”
What is specifically at stake is the long-awaited fifth and final book in the life of Lyndon Johnson, the release date of which is maddeningly unknown. Since the most recent installment is The Passage of Power from 2012, Caro and Co. are characteristically cryptic about the progression of the sequel. Caro has said in the past he is planning a trip to Vietnam, postponed by the pandemic, to immerse himself in the country’s culture, given Johnson’s legacy is shaped by that brutal war. Caro lived in the Texas Hill Country for a while to understand what Johnson’s childhood was like there for The Path to Power’s debut.
“I think the reason Bob Caro still talks to me is because I never ask him when the next book is out,” Lizzie says with a laugh. “I was in his office recently and he definitely closed the door in the room where the outline was on the wall like it should.” This was, after all, a man who stubbornly went broke and in his quest for research and the letter from The Power Broker had exceeded any deadline. “I know he’s working incredibly hard and I know he’s going to finish the book, but I don’t know when.”
Regardless of its release, Lizzie points to a key moment in the film when it comes to understanding the two men’s complementary mindsets. “My father says in the film that Caro is hardworking,” she explains. “And then he said something that really makes me laugh: Everyone can be lovely, but not everyone can be hardworking. To me they are adorable and hardworking. For any one of us trying to make anything, that is the goal.”