Speaking as a writer who has worked in the publishing world for decades, I view Turn Every Page as a true-life Superhero movie. This portrait of two legends—veteran book editor Bob Gottlieb and venerable biographer Robert Caro—offers a closeup look at their individual personalities as well as their longtime collaboration. What began as a proposed three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson has now extended to four books, with a fifth on the way. But as Gottlieb is now 91 and Caro is 87, theirs is what Gottlieb characterizes as an “actuarial” story as this point.
The film could only have been made by someone both men trusted completely, Lizzy Gottlieb—Bob Gottlieb’s daughter. Even then, they won’t agree to be interviewed together and set strict guidelines for what she can film. Part of what they do is secretive, a mystical transaction between Gottlieb, who characterizes his job as a reader, and Caro, who fights for each paragraph and semicolon. They argue, sometimes bitterly, but acknowledge that these near-hostile conversations inevitably make for a better book.
Their first joint project was The Power Broker, a magisterial, 1,300 page biography of New York City’s master builder Robert Moses. It earned Caro a Pulitzer Prize and continues to sell steadily after nearly fifty years in print. Caro’s next topic was going to be celebrated New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia but both he and Gottlieb realized that it would be somewhat redundant and both chose Lyndon B. Johnson as his next subject—agreeing at the outset that it would require three volumes to do justice to the man and his remarkable achievements as President. One crucial episode that Caro thought he could cover in a chapter grew to occupy an entire volume, and the rest is (publishing) history.
Need I add that the industrious author still writes in longhand and uses an electric typewriter, rather than a computer? He protects his works-in-progress by making a carbon copy of every page and bringing that duplicate home with him at night.
What a pleasure it is to witness these two gentlemen at work, doing something they love. Age doesn’t seem to factor into their methodology. They both married accomplished women who have been supportive, although Mrs. Gottlieb (the actress Maria Tucci) admits she can’t stand her husband’s hobby of collecting women’s plastic handbags.
This documentary is as exhilarating to me as any Hollywood action-adventure yarn. I loved every minute.