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A Tribute on Bob Gottlieb’s Passing

Robert Gottlieb, my model for what an editor should be, died recently In New York at the age of 92. Bob Caro (author of The Power Broker and 4 volumes and counting of the Lyndon Johnson story) was a college classmate of mine In the 1950s, and I became a Gottlieb devotee when I read about, and then watched, a movie that starred him and Gottlieb made by Gottlieb’s daughter, Liz. It’s called Turn Every Page. [Available from Netflix for a one-time charge. Get it and watch it – twice at least!]

   Watching it, I experienced, on the one hand, the extraordinary depth, the quality of thinking, that went into Caro’s books, and I heard, on the other hand, the kinds of questions Gottlieb posed to writers to steer their conversations

into deeper places, to guide them into the important themes that were hidden and unexpressed under the surface of the writing. I was comforted in a strange way, for they sounded eerily familiar to me, although I had only been doing developmental editing for a few years. I recognized them with a start, for they’re the same kinds of questions that I have been asking my authors.

   I may never be half the editor Gottlieb was; for one thing, I’m too old to aspire to that kind of achievement. But I hope to bring to my authors as much as I can of that same quality of questioning about their craft, their organization, their depth of insight, and what they write about our fundamental human concerns, using Gottlieb as my guide, to uncover the best in my clients as he did in his.

   Gottlieb, you should know, was for decades basically the top [developmental] editor in America. He started at Simon & Schuster in 1955 and  thirteen years later in 1968 went to Alfred Knopf as editor-in-chief and CEO. Between Simon & Schuster and Knopf, he edited books by a list of America’s greatest writers that included John Cheever, Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Doris Lessing, Jessica Mitford, Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie; Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul Simon; Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier, Elia Kazan, Katharine Hepburn, and Irene Selznick – among others.

   In 1987, not quite 20 years after Gottlieb had joined Knopf, S. I. Newhouse appointed him Editor of The New Yorker. There, he reigned on West 43rd Street until Newhouse fired him a few years later thinking he would add some glitz to his flagship magazine by bringing in someone else. Gottlieb survived the blow, and his work style continued to reflect his editing values, including one that was truly important: his concern with substance over show. David Remnick, later editor of The New Yorker in his own right, wrote a tribute to his former leader in which he described his working style:

   “He never went out to lunch. He took immense pleasure in the magazine’s editorial machinery, its fact-checkers, editors, and ‘O.K.’ers.’ He padded around the place in the outfit of a Columbia undergrad of his generation (khakis, sports shirt, shoes optional), and he proudly exhibited, in his office, a sampling of his vast collection of plastic handbags. And he worked tremendously hard, reading manuscripts almost instantly as well as thoroughly, mindful of the anxious writer waiting by the telephone for some kind of reaction.” [David Remnick, “Remembering Robert Gottlieb, Editor Extraordinaire,” Postscript in The New Yorker, June 26, 2023, the online version downloaded from:]

   For me, merely knowing that the greatest among us was asking the same kinds of questions of his authors that I was asking of mine reassured me that I’m at least on the right path. And that’s comforting. For the quality of those questions can significantly determine the quality of the conversations between author and editor, the dialog that uncovers the essential purpose, frees the writer’s genius, and eventually influences the quality that illuminates the final product.

   In Gottlieb’s obituary for the Associated Press, Hillel Italie quotes Bob Caro’s tribute, which illustrates the importance of those conversations:

   “From the day 52 years ago that we first looked at my pages together, Bob  understood what I was trying to do and made it possible for me to take the time, and do the work, I needed to do . . . People talk to me about some of the triumphant moments Bob and I shared, but today I remember other moments, tough ones, and I remember how Bob was always, always, for half a century, there for me. He was a great friend, and today I mourn my friend with all my heart.” [Hillel Italie, “Robert Gottlieb, celebrated literary editor, dies at 92,” in The Oregonian. Friday, June 16, 2023, p. A13]

   Gottlieb came to the attention of Bill Clinton when Clinton read Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, which he had edited. As a result, Clinton signed with Alfred Knopf in order to work with Gottlieb on his post-presidential memoir, My Life. His comment on working with Gottlieb reveals much about what a good developmental editor brings to his clients:

   “Bob Gottlieb was a fabulous editor and a fascinating man,” Clinton said in a statement. “I liked him and admired him very much, even when he pushed, and sometimes ordered, me to write not just about the people and work that shaped my life.”

   That statement echoed his advice to another writer that also emphasized the importance of including the author’s personal feelings but from a slightly different perspective. David Remnick was one of Gottlieb’s successors as editor of The New Yorker, and he pointed out that Gottlieb had offered similar advice early in Toni Morrison’s writing career. Morrison met Gottlieb when she was an editor at Random House and, in her off-hours, crafting her earliest novels.

    “Writing my first two books, ‘The Bluest Eye’ and ‘Sula,’ I had the anxiety of a new writer who needs to make sure every sentence is exactly the right one,” she once said. “Sometimes that produces a kind of precious, jeweled quality — a tightness, which I particularly wanted in ‘Sula.’ Then after I finished ‘Sula’ and was working on the third book, ‘Song of Solomon,’ Bob said to me, “You can loosen, open up.” It was as if he had said, “Be reckless in your imagination.”  [Ibid.]

   I hope this will reassure the authors I am working with and that it will beckon to any potential writers who read this while wondering if Jim Newcomer might be the right person to tackle their tender, but (of course) potentially brilliant, manuscript and help polish it to publication with Pulitzer potential.

Every editor, or so we editors tell one another in Zoom meetings, is beset by an imposter syndrome. But I can assure anyone I work with that I can ignore mine and just go ahead and emulate Gottlieb to the best of my ability.

   I will strive to ask the right questions. I will suggest that you include your personal responses. And in my editorial comments, even as I am cutting your sentences, insisting on punctuation that at least nods toward Bryer’s English and Strunk & White, and asking why in God’s name you buried your topic sentence here, of all places, I’ll also add assurance that when you hit on a truly brilliant run in your own pure from-the-heart gush, I’ll give you that and even brag about you to anyone who asks.

   So that’s my tribute to Robert Gottlieb (and to Bob Caro for bringing out the best in him even as he brought out the best in Bob Caro). He was a worthy hero to this editor, and I will use his inspiration to the benefit of all the authors I am privileged to work with. And I’ll insist that we all look to the greatest among us for guidelines in our everyday work.


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