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He's edited Caro, le Carré and 'Catch-22,' but doesn't mind if you don't know his name

At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book editor of his time. He started out in 1955 and has been working in publishing ever since. The list of authors he's edited include Robert Caro, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton. His daughter Lizzie Gottlieb's new film, Turn Every Page, centers on her father's decades-long editing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro.

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Other segments from the episode on January 3, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 3, 2023: Interview with Lizzie Gottlieb, Robert Gottlieb; Review of film 'Living.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Robert Gottlieb, is perhaps the most acclaimed editor of his time. His first real job was at the publishing house Simon & Schuster in 1955. From there, he became the editor-in-chief of the literary publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. Gottlieb has edited scores of books, including fiction, history, biography and memoir by such authors as Joseph Heller, Jessica Mitford, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, John Cheever, John le Carre, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, Michael Crichton and Lauren Bacall. He left Knopf to become the editor of The New Yorker in 1987, taking over from William Shawn and remained at the magazine for five years. One of the remarkable parts of his career is his more than 50 years and counting as Robert Caro's editor. Caro wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 bestseller "The Power Broker," an exhaustive investigation into how Robert Moses reshaped New York City and how he used and abused power. The use and abuse of power is also at the heart of Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Caro is writing the fifth and final volume. Gottlieb is waiting to edit it, and they're hoping they're able to finish in time. Caro is 87; Gottlieb, 91. Their often-contentious collaboration is at the heart of the new documentary "Turn Every Page," directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, who's also with us. Robert Gottlieb is her father. Her first film was a documentary about her brother Nicky and his life with autism spectrum disorder. I'm going to speak with Lizzie first and then with her father.

Lizzie Gottlieb, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed the film. So thank you for being here. I want you to describe your father's importance in the literary world.

LIZZIE GOTTLIEB: My father has been publishing books since 1955 when he started at Simon & Schuster, and he has - is still editing and publishing books. He is now 91 years old, and so he's edited and published so many of the great writers of the last - oh, my gosh, is it 70 years?

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: Alas.

L GOTTLIEB: Alas, he says. It's 70 years, and he's still at it.

GROSS: And what about Robert Caro's importance? How would you describe that?

L GOTTLIEB: Well, Robert Caro means so much to so many people, and I think what he does is he describes - first in "The Power Broker" and then in his series of books about Lyndon Johnson, he describes how power actually works in America, first on an urban level with Robert Moses and then on a national level with Lyndon Johnson. So I think the reason people who read Caro feel so strongly about his work is that when you've read these enormous books that are thrilling and page-turners, you feel that you're sort of in on a secret of how the world we live in was constructed.

GROSS: Why did you want to make the film not a documentary about your father but about his relationship with Robert Caro? A lot of the film is about your father. But the subject you keep going back to is their collaborative relationship.

L GOTTLIEB: You know, I didn't want to make a film that was an ode to a great man, either of these great men. You know, I find them incredibly inspiring and magnificent. But I feel that a film needs to center on a question, a drama, conflict, you know, and there has to be something at stake. And I think I was drawn to this story because here are these two guys who have been working together for over 50 years and are really in a race against time to finish their life's work. And the relationship between them is wildly productive but also peculiar and contentious and dramatic. So I felt that if I could capture that, if I could first convince them to let me capture that, which was not easy, but if I could capture it, I thought that I would be able to kind of bring people into this secretive process and this creative alchemy of what happens between these two guys and the sort of vanishing world of book publishing.

GROSS: Neither your father nor Robert Caro were enthusiastic about the idea of you making a documentary about their collaborative relationship. So how did you convince them to do it?

L GOTTLIEB: Yeah, you know, the idea came to me like a lightning bolt. I thought, this is the greatest idea. I have to do this. And I was so convinced of it that it didn't occur to me that they wouldn't also think it was a great idea. So I immediately called my father and I said, I've had the best idea. I'm going to make a film about you and Bob Caro working on Volume 5 of the Lyndon Johnson books. And he said, absolutely not. And I sort of said, oh, but please. And he said, no, very fiercely. And I just kept at it. I braved his disappointment. You know, I braved his scorn. And I just kept saying that I thought it would be a good idea. And he finally caved a little bit. And he said, you can ask Bob Caro, but he's going to say no.

So he gave me Bob Caro's phone number. I had to pick up the phone and call him in his office. And he was very gracious. And he said very politely, you know, no, thank you. He said, I don't speak publicly about my work process and no. And then he said he had seen a film I had made and admired it and that I could come and talk to him in his office. And I did. And over that conversation, he slowly sort of - I think something clicked, and he said, you know, I've never seen a film about a writer and an editor, and I think it could be meaningful. He now tells me that he was completely skeptical and he was convinced this would be unbelievably boring and no one would be interested.

But he wrote me a very lovely email the other day that he's realized that he was wrong. So we gradually started, and I think they both thought I would take six weeks or maybe six months and make this film. But you can't really rush a film about Robert Caro. And the film took me seven years to make. We've been at it for seven years, and they were very patient and very kind and let me keep going over all these years. And here it is.

GROSS: Is that the same amount of time it took Robert Caro to write "The Power Broker" about Robert Moses?

L GOTTLIEB: It is. Robert Caro says all his books take him seven years. Although if you do the math, I think it's actually usually a little bit longer than that. But he said to me the other day - I apologized to him. I said, I'm so sorry this took me so long. And he said, oh, please. He said, I think seven years is the magical number that it takes to make something that will endure.

GROSS: If anyone should understand, it should be him (laughter).

L GOTTLIEB: Exactly.

GROSS: So not everybody knows who Robert Moses is. And he was a very powerful man in New York City who built a good deal of the roads and highways and expressways and housing. So tell us a little bit about what his accomplishments are and how powerful he was.

L GOTTLIEB: So Robert Moses was a man who was never elected to any office, but he grabbed power in a way that no one previously had ever done. And he held on to this power for about 45 years, and he shaped New York City. He shaped the roads. He shaped the parks. He shaped the highways. And, you know, for us New Yorkers, we are really living in Robert Moses' New York City still today. So the positive things that he did we live in today, you know, the parks that he created, the beaches that he made, but also his racism and his classism is built into the infrastructure of our city in a way that I think people don't realize until they read Robert Caro. When you read "The Power Broker," you feel that you understand the power structures that shape all of our lives. So he opens up this world of understanding. And similarly with Lyndon Johnson - to a large extent, we live in a world created by Lyndon Johnson, you know, his Voting Rights Act and his civil rights work, as well as what he did in Vietnam. All of these things - Medicare, Medicaid - were all shaped by Lyndon Johnson. So on a national level, I think we don't always realize how much we are living in Lyndon Johnson's America. And Caro reveals that, as well as revealing some really shocking things about how each of these men used and abused power. So the books really matter to people, not just as historical explanations, but as kind of urgent documents that help us understand why our world is the way it is.

GROSS: Well, Lizzie, thanks for talking with us and thanks for making the movie.

L GOTTLIEB: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Lizzie Gottlieb directed the new film "Turn Every Page." It's about the over 50-year collaboration between her father, Robert Gottlieb, the acclaimed book editor, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Caro, author of "The Power Broker," an exhaustive study of Robert Moses and his use and abuse of power, and a projected five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson's use and abuse of power. Caro and Gottlieb are at work on the fifth and final volume. After we take a short break, I'll talk with Robert Gottlieb about that collaboration and about Gottlieb's long career. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is the celebrated book editor Robert Gottlieb. His longtime collaboration with Robert Caro, editing Caro's books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, are the focus of the new documentary "Turn Every Page." Robert Gottlieb, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm glad you finally gave Lizzie permission to make this movie.

R GOTTLIEB: Thank you.

GROSS: So Robert Caro's books are about the use and abuse of political power, how powerful people affect the lives of other people, for better or worse, such as all the people whose homes were torn down, were destroyed to make way for the highways and expressways that Robert Moses built. What was the power dynamic like in your relationship? Since he writes so much about power, what was that power dynamic like between - or I should put that in the present tense because it still exists - what is that power dynamic like?

R GOTTLIEB: Well, I don't really believe there is a power dynamic between an author and an editor when the relationship is wholesome. Both have to be strong, have strong opinions, and feel free and safe in expressing them in as polite a way as possible. We have disagreements along the way, certainly, and we could both get excited about them or by them. But on the whole, for 50 years of work, it's been productive - to my mind, pleasant, except when it wasn't. And it's gotten better and better. And in fact, our relationship has gotten better and better through the years. So I can say today, which I could not have said 50 years ago, that we are friends.

GROSS: You say that you knew after 15 pages that this book was a masterpiece. How did you know? The book is over a thousand pages.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, that's what makes you an editor, a good one. You respond to what you're reading. If you're stunned by it, excited by it, amused by it, thrilled by it, then you assume that you're not alone, that if you like it, others would like it. You know, I mean, an editor is a reader who edits. And I trust my reading because that's what I've spent my life doing. I think of myself as an editor and a New Yorker, and "The Power Broker" challenged me on those scores.

It was a wonderful experience and an exhausting experience. It took me one year to finish my editing of "The Power Broker," not because there was so much that had to be done for editorial reasons, as because we simply couldn't fit more than we did into a single volume. And there was no way that I could publish two volumes about Robert Moses. I remember saying to Bob, you know, maybe we can interest readers in one book about Robert Moses, but there's no way I can interest them in two. So we cut - I - we finally decided, after years of discussing it in an amicable way, that we cut 350,000 words out of the original manuscript.

GROSS: It must be really hard to tell somebody like Robert Caro, who works so much on every detail, that, you know, passages or chapters or whole larger sections of the book have to come out because of length when Caro spent, like, so much time working on those passages. So play that out for us. How does that go, when you say this really needs to come out, and he says, I worked really hard on this, I think it's important, it needs to stay?

R GOTTLIEB: Well, it's a very painful process. And Bob talks very tellingly about how painful it was for him. And it was very painful for me, too, because I didn't want to cut all those words because they weren't good or they weren't interesting. I needed to cut them because we couldn't print and bind a book that would accept them all physically. It was not fun, and it was hard, and we both knew it had to be done. And although we might disagree about a given passage or page or even chapter, we agreed that it needed doing. So both of us being industrious people, we did it. But as I say, it took a year, and I am fast.

GROSS: What are the typical things that you fought about?

R GOTTLIEB: Well, it could be anything. It could be punctuation. It could be overusage of a given word. It could be repetition. Because Bob and I - it's not that we disagreed. We saw things differently. I, who was reading it and editing it, would see that he - would think, feel - I would feel that he had made this point perhaps 20 pages earlier, and he didn't really need to make it again in somewhat different language. He felt - he was aware of that and - but he felt that it was so important that it needed to be stressed through repetition. So he was thinking as a writer, and I was thinking as reader. That's the way it should be.

GROSS: You had to work on, like, the macro and the micro (laughter) of...

R GOTTLIEB: That's it.

GROSS: "The Power Broker." 'Cause I've - on one hand, you're trying to cut, like, this huge number of pages - I don't know exactly how many. But at the same time, you were, you know, dealing with, like, commas and semicolons and sometimes had - having pretty heated disagreements, as far as I can tell, over whether some - you know, whether there should be a comma or a semicolon.

R GOTTLIEB: Yeah, sometimes because not everyone sees punctuation the same way. So I feel as an editor, it's my job to make the case that I need to make. And then it's his job to eventually agree or disagree. You know, I never cease explaining or telling young people who want to be editors, it's a service job. Our job is to serve the words, serve the author, serve the text. It's not our book. It's not my book. It's his book or her book. But it's a very gratifying job. And I love the editing process. I love it as an editor, and, since I've done a lot of writing myself, to my astonishment, I love being edited because it's the process that I like. I don't care whether I'm the editor or the editee. It's fun and it's interesting to see how you can make something that you believe is good even better.

GROSS: Robert Caro is 87. I feel a little uncomfortable asking this, but I'll ask it anyways.

R GOTTLIEB: (Laughter) I'm sure you will.

GROSS: If he doesn't get to finish the book either because of, you know, sickness or, you know - forgive me for saying this - or if he doesn't survive long enough - if he doesn't live long enough, what happens to the manuscript? What exists of it?

R GOTTLIEB: He's making arrangements that suit him about that. And it's up to him to explain what they may be. There's nothing I can do. I can't finish it for him, nor would I dare to try. But I imagine from his other books that however much he finishes, should something intervene, it will be well worth reading and publishing. How could it not be?

GROSS: Are you in on the process right now as he continues to write?

R GOTTLIEB: Not at all, nor have I ever been. I've never seen anything of one of his books until it was finished to his satisfaction.

GROSS: You know, we were talking a little bit about the dynamics of power. One of the many books that you edited was Bill Clinton's memoir. And when you were working with him - and you recount this, I think in your memoir - like, he said, we're going to have a good time working together. Ask anyone here. You'll find that I'm good to work for. And you corrected him and said, in this relationship, you're working for me.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, it wasn't quite that brutal, but it was - first of all, it was in a room filled with people, all his assistants and secretaries and who knows who else. And there was little me. So what he said was - I think he said something like, ask any of these people who work for me, you know, and you'll hear, I'm sure, that I'm very good to work for - some words like that. And I said, actually, Bill, in this instance, I'm not working for you. You're working for me. And it was a kind of - if you can have a silent gasp...

GROSS: (Laughter).

R GOTTLIEB: ...It was a silent gasp around the room. And he sailed right past it. We never had a moment's difficulty. At one point, I wrote in the galleys of the book, which we were working on - they go back and forth between us. I wrote, this is the single most boring page I have ever read.

GROSS: (Laughter).

R GOTTLIEB: And when he wrote back - when he sent the galleys back, he wrote next to that, no, page 632...

GROSS: (Laughter).

R GOTTLIEB: ...Is even more boring. So you can see what our relationship was. It was really a wonderful, friendly, happy business from start to finish.

GROSS: You made a point of calling him Bill as opposed to Mr. President. He was no longer president, but it's kind of customary to say Mr. President.

R GOTTLIEB: Yeah, well, not if you're saying - you can't say, I'm sorry, but we need a comma here, Mr. President. I could not imagine my saying something like that.

GROSS: Why not?

R GOTTLIEB: Well, it was just too - it was too formal. It's a very complicated personal relationship, and there was no way I could do it. And he didn't want it. He didn't need that kind of ego reinforcement.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is editor Robert Gottlieb. The new documentary "Turn Every Page" is about his long-time collaboration with writer Robert Caro editing Caro's books. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN GETZ'S "JORDU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Gottlieb, one of the most important book editors of his generation. He started his publishing career at Simon & Schuster in 1955, became editor-in-chief of Knopf in 1968 and spent five years as the editor of The New Yorker. Among the many writers he's edited are Toni Morrison, John Cheever, John Updike, John le Carre, Anne Tyler, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Heller and Michael Crichton. Gottlieb has written several books of his own, including books about Greta Garbo, George Balanchine and Sarah Bernhardt, as well as a memoir called "Avid Reader." The new documentary "Turn Every Page" focuses on his over-50-year collaborative relationship with author Robert Caro, editing Caro's books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, focusing on their use and abuse of power. Caro is currently at work on the fifth and final volume of the LBJ series, and Gottlieb is waiting to edit it.

So your memoir is called "Avid Reader," and you became an avid reader as a child. When did you realize there was such a thing as an editor? I didn't think about editing at all when I was reading as a child.

R GOTTLIEB: I didn't think about it, of course, when I was reading as a child. But once I got a job - it was not easy for me to get a job because I was this scruffy guy, a quintessence of nerdiness before we knew that there were such things as nerds, who had been overeducated, both at Columbia College - Columbia University and then at Cambridge in England. But I didn't seem very practical. I was very, very young looking. I always said I was - you know, I was a father at 21, and I looked 17, and I wandered around looking for a job. What I really wanted to do was read.

And finally, through a chain of circumstances that could not have been predicted, I ended up at Simon & Schuster, which was then a rather small and very isolated publishing house. It was seen as very crass and commercial by the snobbish world of publishing, although it had published already many very distinguished books. So I was there for 12 1/2 years. I like to say, I went in as a cabin boy and at the end was sort of an admiral. But it was very encouraging. People were thrilled to have inquisitive, nosey, brash people around. So I was welcomed rather than disdained. And it was a great experience. It was a wonderful place filled with wonderful people, not one of whom had ever worked in another publishing house and almost none of whom, barring myself, went on to work in other publishing houses.

GROSS: Since you looked so young, when you first started to edit authors did they look at you like, who is this kid, and how is he going to help me?

R GOTTLIEB: Well, I know Joseph Heller, when we first met, when I took an option on the book that became "Catch-22," which was originally called "Catch-18," he told me later - he was in his mid-30s. He'd been in the Army in the war, in the Air Force during the war. He was - he had taught. And he had a very responsible job in marketing in the magazine world. And up turned this kid to his eyes. And I - he was not the only one. I know several other people when I came out to greet them at the desk, when they first called on me at our offices, thought I was an assistant. They didn't realize that I was who I was, whatever that was.

GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned "Catch-22," which is a kind of dark, humorous book about World War II. And it was originally called "Catch-18," but the war novel "Mila 18," you found out, was going to be published, so you couldn't use 18 in the title, and you're the one who came up with 22. Catch-22 entered the vocabulary. Describe what catch-22 means, and then tell me how it felt to have a title that you contributed to become an expression outside of the book.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, it's gratifying, of course, but, you know, I've stopped thinking about that years and years ago. It's so embedded in the language now that I don't feel any connection to it. When that happens, when a word comes into existence like that, that becomes used and used and used, there's always a reason, and the reason is always that we need that word. Another word that comes out of literature that had that happened to was Kafkaesque. You know, Kafkaesque expresses something for people that there wasn't a word for before Kafka.

GROSS: As I remember from the book, which I read many, many years ago, catch-22 was a kind of absurd catch where you couldn't win, like there was no good option.

R GOTTLIEB: Yes. Yeah. Well, you know, I was very nervous about it because it was such a huge success, and we had publicized it in so extraordinary a way that it was really what made me into a known quantity in the publishing world. And I stayed away from the book. I was always afraid that if I reread it, I wouldn't love it as much as I had loved it. And when its 50th anniversary came around and there were being various celebrations and acknowledgements and events surrounding that, I thought, I better read it again because I want to see what I feel about it now in case I'm asked. So I did read it again for the first time in 50 years, and I was unbelievably relieved and excited by loving it all over again. And I was sort of amused when I came upon a passage that I didn't quite like and then remembered that I had really not liked it 50 years before, and by then, the editing process was over, and it was too late to do anything about it. So as I say, I may not be talented, but I am consistent.

GROSS: Would you describe the publishing world when you started over 60 years ago, compared to how it is now?

R GOTTLIEB: Well, it seems to me that it's become much more corporate and more about product than about books. But I think probably everybody feels that who's been around for a long time. It was always better in the good old days. I know Mr. Knopf, who founded Alfred Knopf in, I believe, 1915, would say, when I got to know him somewhat - he would say, this is the age of the slobs. You should have been around 40 years ago.

GROSS: I think books used to mean more to American culture than they do now. So many people don't read books anymore. Are you feeling that as an editor and former publisher?

R GOTTLIEB: I don't feel that at all. I think millions and millions of people are readers, and they need to read, and they want to read, and they do read. Of course, there are probably many more millions of people who don't, but that has always been true. I feel there's a tremendous interest in books these days. And they are celebrated, and they're thought about, and they're talked about, and they're read. So I do not feel that. But I have never been pessimistic about publishing and about readership. If you remember, the medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan...

GROSS: Marshall McLuhan - I do remember that.

R GOTTLIEB: And books were supposed to be dead then, and I thought it was a load of old socks. And that's, by the way, a phrase Doris Lessing loved to use. I thought it was a load of old socks then, and I still think it's a load of old socks because there are millions of people who need and want and read books.

GROSS: I don't know if you've worked with any writers who are not friendly or not pleasant or have - you know, they're maybe not great people in general, but you love their writing and, you know, reconciling those two things like the person and their art.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, I can't think of many cases of writers I've worked with whose work I really loved and whose person I didn't like at all. Just - there are people who are more difficult than other people and more needy. You know, it's a very emotional relationship. There's a transference that occurs as in psychoanalysis. The editor represents many things and different things to every writer. It's a financial relationship. It's an approval relationship. It's a technical relationship. It can be a close one or it can not. Some writers don't want to be social with their editors. Others need to talk to them constantly and, if you would let them, would like to read to you what they've written that day over the telephone. Not for me. So your job being a service job is to supply the writer with whatever you intuit he or she requires and needs and can make the most of.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. My guest is the celebrated book editor Robert Gottlieb. His longtime collaboration with Robert Caro, editing Caro's books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, are the focus of the new documentary "Turn Every Page." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Gottlieb, the former editor-in-chief of the prestigious publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, who also served as the editor of The New Yorker for five years.

You're not just obsessed with writing. You're obsessed with dance. You've been on the board of the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet. You say dance liberated you from the tyranny of words. When you got into jazz singing, you got obsessive about that. You collect these kind of kitschy tchotchkes, and I'm sure you don't think of them that way but these kind of kitschy little statuettes and stuff like that.

R GOTTLIEB: No, no, no. The thing I...

GROSS: No. How would you describe it? Yeah.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, the thing I collect is a certain kind of plastic woman's pocketbook.

GROSS: And that. Yes, that was going to be the next thing that I mentioned.

R GOTTLIEB: That is the collection that I guess people are more aware of than any other.

GROSS: And more mystified by because - let me explain. These are, like, women's handbags from the 1950s that look like little plastic boxes with sometimes, like, buckles or metal clasps.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, they're not so little.

GROSS: They're not so little.

R GOTTLIEB: They're full-size - no, they're full-size pocketbooks.

GROSS: So, like, why do you collect those?

R GOTTLIEB: I was in a junk store some day, one day many years ago, and I saw this object. I didn't know what it was, but I liked its look, so I bought it. I might have spent $10 for it. I don't know. And then some - I forgot about it. And then half a year later, I saw another such object and I thought, wait a minute, I have one of those, so I'll buy this one, too, so then I'll have two. Then I had to find the first one. And then I used to go around to junk stores and vintage stores around because I like doing that. And I kept seeing more. So I started having a collection because I like collecting. And soon, I had hundreds of them. And that is it. They're very remarkable in their shape and their size and their ornamentation. And I found out - I started to study and I started to meet manufacturers of them.

What had happened was the plastic, which had come into existence before World War II, became an essential war product for airplanes, etc. And when the war came to an end, the people who were manufacturing plastic didn't have war planes to make plastic objects for. So they started improvising to see what else they could do with their plastic, and they came up with these. And that happened - maybe five or six people around the country - one in New York, one in Long Island, one in Florida, etc. - and they started to make these. And at first, they were considered very elegant, and they were only sold in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. And then they cheapened, the plastic cheapened, and they went out of style, to be replaced, if you're interested, by vinyl. But I was not interested in vinyl.

GROSS: You are so occupied with so many different projects and have been, you know, ever since you became an adult. And I'll mention again you work with, you know, the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet. You're, you know, editing and publishing. You're collecting. You love dance and theater, jazz music and other music as well. How do you think obsession has worked for you and perhaps against you?

R GOTTLIEB: I don't think it's worked against me at all unless it's just irritated some people. That I'm not aware of and do nothing about. You know, going all the way is something I like to do. I mean, I do it naturally. If I read one book by somebody and like it, I want to read all 18 of that person's books. I just am a completist, I guess. Other people I know aren't like that. And they're equally good readers and equally avid readers. They don't need to read everything. They love what they've read. And they're perfectly happy to go on and read something else by somebody else.

GROSS: Did you ever want your name on the cover of a book as editor? Do you wish you had more visibility over the years as the editor?

R GOTTLIEB: Not at all. I always wanted to be unseen and unheard, which is what editors should be. That didn't work all that well for me because for whatever reason - starting with the success of "Catch-22," but for whatever reasons, I became, in the business, well-known. Outside the business, no. Who cares, you know? No, I never wanted to be. And I would distress my publicity directors because people wanted interviews with me. And I wouldn't do them because I thought editors should be unseen and unheard, you know? Do the work, shut up, you know? Get on with it.

GROSS: So this is an odd question to ask. And it will probably make both of us uncomfortable.

R GOTTLIEB: (Laughter) OK.

GROSS: OK?

R GOTTLIEB: I'm ready.

GROSS: All right. So I feel like you've been editing everything I said and crossing things out and correcting them in the margins (laughter). Is that - am I - have I been especially off? Or are you...

R GOTTLIEB: Oh, not at all.

GROSS: Are you always editing in real life like that?

R GOTTLIEB: I'm always editing myself. I mean, that's the way I am.

GROSS: You mean, like, thinking before you speak?

R GOTTLIEB: I think before I speak.

GROSS: Like, rehearsing it in your mind and then pressing things out?

R GOTTLIEB: And then if I feel I haven't been clear, I try to elaborate or clarify. That's what editors do.

GROSS: Well, I'd like to end with a song. And I was hoping, since you're deep into, like, jazz and pop singers, I was wondering if you'd like to choose a song that you're especially fond of right now, maybe something that's really endured in your mind, on your, like, Top 10 list or something that you're just deep into right now that's speaking to you at the moment that would be a good song to play.

R GOTTLIEB: Well, the song that's in my mind now is the song that ends Lizzie's film, which is "Do It The Hard Way."

GROSS: Oh, Chet Baker. Yeah.

R GOTTLIEB: Yeah, sung a million times by Chet Baker and by Rodgers and Hart. (Singing) So do it the hard way and it's easy sailing. My father believed that. And although I didn't accept everything my father believed, that stuck. Or I learned it by example. So I do think that doing it the hard way, which is maybe the slower way, the more difficult way, is the way to do it.

GROSS: All right, a nice note to end on (laughter). Let's end with the song that you suggested. And this is Chet Baker. And this song also ends the movie "Turn Every Page," the documentary about you and Robert Caro. Thank you so much.

R GOTTLIEB: Listen; thanks, Terry. This was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO IT THE HARD WAY")

CHET BAKER: (Singing) Do it the hard way and it's easy sailing. Do it the hard way and it's hard to lose. Only the soft way has a chance of failing. You have to choose. I tried the hard way when I tried to get you. You took the soft way when you said, we'll see. Darling, now I'll let you do it the hard way now that you want me. (Scatting).

GROSS: Robert Gottlieb is in the new documentary "Turn Every Page," along with author Robert Caro. Their film is about their long, sometimes contentious working relationship as editor and author. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new film "Living," an English adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's film "Ikiru." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUADRO NUEVO'S "TU VUO' FA' L'AMERICANO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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43:11

He's edited Caro, le Carré and 'Catch-22,' but doesn't mind if you don't know his name

At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book editor of his time. He started out in 1955 and has been working in publishing ever since. The list of authors he's edited include Robert Caro, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton. His daughter Lizzie Gottlieb's new film, Turn Every Page, centers on her father's decades-long editing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro.

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Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Living, is a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

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