Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert A. Caro and Robert Gottlieb takes audiences behind the scenes of their relationship.
Readers are currently waiting for Caro’s fifth volume of the three-volume Lyndon Baines Johnson biography. But in the meantime, we have a documentary that explores both Caro and Gottlieb. There’s no shortage of humor, insight, or drama. Their work has had a tremendous impact on multiple generations at this point. This documentary will make for a great companion piece to Caro’s books. Behind the camera, Lizzie Gottlieb has different relationships with the subjects. Her father is Robert Gottlieb and so their relationship is informal. This is something that also show on screen. You don’t need to worry about getting the subject to trust you because it’s already there. With Caro, it’s different because she has to gain his trust. They are at different places in their relationship by the end of the film.
“I’ve always felt that if a non-fiction book is going to endure, the level of the prose, the narrative, the rhythm, etc….has to be at the same level as the great work of fiction that endures.” – Robert Caro in Turn Every Page
Filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb takes viewers on adventure through Robert Caro and Bob Gottlieb’s relationship. I don’t know when the fifth book will be finished but any Caro fans should certainly watch this film when it opens. You get incredible insight into their relationship and books. She certainly knows how to start a film, too, because she gets our attention with the clip from the Caro talk with Conan O’Brien. If Caro only gave us The Power Broker and didn’t write the first volume in the LBJ series, Dayenu. The late night comedy host-turned podcaster isn’t wrong.
Caro finds that very few non-fiction writers feel this way. Caro’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, also feels the same way. They don’t always have to agree but this is why their partnership is lasted for so many years. Both author and editor will go through a civil war if it means getting to use a semi-colon rather than a period for a full stop.
When Caro was searching for an editor while working on The Power Broker, he met with a few editors at the Four Seasons. However, only Gottlieb met him for lunch at his office. Something must have gone incredibly well because they’re still working together as Caro finishes the LBJ series. In order to get the money to finish The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Caro signed a two book deal. The second book would be a biography about New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia. That being said, he wasn’t too into the book. It was Gottlieb who suggested writing about President Johnson. Funny enough, Caro also wanted to write about Johnson but needed to write it in volumes because it’s such an expansive story. The rest is history.
Neither of them had any way of knowing that LBJ would take up the rest of their lives! It has been a decade since publishing the fourth volume. Waiting for the fifth volume is similar to the wait for the next book in the Song of Fire and Ice series! But really, this speaks to the dedication that it takes in finishing the book. Nobody wants to see Caro half-ass the job.
Caro’s research on LBJ took Caro and his family to Hill Country of Texas for three years. More often than not, authors will research at a library for a few weeks. Maybe a month but certainly not three years. This is the dedication that Caro puts into his work. Caro jokes that his wife, Ina, said he should have written about Napoleon. Caro walks us through some of LBJ’s homes including his boyhood home in Johnson City. He was able to talk to the president’s younger brother, Sam Houston Johnson, before his passing in 1978. He reveals quite the anecdote from his meeting with the president’s brother. But as other interview subjects say, Caro doesn’t just write about Johnson but the people who lived in the Hill Country before getting to his childhood. Caro describes it as a battle to reduce the material.
The author also walks us through the LBJ Presidential Library. There are 45 million papers inside but when Caro started, there was some 32 million papers. Going through all these papers is easier said than done. It’s not being filtered through a press release as it is the real deal. Right when he thinks he’s wasting his time, he finds the piece of information that he’s looking for. For instance, he discovers a telegram that he passed over decades ago but in reexamining the paper, he realizes it is significant. That’s the beauty of going to the presidential libraries and he’s been doing this for 42 years. Having been to the museum side in 2019, it’s quite a memorable experience.
“Bob always wants to make sure that the reader has really got it and I have maybe more faith in the reader because that’s what I am, a reader. I got it.” – Bob Caro
In as much as the film is about their relationship, it also discusses their childhoods. How did they end up where they are today? You’ll be very fascinated to watch the film.
Caro describes the most daunting moment of research as being his election to the Senate by 87 votes. They were cast after the election. Every other biography basically says nobody will ever know if he stole the election. He read that sentence so many times.
“I got up to it and said I’m never going to write a book and say no one will ever know if he stole it or not. If in fact it is possible to arrive at a conclusion as to whether he stole it or not. When I realized what that was going to entail, it was another thing where you said, oh boy, this is going to take months and months to find the people involved to try to get them to talk. When you realize that, you have this sinking feeling. Oh, boy, I thought I was going to be done with this book in four years. We’re really talking now about five years.
But then I thought, what I’m trying to explain how American politics worked in the 20th century, stolen elections are a big part of American politics. They’re just a part that’s never been really examined in the depth that I think it should be examined. I said, I’ll really be adding something to our understanding of how democracy works, how politics works, how government works in America in the 20th century. If I show people what a stolen election is.”
He goes on to talk about stolen elections, especially in Texas. But anyway, this is just one part of the film. There’s a lot more to this. However, I can understand why this is important in the overall film. It just adds another layer to understanding LBJ. Most authors might not track down someone. However, Caro goes to the lengths in tracking down election judge Luis Salas prior to the publishing of his second volume. This really places LBJ’s career in a different perspective. If LBJ doesn’t win the 1948 election, does John F. Kennedy become president? We’ll never really know. This whole subject of the daunting task is one of the most interesting parts of watching the film.
Until Caro finishes the book, Robert Gottlieb has plenty of other books to edit. He even had time to write his own memoir as well as longform pieces and shorter reviews, too. Gottlieb is in his 90s and plans to hang it up when he finishes editing the fifth volume. Speaking of, you’re going to enjoy the final minutes of this film the most…even with the microphones off in the editing room. How about that for an ending?
What I enjoy about this film is how much it takes us behind the scenes. It isn’t just getting to know both author and editor but getting a glimpse of the whole editing process. Caro is very much of an old school process. He still writes things down on paper before typing it up on a typewriter. One would imagine that newer authors would type their manuscript up on Microsoft Word before emailing a document to their editor. When the two of them meet at the office, it could take several hours at a time. It’s a very fascinating look at a life that we rarely get to see on the screen and who knows when or if we’ll see a similar film again.
If you’re a fan of Robert A. Caro, you’re going to enjoy watching Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert A. Caro and Robert Gottlieb. This film has taken the better part of five years but like the books, the finished product will also endure. It will almost certainly hold you over until the fifth volume comes out. No, the film did not feature a surprise release date. However, you’re going to have to wait in line behind Conan O’Brien when the time comes to purchase the book.
DIRECTOR: Lizzie Gottlieb
FEATURING: Robert A. Caro, Robert Gottlieb, Ethan Hawke, Lisa Lucas, Eric Silver, Dana Rubinstein, Oliver Young, Lynn Nesbit, Daniel Mendelsohn, Jordan Pavlin, President William J. “Bill” Clinton, Kathy Hourigan, David Remnick, Maria Tucci, Conan O’Brien, Ina Caro, Steven Johnson, Mary Norris, Colm Tóibín, Majora Carter, Harry Feder, Neal Morris, Hunter C. Smith
Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert A. Caro and Robert Gottlieb holds its world premiere during the 2022 Tribeca Festival in the Spotlight Documentary program. Sony Classics will release the film at a later date. Grade: 4.5/5
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