What constitutes a “long read” when Robert Caro is the subject?
After all, the LBJ biographer’s first book, The Power Broker, about New York “master builder” Robert Moses, was originally more than one million words, as both Esquire‘s Chris Jones and the New York Times’ Charles P. McGrath report in their Caro profiles, which clock in at just under 7,000 and just over 6,000 words, respectively.
McGrath says Robert Gottlieb, Caro’s lifelong editor at Knopf, lopped 350,000 words out of The Power Broker –“The equivalent of two or three full-size books.”
Jones, meanwhile, writes that “Gottlieb cut three hundred thousand [words]: three normal-size books.”
And so it goes throughout the profiles, which are, of course, timed to the May 1 publication of Caro’s fourth LBJ tome, The Passage To Power: In some places the stories overlap, in some places they diverge, and on a few minor occasions they completely contradict each other.
Both stories find Gottlieb taking credit for the idea that Caro should write an LBJ book (though McGrath reports that Caro had already thought of it himself), and both stories include what is obviously Gottlieb’s favorite anecdote (with good reason), about how Caro tracked down the summer camp social worker who delivered the New York Times to Moses parents on day, resulting in a killer quote.
But who does it better? A comparison of the two works:
ON ROBERT CARO’S OFFICE
Jones, first paragraph:
On the twenty-second floor of the Fisk Building in New York — an elegant brick giant built in 1921, stretching an entire block of West Fifty-seventh Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue — the hallways are lined with doors bearing gold plaques. The plaques reveal the professions of the people at work behind them: lawyers, accountants, financial advisors. But one plaque displays only a name, with no mention of the man’s business: ROBERT A. CARO.
McGrath, second paragraph:
He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on.
Advantage: Jones. If he sees elegance and golden plaques, then so do we.
ON THE PRINCETON PROF’S ADVICE
It’s not writing that takes Caro so long but, rather, rewriting. In college he was such a quick and facile writer, and so speedy a typist, that one of his teachers, the critic R. P. Blackmur, once told him that he would never achieve anything until he learned to “stop thinking with his fingers,” and Caro actually tries to slow himself down these days. He doesn’t start typing — on an old Smith Corona Electra 210, not a computer — until he has finished four or five handwritten drafts.
Caro, who always wrote his assignments in a hurry, under the pressure of deadline, and who usually received good grades for his rushed work, thought he had fooled him. Blackmur was not fooled: “You’re not going to achieve what you want to achieve, Mr. Caro, unless you stop thinking with your fingers,” the poet said.
So Caro knits together his fingers until he knows what his book is about.
Advantage: McGrath. Here, the literal seems more revealing than the literary.
ON CARO’S PROSE STYLE
Caro’s sentences are long, fluid, intricate. (A single sentence in The Passage of Power contains a parenthetical, an em dash, a colon, a comma, another two commas, a semicolon, two more commas, and a period.).
But McGrath, in discussing Caro’s back-and-forth with the New Yorker’s William Shawn, opts for flat-out mimickry:
In the editorial world, William Shawn was a man of immense power. He wielded it quietly, softly, almost in a whisper, but he wielded it nonetheless. Not for nothing did some of his staff members privately call him the Iron Mouse. For writers, Shawn’s long wooden desk was like a shrine, an altar, and in the passing of proofs across that brightly polished surface — pages and pages of proofs, stacks of proofs, sheaves and bundles of proofs, proofs from the fact-checkers, the lawyers, the grammarians, proofs marked with feathery hen-scratch and with bold red-pencilings — they discerned something like magic, the alchemy that renders ordinary, sublunary prose free of impurity and infuses it with an ineffable, entrancing glow, the sheen of true New Yorker style.
But that style was not for everyone.
It was not for Robert Caro.
“We could go to war over a semicolon,” Gottlieb told McGrath.
“When we came to something like a semicolon, it was war,” Gottlieb said to Jones.
BEST EXCLUSIVE DETAIL
McGrath reveals that Caro isn’t actually successful for his publisher.
“Are the books profitable?” Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s current head, who took over the Johnson project — enthusiastically — after Gottlieb’s departure in 1987, said last month. He paused for a moment. “They will be,” he answered finally, “because there is nothing like them.”
Gottlieb is more philosophical. “So what if at the end of 45 years it turns out we lost money by one kind of accounting?” he said. “Think of what he has given us, what he has added. How do you weigh that?”
But Jones has two details about Bill Moyers, the former Johnson press secretary who has infamously refused to speak to Caro for for the past 38 years. It turns out Moyers has an office in the same building as Caro. And that Caro is unconcerned about his lack of access, having already completed two Moyers-heavy chapters for the next volume.
“He wrote a lot of memos,” Caro told Jones, “so I got him.”
ON THE SPECTRE OF MORTALITY
Johnson, who all along predicted an early end for himself, died at 64. Caro is already 76, in excellent health after a scary bout with pancreatitis in 2004. He says that the reason “The Passage of Power” took so long is that he was at the same time researching the rest of the story, and that he can wrap it all up, with reasonable dispatch, in just one more volume. That’s what he said the last time, after finishing “Master of the Senate.”
[Caro] doesn’t like to talk about his illness — what the people close to him call “the scare” — but Caro confesses that he was struck down by necrotizing pancreatitis, a painful and often fatal inflammation of the pancreas. He lost an entire year of work. That was the first time he confronted the prospect of not finishing. He has not confronted it much since. “I don’t like to think about that,” he says, his blackened hand waving away the air around him. “Then I might feel like I have to rush. I don’t want to rush.” He doesn’t want four of his books to be made out of bricks and the fifth to be made out of glass. He would rather leave the fifth book unwritten than have it feel different from the rest. (Caro has requested in his will that nobody finish it for him, either.)
Advantage: Jones. Let’s hope the man lives to be 100, but it’s follly not to wonder just how long the final volume’s gonna take.
THE LAST SENTENCE
Jones writes at some length about the fact that Caro always knows the final sentence of his book before he writes, including the fifth and (maybe) final volume of the LBJ biography. How this plays a part in Caro’s process is a big part of Jones’ story.
McGrath mentions this as well, but only to note that “Somewhere on those sheets, already written, is the very last line of ‘The Years of Lyndon Johnson,’ whatever volume that turns out to be. I begged him more than once, but Caro wouldn’t tell me what that line says.”
Advantage: Jones. For not asking.