Remembering Robert Gottlieb: Biographer and Friend
By Sydney Stern
Since Robert Gottlieb’s death, I’ve lingered over all the obituaries and reread the terrific 1994 Paris Review piece that combined Bob’s recollections with many of his star writers about their work together. Reading them was a way to hang on to a person I had the extraordinary good fortune to befriend for the last couple of years. I met Bob Gottlieb when I interviewed him for a biography of Irene Mayer Selznick, and almost from the start he became not only a source, but also a cheerleader, advisor, and mentor for the book, as well as a treasured friend.
Bob had edited Irene’s 1983 memoir A Private View and wrote about their friendship in his own 2016 memoir Avid Reader. I did not plan to interview him until I had a contract, but in February 2021, I called him to inform him that I hoped to write her biography. His first response was, “I don’t think there is any more to say. I’ve said everything.”
I laughed and said, “Well, I think there is quite a bit to say.” We left it at that, except for his assurance that I was welcome to explore her papers once Boston University reopened its archives. They were closed during the pandemic, but as Irene’s literary executor, Bob emailed his permission.
A few months later, David Thomson, who had written the definitive biography of David Selznick, told me he thought that because Bob was 90, I should go see him. When I protested that I didn’t want to impose until I had a contract, David repeated, “He’s 90. Go.”
So, I went. And Bob Gottlieb became Irene’s gift to me.
Irene Mayer Selznick was Hollywood royalty—the daughter of Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer and the wife of producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind). Before she was 40, she divorced David, moved to New York, and, starting with A Streetcar Named Desire, became a successful Broadway producer in her own right.
Irene was 68 and no longer producing when she approached Bob in 1975 about editing her memoir. Bob, 44, was Knopf’s president and editor-in-chief, and as he recalled in Avid Reader, from the time they met, they had “an affinity so pronounced that it always made me a believer in the ‘separated at birth’ syndrome. . . . It wasn’t only that our ideas and reactions were totally similar but that her gimlet-eyed rigor about life totally resonated with me.” Over the next 15 years, until Irene’s death in 1990, they spoke at least weekly and became adopted family. As Irene put it, they “took in each other’s washing”; she spent every Christmas and most Thanksgivings with the Gottliebs. Thirty years after her death, Bob dedicated his 2021 biography of Greta Garbo to Irene.
My initial interview with Bob turned into regular visits. I interviewed his wife, Maria Tucci, and his son, Nicky. As research progressed, I reported back, sending Bob little jewels I knew he would appreciate, like 1924 diary entries by 17-year-old Irene and a PDF of what I called the “Blanche-o-gram”—the coded telegram Irene sent to her associate when Tennessee Williams agreed to let her produce Streetcar: “BLANCHE HAS COME TO LIVE WITH US HOORAY AND LOVE =IRENE.”
Eventually, we ran out of Irene material but I continued to visit. I stopped trying to pay when we ate at his favorite diner and agreed to help out by splitting his extra-thick chocolate milkshakes. Talking books with Bob was a privilege and a joy. I assume all avid readers love talking about books and authors and trading recommendations. Since Bob probably read even the Gutenberg Bible (I never thought to ask), the wisdom flowed mostly in the Bob-to-me direction and led me to such unexpected pleasures as Jasper Fforde, whose outlandish time-travel/literary mysteries probably set a record in puns per page. Occasionally he took my suggestions; the evening he called to thank me for insisting he read Anthony Marra made my week.
Our worlds of publishing hardly overlapped—sometimes I told him that his advice was great for Planet Bob but that I lived on Planet Sydney. Before I sent my proposal to my agent, I gave Bob a copy along with a confession of complete trepidation. Until now our conversations had been about his Irene. Now, he would read about my Irene. To my great relief, he called after a day or so (I didn’t know then about his famous alacrity in putting authors out of their misery) and pronounced it excellent. I felt like I’d gotten an A+. He was less enthused about the idea of a proposal at all. He thought I should just write the book and worry about finding a publisher later, describing my desire for a contract first as my “neurotic need.”
If I didn’t always take his advice, I always appreciated it. But most of all I treasured having a companion in my quest to bring Irene to life. During my last research trip to Boston, I read hundreds of memos and letters from Irene to people with whom she worked—directors, playwrights, actors—and experienced one of those aha moments of recognition. The way she handled these creative people resembled Bob’s—so direct, so logical, and, of course, so smart, while simultaneously warm, supportive, appreciative. Separated at birth indeed.
About a year ago Bob began my visits by announcing his new mantra: “I’m 91 and I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do except die.” We both detested the euphemistic “passing” and stubbornly used “die” and “death,” and I dutifully obeyed his command that I, too, recite his mantra (though he let me fill in my own age). Afterward, however, I always reminded him that I, too, had an order for him: “No dying. Not yet. I am going to dedicate this book to you and I want you around to enjoy it.” The dedication would have been a nice surprise. But, as we both knew, I was telling him just in case.
Editor’s Note: Insisting she needed a deadline, Sydney Stern signed a contract with University of California Press, in January 2023, for her biography of Irene Selznick. Despite her refusal to follow his advice, Bob was pleased on her behalf.