NEW YORK — The brilliant literary editor Robert Gottlieb, whose career began with Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and spanned decades with Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpieces like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” has passed away at age 92.
According to a statement from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Gottlieb passed away on Wednesday at a hospital in New York from natural causes. Caro, who collaborated with Gottlieb for years on his biographies of Lyndon Johnson and was featured with him in the documentary “Turn Every Page” last year, said in a statement that he had never worked with an editor who was more sensitive to the writing process.
“From the day 52 years ago that we first looked at my pages together, Bob understood what I was trying to do and made it possible for me to take the time, and do the work, I needed to do,” Caro said in a statement. “People talk to me about some of the triumphant moments Bob and I shared, but today I remember other moments, tough ones, and I remember how Bob was always, always, for half a century, there for me. He was a great friend, and today I mourn my friend with all my heart.”
The fifth and presumably final volume of Caro’s highly anticipated Johnson books, a series that began nearly 50 years ago, is still being written. A spokesman for Knopf Doubleday declined to comment on the potential editor for the book.
After World War II, Gottlieb had one of the best runs of any editor and contributed to the development of the modern publishing canon. He was tall and confident, with dark, curly hair, and dark-rimmed spectacles.
Future Nobel laureates Morrison, Doris Lessing, and V.S. Naipaul contributed to his literary works, along with John le Carré’s spy novels, Michael Crichton’s science fiction thrillers, Nora Ephron’s essays, and Caro’s nonfiction epics.
He also edited the autobiographies of Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, and Katharine Graham, editor of the Washington Post, whose “Personal History” won a Pulitzer Prize and inspired Bill Clinton to sign with Alfred A. Knopf in part so that he could collaborate with Gottlieb on his post-presidential biography “My Life.”
“Bob Gottlieb was a fabulous editor and a fascinating man,” Clinton said in a statement. “I liked him and admired him very much, even when he pushed, and sometimes ordered, me to write not just about the people and work that shaped my life, but also how I felt about it all.”
Gottlieb was a remarkable individual who claimed to have read “War and Peace” in a single weekend (some accounts restricted it to a single day) and who also accumulated plastic purses that filled shelves above his bed. Gottlieb was also uncommonly well-read and unpretentious. He was just as receptive to “Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life” as he was to Chaim Potok’s writings. A bronze paperweight with the words “GIVE THE READER A BREAK” carved on it that was given to him when he first entered the publishing industry sat on his desk for decades.
One of the last active editors from the pre-corporate age of publishing was Gottlieb. His career as editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and afterwards Alfred A. Knopf, where he most recently served as an editor-at-large, is where he built his reputation.
But he was also a skilled prose stylist and served as editor of The New Yorker for five years before leaving due to “conceptual differences” with publisher S.I. Newhouse. He published book reviews for The New York Times and dance critique for The New York Observer.
He co-authored “A Certain Style: The Art of the Plastic Handbag, 1949-59,” penned a brief biography of George Balanchine, and curated renowned collections of jazz commentary and lyrics from the 20th century. His autobiography, “Avid Reader,” was published in 2016.
He had three children during his two marriages, the second to actress Maria Tucci. Otherwise, he was so preoccupied with his work—he was reviewing early drafts of a Cynthia Ozick novel while keeping track of his wife’s contractions—that Thomas Mallon described him as living a “busman’s holiday without any brakes.”
Editing was described as “a service job” by Robert Gottlieb in “Turn Every Page,” a collaborative biography of Caro and Gottlieb that was directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, the editor’s daughter. While maintaining that the ideal editor-writer relationship was “an equivalence of strength,” in which each shared the best of their talents, he would constantly remind himself that the manuscripts he laboured over were not his own.
“I am not egoless,” he acknowledged to his daughter.
Gottlieb, who was born and raised in Manhattan, claimed he was born with “extra drive.” He had always been a voracious reader, recalling checking out as many as four books a day from his neighborhood library. He used to go to the Columbia University library as a teen to search up old issues of Publishers Weekly and check out the bestselling lists.
He eventually enrolled at Columbia, where he eventually earned a degree in 1952. After spending two years studying at Cambridge University in England and working briefly in the theater, Gottlieb joined Simon & Schuster as an editorial assistant in 1955. He claimed to have taken the job to support his wife and child but was so self-assured that he still thought of himself as “a better reader than anybody else,” he recalled in the documentary.
A fellow Simon & Schuster editor, Michael Korda, would write about the young Gottlieb in his memoir “Another Life,” comparing him to “one of those penniless perpetual students in Russian novels,” with his glasses so smudged that Korda was surprised he could see. Unwiped lenses allowed Korda to see eyes that “were shrewd and intense, but with a certain kindly humorous sparkle.”
Within two years, he had signed up with Joseph Heller, a former World War II aviator, and his nearly completed book about the conflict, “Catch-18.” Heller subsequently recounted that in order for his stunning satire to be received well, he needed an open mind. His agent had informed him that Gottlieb was known for being “receptive to innovation.” Simon & Schuster’s dubious executives were persuaded to give the book a shot by Gottlieb.
“The funny parts are wildly funny, the serious parts are excellent,” he told the editorial board.
Gottlieb spent $1,500 on the book, including $750 upon signing Heller and $750 following publication. To avoid confusion with Leon Uris’ “Mila 18,” he also offered other “broad suggestions,” including changing the title to “Catch-22.” The book, which was published in 1961 to originally muted reviews, gained popularity after being recommended to a New York Herald Tribune critic by another Gottlieb author, comic S.J. Perelman. Gottlieb became a literary superstar “most closely associated” with Heller’s novel “among the kind of people who think about such things,” according to his memoir, and “Catch-22” finally became a blockbuster and counterculture icon.
“But in the years that followed its publication, I more or less put it out of my mind,” he added. “I certainly never re-read it. I was afraid I wouldn’t love it as much as I once had.”
Success only fuelled his motivation. Edna O’Brien, Mordecai Richler, and Len Deighton were among the up-and-coming authors he signed. He was also cool enough to buy John Lennon’s collection of poetry, anecdotes, and drawings, “In His Own Write.” Later, after collaborating with Bob Dylan on a book of lyrics, he was astounded to discover that “this genius rebel and superstar was almost childlike — you felt he barely knew how to tie his shoes, let alone write a check.”
Gottlieb experienced some disappointments when he rejected Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and had trouble with John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Gottlieb responded favorably to Toole’s submission of the book in the early 1960s, and he also made numerous editing recommendations. Toole made modifications for two years, and Gottlieb demanded more of them, urging the writer that “there must be a point to everything in the book, a real point, not just amusingness that’s forced to figure itself out.”
In 1969, Gottlieb ultimately gave up, and Toole committed suicide. Ten years later, with the assistance of his mother, Louisiana State University published “Confederacy” to widespread acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize and garnering enduring fondness, a destiny Gottlieb’s fellow authors frequently experienced.
Other successes of Gottlieb’s — and he had many — were Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” Potok’s “The Chosen,” and an anthology of John Cheever short tales that won the Pulitzer Prize, despite the author’s reservations. Gottlieb published short fiction by Denis Johnson at The New Yorker, which he edited from 1987 to 1992, which subsequently developed into the celebrated “Jesus’ Son.”
Other than that, he was credited with giving the venerable journal a more casual tone and being prepared to print the occasional four-letter word.
Gottlieb, a well-known workaholic, was also the most sentimental editor. Ephron and her kids spent a few months with Gottlieb following the dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. Not only did he refer to male authors as “dear boys,” but he also scrutinized every word in works like “The Power Broker,” on which Gottlieb and Caro toiled for several contentious weeks side by side, slashing some 300,000 words from a manuscript that began at over 1 million and ended up at more than 1,200 pages. Although they disagreed sharply on the use of semicolons (Caro preferred them; Gottlieb did not), they did concur on Caro’s goal of penning a thorough biography of the tyrannical municipal constructor Robert Moses.
“You don’t take on books with which you do not have a sympathy,” Gottlieb told The Guardian in 2016. “Only trouble can arise if instead of wanting to make a book that you like even better than it is, you want to change it into something that it isn’t.”
After taking up a young medical student named Michael Crichton and his book, “The Andromeda Strain,” Gottlieb was similarly demanding. He adored Crichton’s tale of a fatal virus, but he wished there had been more narrative and factual information and less character development.
“He would call me up and say, ‘Dear boy! I have read your manuscript, and here is what you have to do,’” Crichton told The Paris Review in 1994. “And he was not above saying, ‘I don’t know if you can do it this way, I don’t know if you’re up to it, which of course would drive me into a fury of effort.’ It was very effective.”