When Anderson Cooper’s mother, the designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, reached her 91st birthday, they began a correspondence, breaking a wall of silence between them. This 2016 conversation covered life in the spotlight, suicide, money, and grieving for a parent and a child. Vanderbilt Died in June at age 95.
In the literary world Robert Gottlieb has pretty much seen it all, and without question, he’s read it all: In his more than 60 years as an editor, he’s worked with literary greats such as Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison and Robert Caro and helped usher into print the autobiographies of President Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham and Lauren Bacall. In a new memoir he reflects on his life immersed in the written word, his years at the helm of Simon and Schuster, the New Yorker and Knopf and what makes a good story. His memoir is called “Avid Reader.” Editor Robert Gottlieb joins Diane to talk about how and why books and writing became his life.
- Robert Gottlieb Former president, publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and former editor of The New Yorker
Read An Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A book lover from the start, Robert Gottlieb has spent his life reading, editing and writing. In the course of his more than six decade career at Simon and Schuster, Alfred Knopf and The New Yorker, he's played a key role in bringing writers like John le Carre, Toni Morrison and biographer Robert Caro to center stage in the world of books.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new memoir, he talks about how it all came to be and the many rewards of a literary life. His new book is titled "Avid Reader" and just to make sure you know, Robert Gottlieb is indeed my own book editor at Knopf. You can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, Bob Gottlieb, it's always great to see you.
MR. ROBERT GOTTLIEBAnd you.
REHMThank you so much. You know, I understand that this was a book you did not necessarily want to write. How come?
GOTTLIEBNot just necessarily. I didn't want to write it.
GOTTLIEBWell, you know, people say over the years you should write. You tell them a story and they say, oh, you should write a book. I'm not really interested in my past because I lived it. You know, the notion of living it again was a little harrowing. But time went by, time went by and the person who really most wanted me to do it was my daughter and what my daughter wants, I do. That's part of our...
GOTTLIEB...of our dynamic. My daughter, Lizzy. Because she has two 13-year-old twin boys and she wanted a record for them of what their grandfather had spent his life doing. So that made sense to me. And my publisher was very eager, too, so I felt why not?
REHMAnd you tell such great stories...
GOTTLIEBWell, thank you.
REHM...in this book. I mean, you were an avid reader right from the start.
GOTTLIEBYou -- it could've been called insane reader.
REHMI mean, that's how much books meant to you.
GOTTLIEBThe reading process, books, of course, but reading almost anything. If I don't have a book, I have a newspaper. I don't have a newspaper, I have the back of a cereal box. As long as there are words there that I can ingest through my eyes, I'm a happy camper.
REHMSo you didn't feel like going outside to play, particularly.
GOTTLIEBOutside to play, no. One of my favorite stories about me and my family is that when I was about, I don't know, 9, 10, 11, 12, my parents were distressed because I never went out. And we lived half a block from Central Park, but it could've been a mile or ten miles. So they insisted that I go out for an hour every afternoon after school. And I would go out and stand next to the doorman, practicing with my yo-yo.
GOTTLIEBAnd at the end of the hour, I could get back upstairs to my books and my radio 'cause radio, remember, when I was growing up was what we did. There was no such thing as television.
REHMAbsolutely, absolutely. And you and I listened to many, many of the same programs. But it was your family. You say it was not uncommon for you and both of your parents to be reading at the dinner table.
GOTTLIEBWell, both of my parents were also obsessive readers and we read different things, but we all read, read, read. Now, it's true that we read at dinner because we wanted to be reading, but it does suggest a rather strange family dynamic with just the three of us.
REHMAnd not a lot of communication.
GOTTLIEBWell, or not a lot of happy communication. Not that it was a miserable childhood. It was the usual childhood with ups and downs and, of course, I felt sorry for myself for -- why not? I mean...
REHMWe all do.
GOTTLIEBBut no longer.
REHMAnd no longer, in part, because you chose psychoanalysis.
GOTTLIEBI did. I knew that I needed some kind of severe therapy. I was, by then, in my late 20s. And I knew that nothing short of really severe and difficult Freudian analysis would be good for me. I just sensed it. And so it proved -- it was long. It was horribly painful. You know, people think talking about oneself is a lot of fun. No, no, no. And certainly not on that level. It was very difficult.
GOTTLIEBEight years, four days a week on my back.
GOTTLIEBWhen I was upset and -- the tears trickling down into my ears because when you cry lying on your back, that's what happens.
REHMThat's what happens. And then, you talk about your first marriage.
GOTTLIEBWell, my first marriage should not have been. I mean, I was 17 when my first wife and I met. She was the same age. We liked each other a lot. You got married, sort of. And then, we got pregnant and then we had to get married because in those days, you couldn't possibly...
GOTTLIEB...have a child out of wedlock. So we had this baby, which was the good thing to have, but we didn't know what we were doing. And we really were not meant to be a couple. We were meant to be good friends. And so we ended up because although we had a ridiculous, unfortunate marriage, we had a great divorce and we stayed friends until her death not that long ago.
REHMYou know, I found myself wondering about psychoanalysis for you and therapy for me, many, many years of therapy, what psychoanalysis meant to you as both a reader and editor and a writer.
GOTTLIEBThey were completely separate. I went into psychoanalysis because I didn't like the way I was going. I didn't like the person I was becoming. I was angry. I was dissatisfied. And it wasn't getting better. I was aware of it and it wasn't affecting my work or my friendships, but it was affecting me. Nor did I feel it was fair to bring a child into the world and not do ones best to be the best person one could be for him.
GOTTLIEBSo I just did it. And there were no moments of electric awareness, you know, as in bad movies or plays about therapy. It was not like that. It was just that at the end, I felt that instead of going down, down, down, I was clambering up, up, up into the person I more wanted to be. And that process has never ended. I mean, you don't stop evolving.
REHMOf course not. When did you first find your way in to the publishing world?
GOTTLIEBOh, well, that was in 1955 so I was 24. I had been at Columbia College and I was at Cambridge in England. Then, I came back. I had a wife, of course. I had a baby, of course, but I had no job and I didn't really want to work 'cause I thought I was much too fine to have a job. But that didn't put food on the table so I kept looking for work. No one would hire me 'cause I was this scruffy, arrogant person.
GOTTLIEBBut eventually, publishing was the right course for me because apart from reading seriously all my life, I had also been very interested, almost like a hobby in reading all the popular books of the day and tracking their histories and who published them and whether they were book club choices and how much they sold. So I had a, you know, my first subscription to Publisher's Weekly was when I was 16.
GOTTLIEBI used my birthday money. Because I was curious. And then, I got this fabulous job.
GOTTLIEBWell, it was the assistant to the then editor-in-chief, although that was not his title, at Simon and Schuster, what, at that time, was a very small, highly personalized, fun, fabulous place.
REHMHow many people?
GOTTLIEBOh, I don't know how many people there were, but there weren't many of us in the trade department. And it was the kind of place, I felt, you know, you came in as cabin boy and everybody was standing around rooting for you to be admiral. I think it turned out afterwards that maybe not everybody was rooting for me, after all, but I didn't know. I wasn't ambitious. All I wanted to do was the work and be part of it. It was so much fun.
REHMWhat kind of work were you doing?
GOTTLIEBWell, since I was somebody's assistant, which is a great job, I did everything he needed. And he was not a well man so he needed almost everything. So I did a great deal of editorial work for him. I wrote copy. I dealt with authors. I answered phones, you know, I went to meetings when I was allowed to. I would sort of sneak in because I wanted to know what was going on.
REHMYou wanted to learn?
GOTTLIEBI wanted to be part of it because although I had been very much of a loner when I was a kid, what I realized or came to realize was that I really loved being in the collaborative situation with like-minded people. What could be more fun?
REHMNow, that really as a change for you.
REHMFrom that loner you had been.
GOTTLIEBAbsolutely. It was a change and a very healthy one, too, for me and it never stopped. You know, I was an only child. I didn't have a family. My parents didn't really have relatives who were available. And I've spent the rest of my life, really, creating families around me because that’s the situation I like and my wife, Maria, is very much the same. So wherever I went, I turned it into a family situation, at least from my -- I never really differentiated between my home where I worked and my office where I had fun. Everything was part of everything.
REHMAnd of course, you took everything home with you...
REHM...as well. Robert Gottlieb, we're talking about his new memoir. It's titled "Avid Reader: A Life." And we are going to take your calls, comments, questions. His book has been excerpted in Vanity Fair. There have been wonderful articles in the New York Times and a great review by Thomas Mallon in the New York Times.
REHMWelcome back. Robert Gottlieb is with me. He has been an editor to many stars, including Robert Caro, including Joseph Heller, and Joseph Heller is one of the people I want to talk with you about, Bob. He was one of your early authors who brought you a manuscript with a working title of "Catch 18."
GOTTLIEBWell, here's what happened. Joe had spent many years writing this book. And it was very firmly in his head as "Catch 18," as it was in the head of his agent and me and the other people at Simon and Schuster at that point. It was to be published in the fall of 1961. And early that year we opened "Publishers Weekly." And there was an announcement of Leon Uris, whose novel "Exodus" had been one of the greatest successes of our time, had a new book coming called "Mila 18."
GOTTLIEBAlso about the war. So it didn't take genius to figure out that you couldn't have "Catch 18" and "Mila 18" in the same season.
REHMSo who came up with 22?
GOTTLIEBWell, we first came up with various numbers. For a while it was "Catch 11." But that was when the "Ocean's Eleven" movie was around. So that seemed confusing. And then somebody thought "Catch 14" would be very happy. I didn't like that number. And one night -- and time is going by. We had to prepare a jacket, etcetera.
GOTTLIEBAnd one night I was lying in bed and I thought 22. And I called Joe in the morning and I said, "22, it's even funnier than 18." A completely stupid remark, because numbers aren't funny or not funny. But we needed to be convinced. So once we had that we were on our way.
REHMOn your way. And was he an agreeable writer to work with?
GOTTLIEBOf all the writers I've worked with, which now seems to number into the millions, he was the -- had the most brilliant editorial mind.
GOTTLIEBHe was a fabulous editor of himself and anyone else. But he was that. So -- and he had absolutely no ego resistance. He knew he had written a great book for the ages, although he didn't talk that way. But he was very, very confident about the value of his book. But he saw that it needed work and we hit it off so well, so that he was constantly -- we were back and forth, as I think I put in this book. We were like two surgeons working on the same patient.
GOTTLIEBAnd it didn't matter who said what, we would bounce it back and forth until we got where we wanted to. He was never resistant, including at the last moment I said to him, "There's one chapter here I've never been comfortable with. It just seems to me not in the tone of the rest of the book." And he said, "Fine, drop it." That was the discussion.
GOTTLIEBYes. He was interesting. He was a wonderful guy.
REHMBob, what is it to be a good editor? What makes a good editor?
GOTTLIEBWell, it needs a lot of things, obviously. But first and foremost in my view, it's you have to love writing. You have to respond to it, positively, negatively. You have to have strong impulses towards it. But the impulse is to -- to be sympathetic to what it is. And then to try to steer the writer or help the writer making better of what it is. When things go wrong, it's because an editor wants to make it into something other than what it is. That way there are going to be tears.
GOTTLIEBSee, it's a service job, you know. You have to have a strong ego as an editor, because you have to be confident in what you're saying. You can't say, well, maybe, I don't know, that doesn't help someone. So you have to be confident, but you also have to be without that need to win the point.
REHMBut you also have to recognize at the start whether you are interested in editing this book.
GOTTLIEBWell, that's the ideal. You know, when you're young and you're starting out and you want books, you do what you're asked to do or you do what you can do.
GOTTLIEB'Cause you're not an editor unless you have something to edit. But, yes, as you progress and if you're successful, more and more and finally always you are editing those things for which you have a strong sympathy. On the other hand, sometimes when you've worked with a writer on four or five books and he or she writes something that you don't feel is up to par, or isn't working, and you're not in sympathy with that particular book, it can be very difficult. And on three occasions, with writers all of whom shall be nameless, but quite well known, I had to say this book is never going to work. My advice is to put it away. And in each case it happened that way.
GOTTLIEBI just knew it was not rescuable, not just by me, but it wasn't -- it wasn't there.
REHMBut there were a couple of books on which you missed.
GOTTLIEBOh, books I should have bought and didn't or books I bought and shouldn't? Yes. That's -- that happens to every editor. If you, you know, if you're around long enough, of course you screw up. And sometimes for good reasons. I mean sometimes you will not acquire a book, but you feel may very well have a big success, but you just don't care for it. And you're not gonna help it. Not only are you not gonna edit it well, but you're not gonna publish it well.
REHMWhat about "Confederacy of Dunces?"
GOTTLIEBWell, that was a very unique and strange situation. This guy started to write to me out of the blue. He had no agent. He had never published, as far as I know. And he sent me some manuscripts, which was very interesting and charming, strong. But it had -- filled with problems. It was sort of rampant, out of control, the voice was unsteady. It didn't work yet as a book. But he clearly had a real talent. So I entered into a correspondence with him. I never actually met him 'cause he didn't live in New York.
GOTTLIEBAnd it went on and on and on. And as time passed it got more tense. And he was not a stable personality, as you know. This was a guy who committed suicide a few years later. And he got more frantic. He turned up in New York -- I wasn't there, I was away -- and came to our offices unheralded, uninvited. And I can't say he made scenes, but he acted out, is phrase we didn't have then, but we have it now. And I felt we were going nowhere. And he worked and he tried to do what I suggested and I tried to be helpful.
GOTTLIEBAnd after about two to three years, I just thought, this isn't going to work. It's not gonna work for him and it's no longer working for me. So I told him I didn't think we could proceed. And then time passed and eventually, fortunately, he found a publisher. He had a horrible and demented mother, very difficult person who ranted and raved and decided that I and I think she put it in one publication a kind of East Coast Jewish elite mafia had murdered her son. Murdered wasn't -- but we're responsible for her son. So this was a very distressed person.
GOTTLIEBAnd so that happened. Recently, when I was writing this book, I thought, well, I better read it again, 'cause I hadn't read it since the last version that I had seen in manuscript.
GOTTLIEBI felt exactly the same way.
GOTTLIEBBig talent, repetitive, out of control, very sophomoric in many ways, adolescent in its angers, etcetera. But you could see why people loved it, but I still would not have published it.
REHMCan you tell immediately when you look at a manuscript whether this person has what it takes to be a good writer? And if so, what are the components that go into your thinking about that?
GOTTLIEBWell, I don't think, 'cause I'm not really a thinker, I'm a reactor.
GOTTLIEBWhich is what you have to be. The sad truth -- or maybe it's not sad. Maybe it's a happy truth, you can tell me -- is when you start reading a manuscript, if you're experienced and you know what you're doing, or even if you're not experienced and think you know what you're doing, within a page, sometimes within a paragraph you know whether there's a voice there that is speaking to you. So on the basis of a page, I could very easily say I'm never gonna publish this or this should not be published or I'm going to love it, or whatever.
GOTTLIEBOn the other hand, because I'm an obsessive, I will then read a 500-page manuscript to make sure that my impressions -- my first impression was right. And what's interesting to me is, you know, part of my life is spent with the ballet. And it's the other part of my life. And for a number of years now I've been a dance critic in New York, and it's the same thing. As a new ballet or a new choreographer, a bunch of dancers come on the stage, and within 30 seconds you know that it's going to be a something or it's going to be a nothing or it's gonna be the wrong kind of something. It's very strange. But you come, over the years, to trust your impulses, 'cause what else do you have?
REHMExactly. Now, there are authors with whom you have worked very closely. And perhaps at times have had set-tos, if I may call them that.
GOTTLIEBYou may call them anything.
REHMAnd I'm thinking about Robert Caro.
GOTTLIEBBob Caro and I have had little set-tos.
GOTTLIEBWe have never had a big set-to…
GOTTLIEB…because we're in accord, you know. I love his work. I know how important it is. He respects his work, but he also respects me. So when we have set-tos they're about semi-colons or repetitions. They're not about what he's doing.
REHMYou once had a whole day on one semi-colon.
GOTTLIEBWell, yes. Uh-hum, that's somebody's…
GOTTLIEB…story, it's not mine.
REHMI mean, really?
GOTTLIEBNo. Come on, Diane. I maybe obsessive, but I'm not an idiot.
REHMBut did he feel as strongly as you do…
GOTTLIEBAbsolutely. You know, about this and about that and the other. But, you know, we have a great time together and we always have from the first moment. But it's hard. You know, he writes -- he's so invested. He writes so hard. It's so important, and to me, too. You know, out of "The Power Broker," his first book, we cut -- well, we're never quite sure, but we think it was about 300,000 words.
GOTTLIEBThat's like five books. And it took a long, long time. And the worst of it for me was that a lot of this material I loved. I didn't want to see it go. But you couldn't print a million words in one book and bind it. So it was very painful, but it wasn't acrimonious. It just had to be done. It was painful without being acrimonious.
REHMAnd Toni Morrison?
GOTTLIEBOh, Toni. With Toni it's the exact opposite. You know, Toni and I are exactly the same age. We have the same reading background. We read the same way. We get along like a house on fire. When I make a suggestion it's completely real to her. She has no need to reject it. She sees it, she agrees, she doesn't agree, we move on. You know, I don't really -- I never took notes. I never kept correspondence. When people ask me about Toni and what I was able to do for her, I have to call her up…
REHMAnd ask her?
GOTTLIEB…so she could -- yeah, so she can remind me. Probably, as an editor, the most helpful thing I did for her was when she was -- she was starting to work on a very long novel. It was gonna be in three parts about the black experience in America set at different times in our history. The first part was going to be during the slave period. So she wrote this and she sent it to me. And I called her up and said, "Toni, this isn't the first part of a three-part novel. This is the novel." And that was "Beloved," you know, probably her most famous book.
GOTTLIEBSo that was helpful. But you see, on some level -- and this is always true. On some level she must already have known because when it works -- and I know as a writer when editors say things to me, I get them because I already know them.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And then when she began writing her next novel, there's a quote that apparently you said to her that you include in the book, something to the effect that you can now…
GOTTLIEBOh, yeah, that was a little earlier. After she wrote "Sula," which was a brilliant, short, perfect book, which was greeted with hosannas of praise. I did say to her, you know, "Toni, this book is perfect. It's like a sonnet. It's exquisite. You don't have to do that again. Now, you can open up and fly." And she said, "I know." But she needed to hear it. See, it's like kids, they need to permission to do what they know they need to do. They -- that gives extra confidence. And that happens when you're really on the same wave length. And that's what an editor should always be.
REHMAlways on the same wavelength.
GOTTLIEBYeah, otherwise, it's not gonna work. And it doesn't matter what kind of writer it is, you know.
REHMAll right. We've got a number of callers. Here is an -- a message from Jen, who says, "How do you edit a writer like Morrison, who was an editor herself?"
GOTTLIEBOh, it's the same for me 'cause I now do a great deal of writing. And I love being edited. See, the process is interesting, the exchange. The exchange, the sympathetic exchange. I'm just as happy editing, as being edited. And I think Toni feels the same way. You stop being an editor, unless you're Joseph Heller, and you start being a writer who's being helped.
REHMAn email from Jim. "One, the promo for this show talks about writing. But I am wondering what makes a good editor. And two, how has digital changed editing?"
GOTTLIEBWell, I don't know what makes a good editing, except -- a good editor, except being talented at it. I mean, I really believe in many ways that I'm as good an editor today as I was 61 years ago when I started. Because it's a question of reading sympathetically and feeling with the writer and understanding what the book can be in its platonic state. You know, that you're born with, I believe. I learned shortcuts, you know. I learned some tact, not necessarily that much, as you may testify as someone who has suffered from my lack of it. But you learn those things, but it's all the same. What the digital revolution -- doesn't really change anything for me. It's the same process.
REHMAbsolutely. And short break here. More of your calls, your comments when we come back to Robert Gottlieb and his brand new book, "Avid Reader."
REHMAnd welcome back. We're going to go right to the phones, to Tai in York, Pennsylvania. You're on the air.
TAIGood morning, and thanks for taking my call.
TAIIt's a pleasure listening to you. I think your program is just fantastic.
TAII spend a lot of my time just sitting and writing and listening to you. I certainly want to speak to Robert today. I'm a fairly new writer. I've had a very long, successful business career, which I have retired from, and now I'm into writing. I have a couple short stories, and bottom line is I have the question that most new writers would have. Where do I go from here? What do I do, and when do I start? So having said all of that, I write in the fictional area, horror stories, and what I am working on is a book that is much different than any I've seen out there before.
TAII think it's going to be a new territory, and it's one of those things where it's like a tree falling in the woods.
REHMSo what are you asking?
TAII am asking where do you start, how do you really get a foothold at this point and getting someone's attention that might think the concept is worth moving forward?
GOTTLIEBWell you've already started because you're writing. That's the start of writing. I mean, what writing's about is writing, obviously. Your writing clearly, as you describe, is in a very particular field. So you're not like some person who thinks he wants to write a novel or something. You have a field, you have a subject, and that's a big plus. I do not have any knowledge of whether there are agents or publishers who specialize in this kind of material, but what I would suggest is if there are magazines that you know in this field or around this field that you think might be appropriate places for your work, you should get in touch with them, write to them, send them stuff and do not be discouraged because if there's a spark to your work, someone will sooner or later acknowledge it.
GOTTLIEBAgain, if there are book publishers who specialize in this world, write to them. There are places you can go to, there's a thing called the literary marketplace, that will give you the names of publishers. If you find a publisher who seems to be interested in this kind of thing, go directly to a person with a name in the literary marketplace and just keep at it.
GOTTLIEBYou know, what I finally learned after a long time is basically if you want something enough, you're very -- unless you're totally without ability, but if you want something enough, and you keep pushing toward it, you will probably get there because nobody is pushing back with the same amount of energy.
REHMThis is a question coming in email from Alexandra, and it's the same kind of question that many people ask about radio. She says, what does your guest think about the future of reading now that there are so many digital gadgets competing with books? How do we keep children interested in reading?
GOTTLIEBWell with children, the best thing you can do is read to them.
GOTTLIEBAnd, you know, my wife and I spent our lives reading aloud to our children, and our children are obsessive readers, and my daughter's children are the same. I do not fear the impact of technology on reading or on books. You know, I've been around, as you can tell, a long, long time, and even before I was around, the book was always an endangered species. No one was ever going to go into a bookstore again after the book clubs started in the 1920s.
GOTTLIEBAnd then we went through the war, there was a lot of reading because you couldn't go anywhere or do anything. Then the war ended. Then television was going to destroy reading. Then you remember Marshall McLuhan, the medium was the message, books were no longer the message. And then this was going to happen, then the chain stores were going to destroy -- it's always an endangered species.
GOTTLIEBWhat I note is that a whole lot of books are being sold now, not necessarily in the same ways. We're told that the mid-book is no longer as successful as either the big bestseller. In other words, either you're a big bestseller, or you fit into a special niche. But I see a lot of mid-books that are selling. Bookstores close, and bookstores open.
GOTTLIEBAmazon, which some people dread and which has its downsides, I guess, is a fantastic way -- I mean, I go to bookstores whenever I can, and I'm on Amazon all the time because it's easy, it's simple, and it works. And they help you through it. I have no fear whatsoever for the future of publishing or reading.
REHMLet's talk about some of the big ones you've dealt with. We've already talked about Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller. What about Bill Clinton? How was he to work with? What kind of relationship did you have?
GOTTLIEBHe was absolutely great to work with because remember, whatever you think of his politics or his person, he's a worker. That goes a long way with me. he's also fast. He's also adaptable. We had just a great time. You know, I had never met let alone a president, I'd never met a political person. I had never -- the only Washington experience I ever had was when I edited Katherine Graham, and that was -- she's a very different kind of person...
GOTTLIEBAs you well know because you know both of them.
GOTTLIEBBill just was -- he couldn't wait to get at it. He was full of energy and brimstone and fire. The first thing he did for me, which was fabulous, was to tell me at almost our first meeting that I should his mother's book.
REHMWhy did he come to you?
GOTTLIEBWell, he came to my publishing house, Knopf, for various reasons, but I was one of them because he had so admired Kay's book, and he wanted her editor. So I was sort of the bait or part of the bait, but also let's remember he was given a great deal of money.
GOTTLIEBIt was me and a lot of money and also Knopf's name and reputation as such a great, quality publisher. But he -- he was utterly responsive. It took him a while to understand why certain things had to be cut. But months after the book came out, he said to me one day, you know, I finally get it about cutting. It was a little late. But he was great.
GOTTLIEBMy favorite story, and I can tell this story because he used to tell it when he was promoting the book, one day I had had some manuscript from him, and I scribbled in the margin of one page, this is the single most boring page I have ever read. And he sent it back, and under it, he had written, no, Page 511 is more boring. So how can you not love a guy like that?
REHMNow you went up to Chappaqua.
GOTTLIEBSometimes, a number of times.
GOTTLIEBYeah, that was fun. I would go up, we'd sit around late at night with his great assistant, you know, having ice cream and him watching basketball games in between editorial stuff. It was just great. It was a happy place to be.
REHMWhereas Lauren Bacall could not write at home.
GOTTLIEBNo, Betty Bacall, Lauren Bacall, couldn't work at home. She was too distracted. So I gave her an office. She came in every day. She was always there, never late, always on time, always prepared, and she would write in longhand on long, yellow pads, and at night or in the evenings after work, we would have little elves type up what she did. And then we would work.
GOTTLIEBShe was great to work with. You know, she knew who she was, and we knew who she was. But she was relaxed with us, you know. It -- her anxieties were not about that.
REHMThere was a question as to whether her husband...
REHMWas going to be on one of the covers.
GOTTLIEBOh yeah, well that was Betty being Betty as a star actress. You see, that's the other Betty. Yes, on the book, we had a wonderful picture of her on the front, and on the back...
REHMA beautiful picture.
GOTTLIEBA beautiful picture, elegant, sexy. And on the back I had a terrific picture of her and Humphrey Bogart. And when she saw it, she blew her top, and she said I'm not having him on the back. This is my book, it's not his book. And then I blew my top, and I said listen, Bacall, this book is full of Bogart, and he's a big selling point here, and it's my job to sell your book, and he's on the back. And she said okay because like all actresses, and I'm married to one, so I know, you know, actors want direction so that if you're calm and firm and helpful, they get it.
GOTTLIEBNo, we never had a problem at all. She was great to work with.
REHMAnd she was in here, as was Bill Clinton several times. But I must say I loved talked with Lauren Bacall. She was just wonderful. All right, here is Michael in Ashburn, Virginia. You're on the air.
MICHAELIs there such a thing as a manuscript that you received that requires no editing, and has that ever happened to you?
GOTTLIEBOh yes but not often enough. Yes of course there are people who know what they're doing, and they get it right. Now that doesn't mean that if it goes into copy editing there may not be some work on punctuation or facts, but I don't consider that editing, that's just manicuring.
REHMBut can you remember someone who sent you a manuscript that needed no editing at all?
GOTTLIEBWell, I'd have to dig back. See, it's a hard question to answer because sometimes the editing goes on while the writing is going on. You know, I will get 100 pages. See every writers needs different -- something different. Some writers do not want you to know a single word until the book is completed. You're not one of those, Diane, you may remember.
REHMI'm not one of those.
GOTTLIEBOthers want utter and total support week by week. I have one writer whose dream was that she could call me up every day and read to me over the phone what she had written that day. I discouraged that. So it's almost rare that suddenly a manuscript arrives, and you have to say this does or doesn't need work.
GOTTLIEBNow often, remember, a book has already been published or is about to be published abroad. Particularly I worked with many, many English writers. Most of them did want editorial input because in that period, England's editors didn't do a lot of editing. It wasn't the practice in England. It's become much more so now. So several people, including John le Carre and Richard Adams and others, had to say, you know, we're British, we love being here, we love our English publishers, but we have to think of you as our American publishers because you give us what we require that we don't get there.
REHMLet's go to Dan in St. Louis, Missouri. You're on the air.
DANGood morning to both of you. I anxiously await -- have anxiously awaited this book since 2002 when I -- where I first saw Mark Moskowitz' documentary "The Stone Reader," in which Mr. Gottlieb contributed many of these things wonderfully. I -- my quick question is, could you sort of compare and contrast "Catch-22" with his other book, "Something Happened"?
GOTTLIEBYes, it's a favorite subject of mine. You know, "Catch-22" is a supposedly very, very funny book, who as far -- which as far as I'm concerned has a subject, which is anxiety. And the anxiety comes from the fact that this poor guy is in the Air Force, and they're trying to kill him, and they are trying to kill him. And so the anxiety is justified, and he finally makes a break for it.
GOTTLIEB"Something Happened," which came along seven or eight years later, which was his second novel, is a book I, myself, prefer. But no one who was sane could think of it as funny. It's a very grim and deeply depressing book.
REHMI interviewed Robert Heller on that second book.
GOTTLIEBReally? And it is set not in the Army or the Air Force but in an office and a home. But its subject is anxiety. It's a different kind of anxiety. He knows that something terrible is going to happen, he anticipates it, he awaits it, and it happens.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Was that a book you enjoyed working with him on?
GOTTLIEBI always enjoyed working with him. It was always a total pleasure. But one of the most remarkable -- actually maybe the most remarkable instance I can give you of an editor and a writer being on the same wavelength had to do with "Something Happened" because we did a good deal of work, the usual cutting, blah, blah, blah, this, that, the other, which was always a pleasure because we had so much fun working.
GOTTLIEBAnd at the very end, I said to him, you know, Joe, the central character is called Bill Slocum, and I said, I just don't believe it. I don't think he's a Bill. And he said you don't, what do you think he is? And I said, well, I have to say I think he's a Bob. And I said nothing to do with me, I'm nothing like that person. It's not that. I just feel that for this book he's a Bob.
GOTTLIEBAnd he looked at me, and he said, but he was a Bob, I wrote him as a Bob, and then I thought I'd better change it because it will upset you.
GOTTLIEBSo obviously we were somehow in each other's minds. That was remarkable.
REHMWell, I'm going to end this conversation, sadly end it, by saying that I feel as though I have been the most fortunate writer in the whole wide world to have you as my editor, a man who, when I would send you 20 pages, I'd hear back in 10 minutes on the telephone.
REHMWhy wait? And you would give me your thoughts, you would never say no, don't do this, you would never say I hate this. It was always the most subtle of suggestions and ideas that helped me expand my own thinking.
GOTTLIEBWell that's because you were so receptive. Really it takes two to tango, or for that matter to edit.
REHMWell, it was a beautiful experience on all three of the books you edited.
GOTTLIEBAnd I say the same.
REHMThank you so much.
REHMI love you a lot.
GOTTLIEBVice versa, bye.
REHMAnd that is Robert Gottlieb. His new memoir, which has received rave reviews, is titled "Avid Reader." Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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