NEW YORK — “Turn Every Page” opens with a blacked-out screen and a clacking sound that’s joyful music for those who love typewriters — but this is not a documentary about the olden days.
Instead, it’s the sound of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Robert A. Caro hard at work.
The author of the acclaimed Robert Moses biography “The Power Broker” and four volumes of a planned five-book series on former US president Lyndon Baines Johnson has long been at work on the fifth and final installment. Editor Robert Gottlieb, who steered 4,888 pages of Caro’s work to publication, is still eagerly awaiting its completion.
The documentary, opening in New York and Los Angeles on December 30, is a testament to a partnership few outside the publishing industry think about: the near-sacred relationship between an editor and a writer. For Caro, 87, and Gottlieb, 91, that collaboration has lasted for more than half a century.
Given that neither man seeks the spotlight, it took ages for the editor’s filmmaking daughter Lizzie Gottlieb to talk them into allowing her to film them.
The quietly charming movie contains what must be the single greatest scene about punctuation to ever make it onscreen — an entire sequence devoted to semicolons. Caro and Gottlieb have been fighting about them for over five decades.
It also details Caro’s old-school process, writing first in longhand on legal pads, then tapping away on his electric typewriter. He makes carbon-paper copies, then stores those sheets in a kitchen cabinet above his refrigerator.
The title comes from a piece of advice Caro received decades ago at New York’s Newsday. Then-managing editor Alan Hathway disdained Ivy Leaguers (Caro graduated from Princeton). Yet in sifting through government documents and writing a detailed memo, the cub reporter impressed the crusty editor. Hathway assigned Caro to investigations, but Caro protested he know nothing about that kind of journalism.
“Just remember one thing,” Hathaway explained. “Turn every page.”
It is the best advice for an investigative journalist. Proof of corruption, and the details of every deal, are buried in the paperwork. It’s also the best approach for an editor like Gottlieb, who has been editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. He has edited authors including Toni Morrison and John Cheever.
Turn every page. Look at every word. Examine every semicolon. They’re the guideposts for these two men long at the top of their fields. Lizzie Gottlieb sought to capture the alchemy that happens when the two work together.
Although Caro was unable to join this interview — after all, he still has that final volume of the LBJ bio to finish — the father and daughter duo, speaking from their homes in different Manhattan neighborhoods, were happy to talk with The Times of Israel about this legendary partnership.
The Times of Israel: Why were you hesitant initially to allow Lizzie to do this?
Robert Gottlieb: It just seems so self-aggrandizing. But she wanted to do it, so anything she wants, she can have from me.
Lizzie, what did you learn about your father making this?
Lizzie Gottlieb: The true answer is that my father and I are intensely close. We call each other when something funny happens, or when something great happens, or when something sad happens, or we’re bored. We live in the same city, and we’re on the phone with each other all the time. Because it’s not just that we love each other; we enjoy each other so much. So I didn’t make this film because there was something I didn’t understand about him. There wasn’t something to learn in that sense. But I think what I really didn’t know anything about was his relationship with Bob Caro.
Do you know of any other editor-reporter relationship that has spanned this long?
RG: Nobody else has lived as long.
Good point. Do you still have these lively discussions with Caro over the manuscript?
RG: First of all, we only work every 100 years when he turns in another book. You know, we don’t sit around talking about his work as he’s working. Every seven years or whatever it is, we talk intensely about the work. Otherwise, we never talk.
Lizzie, how long have you wanted to make this film, and why did it take so long?
LG: When I first had the idea for the film, I think it was 2014. My father was given an award, and Bob Caro presented it. And he gave a speech about their collaboration and how productive it was and wonderful, and then you talked about their towering fights. And somebody said, “What do you fight about?” And he said, “We have very different feelings about the semicolon.” And everybody laughed, and that’s when I had the idea. I thought, “Oh my God, I have to make this film.”
When Bob first agreed to be in the film, he said the condition was he could not appear in the same room as my father because that might get contentious, which was hilarious and a little bit adorable and a little bit maddening and kind of an irresistible challenge as a filmmaker.
People kept telling me I needed to end the movie when volume five came out and was a triumph. And I kept thinking, I don’t really think that’s the point. I don’t think either of these guys is focused on triumph. I think they’re focused on the work. My hope was to end the movie on the work, which is what they both take so much joy in, and was really, I think, the point of the movie.
The author and the editor are both native New Yorkers, Ivy Leaguers, and Jewish. Your first collaboration was on a biography about another New York Jewish Ivy Leaguer, Robert Moses. How does Judaism influence your work and your collaboration with Caro?
RG: I don’t think it has anything to do with being Jewish. I grew up in a completely atheist household. My father really didn’t like religion. I think he hated it. And there was no religious anything in my life, no Jewish anything in terms of rites.
LG: Dad, you definitely very strongly identify as a New York Jew.
RG: I identify as a New Yorker.
Going back to the film, why did it take so long to make?
LG: I think from the first conversation we had about the film, until the film was premiered at Tribeca in June, it was seven years. And you really can’t rush a film about Robert Caro.
Speaking of which, I have to ask, do you ask when the next LBJ book will be done?
RG: No, because he would hate it. There’s no answer. He’s working along. When it’s done, it’ll be done.
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