Complete Transcript of the 2014 Editorial Excellence Award event Honoring Robert Gottlieb
12/3/14 – New York Society Library
I’m Will Swift and I’m the chairman of the Awards Committee of the Biographers International Group, and we’re delighted that you all came to help us honor Bob Gottlieb tonight. And we are presenting him with our first annual award for editorial excellence. So this is a very special event for us.
And in honoring Bob, we’re also honoring a trio who have worked together to create five magnificent volumes of biography. And that trio is, of course, Bob Gottlieb, editing, Bob Caro, writing and researching, and my favorite, Ina Caro, also doing research. And the three of them as a team have produced five volumes that are a masterwork in biography, and that basically teach us how we can write biography.
Now, there’s one problem introducing Bob Caro. And I’m introducing him because he’s then going to speak about Bob Gottlieb. The problem is — have any of you ever looked up how many awards Bob Caro has received? If I was to list all of them, I would spend my whole time just listing the awards. So I picked out a few just to mention. Bob Gottlieb is going to be introduced by someone who’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, three National Book Circle Critics Award, the gold medal from the National Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Humanities Medal presented by President Obama, and the Francis Parkman Prize. That’s just a few.
And I think that there are three major lessons that Bob has tried, among many others, to impart to us biographers. And I’m speaking as a biographer who learns from reading the work that they have collaborated on. And he teaches us about three things in particular. The importance of a sense of place, the importance of rigorous research, and of course the importance of beautiful writing.
And when I think of Bob, and I start a new book and we all start new books, we need to think about three moments in his career: camping, by himself, at night, in the lonely East Texas countryside; going to the ranch of Lyndon Johnson’s father and burying his fingers in the soil; and finally, Bob Caro running up the steps of the Capitol twenty different times, trying to figure out why Lyndon Johnson as a young Congressional aide used to run up the steps early in the morning every day on the way to work.
And so I think, with the importance of place, Bob and Ina — when I think of doing a book, I think Bob and Ina moved to East Texas, and they spent three years living there, getting to know all the friends, neighbors, and relatives. Now that’s research. Right? In the Texas Hill Country.
And in depicting the Texas Hill Country, Bob shows us the sense of emptiness and isolation and desperation that was so much a part of Lyndon Johnson’s character and upbringing. And he shows us that by creating a vivid sense of place, you can convey a remarkable amount about the character, the dreams, and the motivations of your subject.
And so, one day, Bob, who had got to know some of the cousins, was taken over to the ranch of the — the Johnson ranch — and he went over and he put his fingers in the soil. And he realized, as beautiful as it looked, he couldn’t even get his fingers all the way down because it was essentially barren underneath. And he came to a great eureka moment. And that is, that Lyndon Johnson’s father, who ultimately failed, did not pay attention to detail. And Lyndon Johnson, as he’s shown us so well, all his life, especially with vote counts, paid exquisite attention to detail. He was not going to make that mistake. Now for me, that’s research.
And as Bob then tried to figure out why Johnson ran up the steps so many times, he thought to himself one day, as he said, you know, I never did it at dawn, at the same time as Lyndon Johnson. Maybe that’s why I’m not figure it out. So he went and at dawn, as the sun was breaking over the east part of the Capitol, he ran up the steps and he saw the gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling white sun glinting off the Capitol, and in that moment, he understood what Lyndon Johnson was running for all his life.
So these are the three lessons that I think we can take from the work, and also I think that, just on a personal level, Bob has taught us that great biography and history should also, and can be, great literature. And his work has been compared to Faulkner, to Trollope, Shakespeare, and many others. And I think it bears reading just from the angle of literature.
And I just want to say a personal note about Bob, in that, he went to Princeton and I believe you wrote your thesis on Hemingway. And one of the things that’s delightful to know about Bob is to experience his extraordinary curiosity about the world. And also to hear him talk about literature, to hear him talk about his renewed fascination and love of Ernest Hemingway, which he’s come back to late in his life, and also to see the great interest he shows in other biographers, whatever stage they’re at. And Bob, I want to thank you so much for your generosity in doing this. From the moment he heard from me that we were honoring Bob Gottlieb, he said I would love to give the introduction and present the award. And I’m delighted — Bob, please come. Thank you.
The award I’m giving tonight is the Biographers International Award for Editorial Excellence, for an editor who has made outstanding contributions to the field of biography. Of course when it comes to biography, Bob has contributed to the field, not only as an editor, but as a biographer himself. Having been an editor for forty years, editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, Bob reinvented himself as a writer, and has written biographies of George Balanchine, Sarah Bernhardt, and in a way, the sons and daughters of Charles Dickens. Reinvented himself after forty years as an editor, to become a writer. Takes a lot of talent to do that. Takes a lot of something else too — guts, courage.
But this award tonight is for Bob Gottlieb as an editor. And as one of his authors, I’m going to talk about him as an editor. You don’t really need me to talk about him as an editor. Here are just some of the biographers and historians — great biographers and historians — he’s edited: Barbara Tuchman, Robert Massey, Antonia Fraser, Tony Lucas. Here are some of the autobiographers he has edited: Lauren Bacall (I remember Lauren Bacall sitting in the Knopf offices, and Bob pulling that book out of her, I may say, page by page, as he drove her to write it on a yellow legal pad. And I think edited it almost every night, to encourage her to go on with the book) Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullman, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Graham (I happened to have a ringside seat at the Katharine Graham story. One of the great works of personal history of the century was created by her and Bob, from a woman who I frankly never believed would be able to do it), Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt, Irene Selznick.
And of course, even to limit a discussion of Bob Gottlieb to one field, like biography, is to leave out a lot. True Grit, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Joe Heller’s Catch-22, Ray Bradbury, Len Deighton, Elia Kazan, V. S. Naipaul. I could spend a lot of time up here tonight just listing the centrality of Bob Gottlieb in the world of literature in our time. I could spend a lot of time talking about how lucky the world of literature is to have him.
But since I’ve been asked to talk about him as an editor, I will talk about Bob tonight in the only way I can do it, through my personal experiences with him, and of course I have a lot of material to draw him, because Bob has been my editor for forty-four years.
I’ll talk first about his dress code. Bob has shined himself up for the occasion, I think he’s wearing his best Army field jacket. But when I first started working with Bob, he would always wear this white T-shirt, not as I recall in the best state of pressing, a pair of trousers which definitely were not in the best state of pressing, sneakers. And his hair, which was also not in the best state of press. So in those days we were living in Riverdale, and Ina would drive down the FDR Drive — we would be editing all day– and park in front of the Knopf offices on Fiftieth Street and wait for me to come out. One day, at the end of the day, I was still working, and I told him that Ina was waiting, and Bob said, “I want to meet her,” and went out while I was still working. So he went downstairs in his T-shirt and whatever kind of pants they were, and his uncombed hair. And when I went down sometime later, he was standing next to the open car window — Ina was sitting in the driver’s seat — and they were still talking. Bob said goodbye and left, and Ina said she had been having the most wonderful conversation. And I said, “I told you he was smart.” And Ina said, “Told me who was smart?” I said, “Bob Gottlieb.” And she said, “Bob Gottlieb? I thought he was the messenger.”
Now I, as you can immediately see, dress differently. But in a way, both Bob and I are out of a different age. I write in pencil or pen a few drafts, and then I write on a typewriter. I don’t have a computer. Bob edits in pencil. In fact, the last time, when the last book was being edited, we often sat in Kathy Hourigan’s office, an editor who’s worked with us for forty-four years, but on a couple of occasions, in one of the small conference rooms at Knopf, and the door would be open. So Bob and I would be sitting at the conference table the way we always sit — with a big stack of manuscript between us–going page by page in pencil. And the same scene would be repeated over and over again: a young editor would walk by, and a moment later, almost do a double take. And a moment later, come back again to take a look at these two old schmucks editing in pencil.
The other thing that happened that was of interest was that when our pencils got dull, we couldn’t find a pencil sharpener. There was not one on the whole floor of Knopf. We had to go to the graphics arts department to find one.
So we’re both out of another, I think maybe better, age. In other ways, you know, you talk to some editors, you go to dinner parties in New York and you’re sitting next to some editor, and the word that comes out of their mouths over and over again is “newsworthy.” What’s newsworthy in this book, you know? That’s never been the case with Bob Gottlieb. And I myself have never been interested in what’s “newsworthy” in my books.
But I am interested in something else: Have I written it just as good as I can write it? It is the writing that matters to me. I want my books to last. You know, if you think you’ve found something out about how power works in a democracy and you want people to know it — that democracy and power ultimately comes from our votes at the ballot box — if you think you’ve found out something, you don’t want just one generation to learn about it, you want a number of generations to learn about it. And that means that your books have to last. I’ve always believed that for a biography, for a work of history, for any nonfiction book to endure, the level of prose in that book has to be at the same level as the level of a fiction book, a novel, that endures. The writing is what matters.
And with Bob, from the first time I met him, I found an editor who was interested in that too. When we’re working together, what matters, and it is all that matters, is what is on the page in front of us.
He’s a very unusual editor for me in other ways. I remember once we had been working all day in his office, behind a closed door at Knopf, and we came out and Bob was walking into the elevator. An editor came up and said, in a way that editors have, “So, when is this book going to be delivered?” And Bob said to him, “Don’t ask him that.” Well, that meant a lot to me. He’s never asked me that. I don’t think in the forty-four years that we’ve been together, on all of these books that I’ve been overdue on, Bob has ever spoken to me about when it’s going to be delivered. And of course that’s what matters to me– not when the book is delivered, but when the book is done. When it’s been made as close to what it should be as it could be made. And I felt that on all my books, I had an editor who felt that way too. That he felt that way so much, so sincerely, that he’s never asked me that question.
And there is the overriding, all-consuming interest — I might even use the word he wouldn’t want me to use — “passion.” And what is on the paper in front of us, words matter. There really is, you know, a mot juste, the right word, the best word, the perfect word, the word that expresses more precisely than any other what it is that you want expressed. Punctuation matters. Paragraphing matters. There’s a rhythm that better than any other rhythm reinforces what a writer is trying to say.
That passion has led us over the years to have staged some really monumental fights. A lot of them are over semicolons. If I was to sum up one aspect of our relationship that has never changed, it’s that Bob thinks that I use too many semicolons. But you know, a semicolon is very important. They’re not as forceful as periods, it’s not a full stop, they’re not as slight as commas, they’re just a slight stop. So if what you care about is rhythm in a paragraph, a semicolon can really work very well. And as I say, Bob doesn’t think they work as well as I do.
Dashes are very important to me. I try to use them to help establish the rhythm I want in a paragraph or a section. We fight over them sometimes. We fight over adjectives. We spend a long time fighting over one word or another.
There have been so many articles about our relationship, and when journalists write about that relationship, they always find somebody at Knopf to talk about our fights and how one of us stormed out into the corridor or the other. I suppose these fights took place.
But what the articles are not about, what’s seldom understood, is what they’re not about. They’re not about personalities and egos. They’re about what’s on the page in front of us. Is it working or not?
So at the end of the day, despite the fights, we could work together. We’ve been able to work together now for forty-four years. Because what matters, what matters to both of us, I think, is what is on the page. I think that what that means — that it’s only about what’s on the page — it’s not ego, it’s not personality, it’s not publicity for the book, it’s not what article we can get that’s quote off the book page close quote. It’s not about a publishing schedule or what season it’s going to be in. It’s about what’s on the page. About the writing.
So I’ve been describing to you what I think is a very special editor. There are other things that make Bob special, beyond being just an editor.
One is his dedication. You know, when I started working, people said about him, he works all the time. I learned that that was true. Bob doesn’t have lunches. He always ate at his desk. He doesn’t go out for dinner. On weekends he was usually home. So that means, among others things, that he gets people’s manuscripts back to them really fast.
The last book that I handed in, I remember I brought it down to his house, actually, gave it to him on a Friday night. Ina and I were sitting home on Sunday night and the phone rang. And I said, “I’ll get it. That will be Bob.” And he had read the book, which was a very long book, and he had read it, digested it, and gotten it back to me. So dedication, you can say, that kind of dedication.
Then there is his ability to conceptualize, to see a book whole. That’s a gift that’s beyond a gift, a talent that’s beyond a talent. And Bob has that. The ability to see where — if a book is to achieve its goal — what part should be contracted, what part expanded, what new part added.
I’ve been talking about some ways in which we’re very much on the same page, in working on my books. I’ll give you one example. When I was writing Master of the Senate, the third volume in the Johnson, I wanted to show — I felt I needed to show–what the Senate had been like before Lyndon Johnson got there in 1949, in the almost century since it had been created. I felt I really had to show that. I had to show that in as much detail as I was going to show what Lyndon Johnson did to it. Or it wouldn’t be as significant in showing what he did to it. And I found myself suddenly writing and writing, and I realized that I had 70,000 or 75,000 words. Lyndon Johnson wasn’t mentioned in those words until I think the last page. I was going to look that up. The next to the last page. And I gave the manuscript to Bob that day. And the next week we were talking about it. And I myself was worried, would anyone read through this — it actually would be 105 pages in the book — would anyone really read that before they got to Lyndon Johnson? So I was thinking, what can I do? I can divide it up. I can put this section here and put the next section that relates to something else, putting one chunk here, another chunk later, maybe putting part of it in italics. And I remember I was going to see him I think on Monday morning, and I was lying awake Sunday night, and I suddenly said to myself, no, it belongs there. It belongs at the beginning, where it is. I wrote it to start the book, and that’s where I’m going to leave it. So I said, well, that means a battle with Bob.
So I walked in on Monday morning, and he said, without me saying a word, before I said anything, “I’ve been thinking about that history of the Senate. Let’s leave it there.”
And lastly, in talking about what makes Bob Gottlieb special, I want to use a word that’s not really out of the literary vocabulary, the publishing vocabulary, so much. It’s not so much about editing and writing. The word is “honorable.” I remember, I regard Bob as an honorable man. The quieter, deep meaning of the word.
When I was writing Means of Ascent, the second volume, Bob left Knopf to go to The New Yorker. And of course immediately my phone was ringing, what seemed like every editor in New York wanting to take me to Rao’s, where I could never get in on my own. And Bob said to me, “You know, if you stay, I’ll edit the book twice. I’ll edit it once, I’m going to run almost the whole book.” He ran almost the whole book in The New Yorker, six parts. He said, “I’ll edit it once as a magazine piece, and I’ll edit it again as a book. It’s two different forms of editing.” And everyone said to me, he can’t possibly do that. He’s going to have too full a plate as an editor at The New Yorker. And I said, “You know, if he says he’ll do it, he’ll do it.” And all that summer, Maria, as I remember, was up in Provincetown, and Bob was home alone. And every day that summer, for what seems to me the entire summer, in my memory, we would sit in the little garden in the back of his house in Turtle Bay, just the two of us — everyone else was away— in the Hamptons, whatever — we were editing that book. That’s an honorable thing to do.
The world of literature has been very lucky to have Bob Gottlieb. I’ve been very lucky to have Bob Gottlieb. That’s why I agreed to give him this award, the only award I’ve ever presented, and believe me, the only award I’m ever going to present. The dedication page in one of my books reads “For Bob Gottlieb, thirty years, four books, thanks.” That was fourteen years ago. Now it will be forty-four years, five books, going on a sixth. Thanks again, Bob.
It is with real pleasure that I present to you this award, the only one I’ll ever present, the first award from the International Biographers Assembly.
Thank you, Robert A. Caro. Never forget that “A.” We’re not about to. I have no speech because I don’t know what to say. But so I’ll start by being disagreeable, which is something I often do. The thing is, it’s great to have an award. It’s great to have it presented by Bob. It’s great, more important, that editors are acknowledged as being of some use in our little world. So I’m very appreciative of all that, and to the organization and Will and everybody who has been forced here at gunpoint.
But the reality is — the occasion for the award — which is essentially being editor of biography, is a kind of — it’s not for real. Because editing a biography is really no different from editing a novel or an epic poem in terza rima. I mean, it’s all the same thing. It’s the application of common sense to what you’re reading. You have a reaction, you think you know what it needs, you trust it. Why I’ve always trusted my reactions to writing I do not know, but I was born that way. I certainly don’t trust a lot of other aspects of my life. But I always felt I was right and I could justify it and I could explain it. And that’s it.
I love biography. I’ve thought about biography a great deal in my life, and read a great deal of it, long before I even edited a biography. Because I started out as an editor of fiction primarily. And was very startled to find myself editing all kinds of things that I didn’t know I had any interest in. And didn’t think I would be capable of doing.
I remember the first huge best-seller I edited in nonfiction when I was still at Simon & Schuster, it was Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death. I had not given a lot of thought to funerary practices, and I didn’t know anything about them. But we bonded from the moment we met, which was at the Italian Pavilion, then the chic-est publishing lunch place in town. We bonded on the subject of trocars. Anybody here know what a trocar is? Might I have a show of hands. You see, you know, yeah, well. That’s because you didn’t edit The American Way of Death. A trocar is a cunning little instrument that embalmers use to take out the material from the body so that they can embalm. Now, not everybody has a fascination for trocars. But Decca Mitford and I did.
And I go on about that because it’s funny but interesting. But it also illustrates one of the crucial things that an editor gets out of editing nonfiction, whether it’s a biography or history or autobiography, or whatever. Which is that we learn on the job. I cannot tell you how much I have learned just from having to read 47,000 pages by Robert A. Caro. What did I know?
To start with The Power Broker, a book that had a torturous history getting to me at Knopf and was brought to me there by Lynn Nesbit, sitting in the back, forty-four years ago. You have a lot to answer for, Lynn. Lynn called up and said, “I have this book that I think you should publish and edit.” And I said, what is it? And she said it was a biography of Robert Moses. Now we had a previous history with that at Simon & Schuster; it’s a long and tedious story of how it ended up with me at Knopf. The point of it is that when it was first floated past me when I was making decisions at Simon & Schuster, I thought, I cannot imagine anything more dreary than a biography of Robert A. Moses. Is that right, the “A”? Is there an “A” in there? No “A.” Just Robert Moses. I knew about him a little bit, because I grew up in New York. I had no interest in him at all, but my editor, who wanted to sign it on at that point, was all for it, and I thought, well, I hired him to do this kind of thing, I might as well let him do it.
And so when Lynn told me she was sending me a book about Robert no-A Moses, by Robert A. Caro, I was — let’s put it this way. I was cautious in my welcome.
However, the moment I started to read it, it was clear that it was a thrilling, great book. And so I now know more about Robert Moses than anyone in the world except Robert A. Caro. Although I’ve forgotten it, which I’m sure he has not forgotten any of it.
So I learned about New York City through that book. I learned Texas through the future books. I learned about the Senate. I learned, in the last book, the process of democracy that moves us from one President to another, unlike the things that go on in most of the rest of the world.
But it’s not just that. All the biographies and histories that I’ve worked on — like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror —what did I know about the fourteenth century and France? Nothing. But then I knew everything. It was great. And this happens again and again and again and again. And if you have a curiosity about the world, or history or people, whatever, it’s an amazingly gratifying experience.
It’s just the way I feel about writing. I don’t like writing. I hate writing, I never wanted to be a writer. I think it’s an ignoble profession. As opposed to editing, which is a noble profession because it’s a service profession. Whom are you serving when you write? Yourself, your ego. No, no, no. Editing is a noble profession.
And the payoff is, that you learn all this stuff. Now you forget it too, but you forget everything. Although on the way, you’ve learned a lot. And it sort of seeps in and becomes part of your intellectual context. And having that, by the way, is a very useful thing as an editor. Because even when you’re dealing with a subject you know nothing about, suddenly something will be said and you say, wait, that’s not right. I don’t think that’s correct. I don’t think so-and-so was acting in 1925, and you look it up, and sure enough, her first performance was in 1926. But if you didn’t have some context, you wouldn’t have that. Of course you miss things too, and that’s what we presumably have copyeditors for.
So that’s a tremendous benefit to me. Although I had a good education, my real education, certainly in terms of history and biography, came from my editorial work. And I have to say, grudgingly, that I learned a lot from Robert A. Caro. I say grudgingly because he told you such a pretty story. But we won’t go into that on this very happy occasion. The scars are there. He doesn’t bear any. But then he’s in an ignoble profession.
So, all right, enough for Robert A. Caro. We’ve heard enough from him today.
So let’s talk a little about biography, but not as an editor of biography. Because as I say, I don’t know what that means. I edit him the way I edit Toni Morrison or whoever else it may be. I read it, I have a reaction, I think, no don’t want to hear more of this. Wait a minute, tell me more of that. Or as the thing he said, language certainly, definitely language. Semicolons: first of all, Bob, I love semicolons, I use them myself. But I use them judiciously. Let that pass.
Okay, let’s talk about research. The story I really always tell — but I don’t think I’ve written it yet, but maybe am writing — is the one time in all our forty-four years that I allowed myself to question a piece of data — or do we say “a datum”? — that he had on the page. And I wasn’t doubting him. You can’t doubt him. But I was very curious as how he learned this. And this is in The Power Broker. When he says, casually, “so when I was going through the files of the settlement house that Robert Moses’s mother founded and sort of ran,” already I was thinking, wait a minute, he’s going through the files of his mother’s settlement house papers, okay. Yeah. So, the issue was, in his book he writes that the senior Moseses were sitting outside in a bungalow? Was it, Bob? Something like that. They spent a week every summer — they slummed in the Catskill place where this settlement house brought poor Jewish kids up into nature. Already a bad idea, but let that pass. And they opened their copy of the The New York Times, this is in 1906 or 11 or one of those years back then — and Mr Moses or Mrs Moses looks at the paper and they see a story on the front page that says that Robert Moses, their son who was then a firebrand liberal, has lost a libel suit, a slander suit, and it’s going to cost him $15,000, $30,000, which they of course are going to have to pay. That’s a lot of money then. And one of them says to the other, “Oh, well, this is going to cost us $30,000.” This is what he writes. So I ask myself, because I’m a normal human being, how does he know what one of these long-dead people said to the other long-dead person at a bungalow in the Catskills in 1906? How does he know that? So I asked him.
And he said, oh, that’s easy to explain. He said, when I was going through these files, I came upon a list of all the campers who were there that summer. Ah-hah. And so I started to try and get in touch with them. So I looked in the phone directory, the current one, and some of the names matched. So I started to call them. And indeed, I found the boy or the man or whatever he was, whose job it was to deliver the New York Times to that bungalow porch when they were in residence, and he remembered hearing this. Okay. So that was the last time I ever asked him, but what was so astounding about it wasn’t that he did it, which was already lunatic, but was that it seemed normal to him to do it.
So, you know, I trust him. I don’t trust him on semicolons, but I trust him on research. Which is or isn’t more important, I don’t know which is more important. Anyway, we’ve had a great time when it wasn’t hideous, all these years. And you know what the results have been.
So let’s talk a little more about — why am I talking about you? I don’t want to be talking about you.
So I have always been fascinated by biography. Even before I started to edit it, let alone write it. Because it presents a unique problem for a writer. If you’re writing a novel it’s a fiction, maybe based on your own life or somebody’s life. But here is a situation where on the one hand it has to at least present, follow certain facts, or historical facts. You can’t say that, you know, Abraham Lincoln was our first President because you’re going to be shot down if you say it. On the other hand, you have to tell a story. So telling a story and adhering to four thousand million facts — that doesn’t always work together. So how do you do it?
Well, you do it if you’re talented, you know. And I found that extremely interesting. And when I started to edit biographies, I found it very interesting. Now there are all kinds of biographies. That’s another strange thing we have to remember. There isn’t one kind of biography. There are profoundly brilliant, scholarly biographies, where a professor has been working for thirty years, studying Fénelon or Chateaubriand, and has now got more information and more understanding than anyone has ever had, and writes a 950-page university press book. And I love those books, and I read them. But those are not edited in the same way that you edit a 250-page short biography of a well-known person. It’s a completely different thing.
So you have to know what you’re editing, whom you’re editing. The same as a writer. The three biographies I have written are short, because I write in a compressed way, but also, I am not a scholar. And I’m not someone who can do serious original research. What he does — first of all, I wouldn’t dream of sticking my hands into the dirt of Texas. I wouldn’t even dream of being in Texas. But I am not someone who can go into an archive and spend six months with papers that I couldn’t decipher anyway. Many of the biographers I have worked with do. Antonia Fraser does, her daughter Flora Fraser, whose fifth book I’m now editing, she spends months in the archives in Windsor, in the castle. Well, that whole family is at home in those archives. And she finds amazing material. I couldn’t do that. The only original material I found was stuff on the Web.
So that’s all new, that’s what’s changed the ball game. Because there you really come upon interesting new information. I will give you an example. Forgive me that it’s one of my books, but I can only talk about writing the books I’ve written. Because I haven’t written his book.
I was writing about Sarah Bernhardt and of course she spent a great deal of her career in America. Nine tours of the United States of America. Some of them lasting for months and months. She didn’t even know where she was going. She’d be in the train, she’d get out, she’d do it, she’d get back in the train. She was everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. I was curious about what was left, you know, what is the detritus of this in information. And I’d read all the accounts of course that had been published. But I was going and Googling away, Googling away, and some page 932 of the Google Sarah Bernhardt, I found copies of the New York Times at a moment, a crucial moment in her life, when she was in New York, and dying. She had a very horrible disease, and they — as we say, they despaired of her life, one of my favorite phrases. They despaired of her life. Now what was interesting was that for a period of about ten days, almost every single day there was a large story with a huge headline about her condition. And it would say: “Sarah Bernhardt Receives Telegram from Queen Alexandra,” that was one. “About to Be Operated On.” “Two Surgeons: They Claim She’s Out of It.” It went on. “Large Amounts of Pus Extracted from Sarah Bernhardt.” Well, that was all interesting in itself, but what was important to me as writing about her was, it underlined it, it emphasized, and it proved incontestably, how crucial a figure she was in America at that time. Because it was like reading about the Pope being ill, or the President, or the King. You couldn’t believe this much attention — so that’s the value of — now maybe some other biographer, earlier, without access to the Web, would have gone down to the archives of the New York Times, if they still exist on — it’s no longer microfilm, it’s on — who knows what it’s on, it’s in the air somewhere — and tried to find every reference ever made to her in the history of The New York Times. And they might have come upon it. But I couldn’t have done that. I’m not equipped to do it, I don’t have the patience, or the time.
So this is a tremendous new thing for biographers, and I know many of you are biographers, and I’m sure you’re all using this, because how not? And I could give other examples of that.
Anyway, let’s go back to biography. I’m just rambling along here, but why not? No one can stop me. Different biographers — different biographies work in different ways. And approach things in different ways. I think a lot about Dickens because I’ve been very involved with Dickens, I wrote a book about him, but I’ve been interested in him my whole life, and I’ve read a gigantic amount of the Dickens literature, and believe me, it’s gigantic to begin with. And I’ve read all the major biographies and most of the minor biographies. And the first one, the original one, by his friend John Forster, of course, is unique and it’s personal and it’s wonderful. But the first modern biography that not only is very capacious, compendious, but was a huge success, a Book of the Month Club, two volumes by a biographer named Edgar Johnson, who later wrote a two-volume biography of Sir Walter Scott, a figure I’m also interested in, but about whom I knew much much less.
Now the point about this is, when you read these two books, four volumes, everything is there. All the information is there, very well organized. However you also realize that Edgar Johnson didn’t have a clue about who these people were or what they were. However, he gave you the information in a way so that you ended up understanding them, even if he didn’t. Well, I mean it. That’s exactly accurate. If any of you have read those books, I hope you all agree with me. And that’s one way of doing it, and it was unbelievably valuable to me, as a reader. I mean I have, you know, a professional interest when I was reading those books.
Other people have compressive minds, as I do. Other people ramble, as I do, but not on paper. Other people have very strong psychological interests. For example, Fred Kaplan, his biography of Dickens, it’s a very good book, highly psychological, like his other books. Other ones filled with brilliancy, like Peter Ackroyd’s immense book, but it’s a little weird, it’s a little odd, and he has an agenda, and his agenda is that he doesn’t believe that Dickens and Ellen Ternan (the “Invisible Woman”) slept together, which everyone else believes. But he didn’t want to believe that. Okay. He makes a case, it’s a very bad one. Now, so I ask myself, as an editor, what could I have done here? Well, I couldn’t have done anything, because this guy was in the grip of his need to believe that. I don’t know why he needed to believe it.
So, the last big one, Claire Tomalin’s book, who wrote — she who wrote The Invisible Woman, it’s not a very good book. Because she didn’t have more to tell us. She didn’t have more to tell us than the four or five major modern biographers of Dickens. However, it was a huge success in England, where she’s a very popular writer. I didn’t need that book, I read it, I thought it was — eh.
So, there it is. Dickens is always fascinating, and that brings me to another point, if I have made one already, which I’m not sure I have.
One of the things that an editor can really be helpful for on certain occasions is the decision about whom the writer should write about. Now some people know totally whom they want to write about, and that’s whom they’re going to write about. Other people are looking for a subject. Biographers — I remember in my experience a very incident was when I was at the New Yorker already, and my pal Antonia Fraser was in New York and came to see me. And we were jabbering away about family and who knows what, and she said, I don’t know what to do, I just don’t know what I should write about next. And I said, six wives of Henry the Eighth. Now I don’t know why I said that, it wasn’t in my mind. But there it was. She said, that’s it, I’ll do it. That was the whole discussion.
We have another example of that. This guy and me. Because after The Power Broker, we had talked about, and he had talked about, wanting to write about Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York City. Now Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was a god in my household because my mother, who was a public school teacher, worshipped him. Because all public school teacher worshipped him. And he was a fascinating, funny, interesting guy, most famous for when the papers went on strike, reading the funnies aloud to kids of New York over the radio, on his weekly show. So La Guardia was a very interesting figure. However, he was essentially of no consequence. Because nothing followed from him. He was there, he was fun, he was the subject of a big Broadway, Pulitzer Prize–winning musical called Fiorello!, and that was it.
So Bob came in. And I said, you know, I’ve been thinking about Fiorello La Guardia, it’s a wonderful story, but I don’t think it’s what you should do. And he said, what should I do? And I said, I think you should do Lyndon Johnson, because what you’re interested in is power, he expresses it more than — And he said, But I was just going to say to you, I don’t want to do Fiorello La Guardia, I want to do Lyndon Johnson. Sure, yes Bob. Uh-huh. I know. Is that a true — he’s never even heard of Lyndon Johnson.
So you know, you can be useful that way. Other people want to do things and then you have to explain to them that — I know you’ll do a wonderful job, it’s a very interesting subject, but you have to understand that there’s a limited market for that subject. However much money you may need in order to do it, it can’t earn out. So if you can’t afford to do it for a rational or reasonable amount of money, then you have to put it aside or find a way to support yourself while you’re doing it. Meanwhile we have vicious agents like Lynn and Binky here, who are — can’t even describe their tactics, it’s too horrible. But because they’re both extremely good agents, they understand the situation, it’s an indulgence to write a certain book. But if that’s what the biographer has to do, he has to do it, and you have to find a way to help it come about.
Also, you can delicately steer people away from truly terrible ideas. Not by saying this is a truly terrible idea, but by saying, do you really think this is a very good idea? That’s known as the higher tact. Which we all develop over a period of time.
So, it’s a complicated story. Again, a lot depends upon how much you know. As I say before, you have general context. I’ve worked on books where I knew a great deal about the subject. I’ve even worked on three autobiographies in which I myself figured all too prominently, all of which were complete tissues of — not of lies, let’s say, but of speculation. They just got everything wrong. And it was interesting because it showed me yet again, which I knew, which is the way that an editor — the way writers make a transference, as we Freudians say, to their editor. They needed to believe these things about me. The fact that they were alas not true because they were also heroic, they couldn’t help that.
I remember with Jessica Mitford, who was a devil, an adorable wonderful person, and I called her and I said, you know, Dec, I love all the part about me. Not a single fact is accurate. I said, I’m not offended, I’m just pointing this out. She said, all right, have it your own way, make it accurate. You know, that was our relationship.
So it’s complicated, it’s a complicated art form, but as I say, as an editor, you don’t work any differently than you do before. And it’s thrilling. Because either as a writer or as an editor, you find yourself learning a person, trying to understand the person. I certainly, of the three people I wrote about, I certainly felt when I was done that I understood a great deal more about them than I did when I started, and I think I really — in my head if not on paper — I got them. To my satisfaction. I now understood who Sarah Bernhardt was. Balanchine was complicated because I knew him quite well and worked with him. But again, he was a very mysterious, hidden character. You’re responsible for that. No, it won’t happen again. He commissioned that Balanchine book, Jim Atlas here. My whole life is flashing before me here. It’s terrible.
So I learned a lot about these people and I feel now I’m ready to write a book about Dickens. Except we don’t need another book about Dickens, and I would never dream of writing another book about Dickens. So that’s served me very very well in my life.
So that’s about what I can say. I could say more but who knows what. But I’m going to end because, fortuitously — and luck matters more than anything, as I’m sure most of you recognize — in this very issue, the issue we got this week of The New York Review of Books, there’s a piece by that wonderful biographer Richard Holmes, who does it his way. He goes in the path of his subject, he follows them around the world. That makes him feel in relation to them. And I understood that a little with Balanchine, when I was in St. Petersburg, and was in the sacred, the most sacred place in the history in the world of ballet, which is the school of the Mariinsky Ballet, where everyone from Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Baryshnikov and Nureyev and Ulanova and Makarova — everyone was there, that’s the great tradition. And being in that school, on those threadbare carpets on the floor, and seeing Balanchine’s report card — he got A’s in religion and music, wasn’t very good at math — it made it more real to me. Although I didn’t need it, it helped me. So there’s something to that too. And that’s the putting-your-hand-in-the-dirt syndrome, which we’ve heard about. Except he likes dirt, I like ballet, but you know, that’s a difference of temperament.
So, anyway, Richard Holmes has a piece in this New York Review of Books, and I would like to read you the end of it, because it really says a lot for me. First he talks about Sylvia Plath, who he says once said, “If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand.” I never knew that she’d said that, but it’s a very brilliant thing to say. And then he says, “This leads me to suppose that a biography is something else again: a handshake.” He says, “A handshake, across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship. It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endless mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.”
Thank you to the two Bobs, and please, eat and drink and celebrate everything.