Remembering Robert Gottlieb: The Virtuoso Editor and Publisher

By Will Swift, founder of the BIO Editorial Excellence Award 

“Bob was definitely a hero to me and every editor I know. He was easily the greatest editor of our time. The range of books he edited was breathtaking, and the speed and incisiveness he read with was without peer. No one did it better, and I am not sure anyone ever will.” 

—Tim Duggan, Editorial Excellence Award winner and BIO Advisory Council member 

 When Robert Gottlieb died at the age of 92, this June 14th, many of us were not only saddened, but a bit stunned; not only because of his enormous imprint on our culture, high and low, but especially because he seemed so youthful. He was possessed of extraordinary vitality and an infectious curiosity about people, culture, history, and literature. “I happen to be a word whore,” Bob told the Paris Review in 1994, “I will read anything from Racine to a nurse romance.”  

Gottlieb considered editing a noble profession. Using a pencil to markup manuscripts for nearly 70 years, he served as the editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker. Arguably the best-read man of the 20th and 21st century, he read up to 16 hours a day and edited, by his own estimation, approximately 700 books. What was his secret formula? “I don’t have lunches, dinners, go to plays or movies,” he explained to The Washington Post, “I don’t mediate, escalate, deviate or have affairs.”  

He was also an obsessive editor of life. “Whatever I look at, whatever I encounter, I want it to be good—whether it’s what you’re wearing or how the restaurant has laid the table,” Gottlieb explained. “My impulse to make things better is almost ungovernable.” Ironically, his former assistant editor, Chris Knutsen, described his friend Bob as “sartorially the picture of an unmade bed.” Biographer and editor Adam Begley explained that a friendship with Gottlieb was “all-consuming.” He wanted to have “his thumbprint on every aspect of your life.” Begley called him “Maximum Bob” and Gottlieb’s close friend Daniel Mendelsohn, an essayist and memoirist, nicknamed him “Great One.”  

A self-professed nerd, who was raised by an angry, rejecting father, Bob undertook a successful course of four-times-a-week Freudian analysis for eight years. Through that, Bob realized that an editor sometimes needed to be a director of his authors’ lives—a psychotherapist or a life coach. Gottlieb not only taught novelist Toni Morrison to loosen up and let her imagination flow, but also guided her to leave her job in publishing. When former President Clinton told Gottlieb that he would be easy to work for, Bob’s therapy was to set him straight: “You are working for me.” He also helped Clinton realize that he could not write about work events and people in his memoir My Life without expressing his own feelings about them.  

In many ways he was that ideal editor we all long to have working on our pages. He believed strongly that editing was a service job and that the editor should be invisible on the pages. He believed in getting back to his authors quickly—overnight if possible—after he received their manuscript. “It is the writer’s book, not yours,” Gottlieb would tell his students, starting in the 1980s, at the Columbia Writing Course, a six-week program for college graduates who wanted to have careers in journalism or publishing. “It’s cruelty to animals,” he said, “to not get back to them right away.” He urged them, “Try to help make a book a better version of what it is, not into something it isn’t.”  

Begley found it “tremendously comfortable” to work with Bob because he was “completely and utterly confident of his opinion.” Everything Bob did was by instinct backed by his years of reading. Gottlieb quickly saw where a manuscript went on too long, was missing context, or when sections were in the wrong place. Under the tutelage of Nina Bourne, who was a genius of designing print advertisements, book jackets, and promotional campaigns, he mastered the art of successfully launching a book in the marketplace.  

Several of his closest friends were part of his literary family at Knopf. They remember a side of Bob that is not well known to the public. Biographer Vicky Wilson, a vice president and executive editor at Knopf, whom Gottlieb first hired as an editor in 1972, acknowledges his brilliant literary accomplishments, but stresses that “on top of everything he was fun. His playfulness and his fun-ness were paramount.” Bob’s friend Kathy Hourigan, vice president and managing editor of Knopf/Doubleday, concurs with Wilson: “He loved books, authors, publishing so much that it was not work, it was total bliss, and his joy was contagious, he made it all fun, no matter how serious and important it was.”    

An intense person, Gottlieb brought balance to his life with his absorption in ballet. He loved it because the movement liberated him “from the tyranny of words.” In order to relax, he also organized excursions with friends to Midwestern states to visit flea markets and charity thrift shops in dogged pursuit of colorful women’s plastic handbags from the 1950s, gravel art, velvet paintings, macramé owls, snow globes, and Elvis memorabilia. Bob had an almost giddy sense of what was fun. He would get “an evil gleam in his eye,” according to Daniel Mendelsohn, rounding up a group of friends, saying, “Let’s go on a Costco expedition.”  

Bob loved biography, which he called, “A handshake, across time, but also across cultures [and] ways of life. It is an act of friendship.” Gottlieb’s legendary partnership with Bob Caro was based on a mutual belief that biography can and should be great literature: that every punctuation mark and phrase was crucial. Working on The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of the developer Robert Moses, and his four volumes on Lyndon Johnson, they fought mightily about repetitions, semicolons, rhythms, and excisions from the text. Two of those books won Pulitzer Prizes.  

Mendelsohn confirmed that Bob was suspicious of people who inflated his importance and did not like people making a fuss about him. This explains why it was challenging to get Gottlieb to accept Biographers International Organization’s (BIO) first Editorial Excellence Award. In December 2014, when Bob Caro introduced him and Gottlieb gave an off-the-cuff speech at the New York Historical Society, BIO played a small part in the history of publishing. Gottlieb’s adored daughter Lizzie, a documentary film maker, was in the audience. As she listened to Caro speak about her father, she was inspired to make the documentary Turn Every Page, an acclaimed and engaging study of these two legends, their individual careers and their mutual goals. As a result of the documentary, Gottlieb became a cult figure in the last year of his life. This was a mixed blessing for a man who was so drawn to and ambivalent about fame.     

We can leave the last word on Bob Gottlieb to his collaborator of 53 years, Bob Caro: “I have never encountered a publisher or editor with a greater understanding of what a writer was trying to do—and how to help him do it.”