Issue 132, Fall 1994
Robert Gottlieb is a man of eclectic tastes, and it is difficult to make generalizations about the authors he has worked with or the hundreds of books he has edited. In his years at Simon & Schuster, where he became editor in chief, and as publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, he edited a number of big best-sellers, such as Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, Robert Crichton’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. He worked on several personal histories, such as Brooke Hayward’s Haywire, Barbara Goldsmith’s Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie: An American Biography, and the autobiographies of Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Irene Selznick. He has edited historians and biographers including Barbara Tuchman, Antonia Fraser, Robert K. Massie, and Antony Lukas; dance books by Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Paul Taylor, and Lincoln Kirstein; fiction writers such as John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, Len Deighton, Sybille Bedford, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Margaret Drabble, Richard Adams, V. S. Naipaul, and Edna O’Brien; Hollywood figures Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullmann, Sidney Poitier, and Myrna Loy; musicians John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan; and thinkers such as Bruno Bettelheim, B. F. Skinner, Janet Malcolm, and Carl Schorske. He has helped to shape some of the most influential books of the last fifty years, but nonetheless finds it difficult to understand why anyone would be interested in the nitpicky complaints, the fights over punctuation, the informal therapy, and the reading and re-reading of manuscripts that make up his professional life.
Gottlieb was born in New York City in 1931 and grew up in Manhattan. He read “Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Proust—the great moralists of the novel. Of course,” he says, “I admired the Russians tremendously, but I didn’t feel that I’d learned anything from them personally. I learned how to behave from Emma—not from The Brothers Karamazov.” He graduated from Columbia in 1952, the year his first son was born. (He has since had two more children with his second wife, actress Maria Tucci.) He spent two years studying at Cambridge and then in 1955 got a job at Simon & Schuster as editorial assistant to Jack Goodman, the editor in chief.
Publishing was a very different business in the fifties. Many of the big houses were still owned by their founders—Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer owned Random House; Alfred Knopf owned Knopf; Dick Simon and Max Schuster were still at Simon & Schuster. As a result, publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit. “It is not a happy business now,” says Gottlieb, “and it once was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.”
In 1957, Jack Goodman unexpectedly died, and at about the same time, Simon & Schuster was sold back by the Marshall Field estate to two of its original owners, Max Schuster and Leon Shimkin. Schuster and Shimkin didn’t get along, things became strained, and within a few months most of the senior staff had left the company. The owners neglected to hire anybody new, and so suddenly, as Gottlieb puts it, “the kids were running the store.” Within a few years Gottlieb became managing editor, and a few years after that, editor in chief. Then, in 1968, he left Simon & Schuster to become editor in chief and publisher of Knopf.
Next to reading, Gottlieb’s grand passion is ballet, and from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, while at Knopf, Gottlieb served on the New York City Ballet’s board of directors, in which capacity he organized ballets from the company’s repertoire into programs for each season and oversaw its advertising and subscription campaigns. (A third, lesser, passion of Gottlieb’s is acquiring odd objects—including vintage plastic handbags, of which he has a notorious collection.)
In 1987, at the invitation of its new owner, S. I. Newhouse (who also owns Knopf), Gottlieb left Knopf to take over The New Yorker. The announcement of his appointment was received with undisguised hostility by the magazine’s staff, who suspected Newhouse had ousted Gottlieb’s predecessor, the venerated William Shawn, editor since 1952, against his will. Dozens of the magazine’s staff members signed a petition requesting that Gottlieb refuse Newhouse’s offer. He didn’t. “I never took it personally,” Gottlieb explains. “I knew that the same thing would have happened to anyone. I didn’t even read the names of the people who signed the letter, many of whom were good friends of mine. I knew that I felt a lot of goodwill toward the magazine, and I assumed that it would prevail. And, indeed, once I got there, everyone was wonderful, couldn’t have been nicer. I just got to work, and everybody got to work with me.”
In 1992, Gottlieb agreed to retire from The New Yorker to make way for former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown. (He says he told Newhouse when he was hired that he would be a curator rather than a revolutionary, and that if Newhouse wanted radical change he should find someone else.) Then sixty-one, Gottlieb decided he didn’t want to begin running something else, and offered his services to Sonny Mehta, who had taken over Knopf when Gottlieb left. Since then, Gottlieb has been working gratis for Knopf (he received a large settlement from Newhouse when he left The New Yorker) on books like John le Carré’s The Night Manager, Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Mordecai Richler’s forthcoming book on Israel, Arlene Croce’s study of Balanchine, David Thomson’s biographical dictionary of the cinema, Eve Arnold’s retrospective and various New Yorker cartoon books.
My interviews with Gottlieb, who looks something like a taller and less rufous version of Woody Allen, took place in the living room of his townhouse on East Forty-eighth Street—two blocks from the Knopf offices on Fiftieth, and half a mile from The New Yorker on West Forty-third. His living room overlooks the Turtle Bay Gardens—a rather formal private park that combines what would be the backyards of the houses on that block between Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Streets. From the window Gottlieb pointed out Katharine Hepburn’s house across the way (he was her editor at Knopf) and the garden patio where Janet Malcolm had one of her famous lunches with Jeffrey Masson.
The interviewees in this piece were suggested by Gottlieb himself. Their comments and Gottlieb’s responses were combined afterwards—there was no direct conversation. Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, and Mordecai Richler are all authors Gottlieb has edited. Charles McGrath worked with Gottlieb at The New Yorker, where McGrath is deputy editor. Lynn Nesbit is a literary agent who has worked with Gottlieb on a number of books.
When I finally completed my second novel, Something Happened, The New York Timesinterviewed me about having finished the book, and I talked to them about Bob’s value to me as an editor. The day the interview ran, Bob called me and said he didn’t think it was a good idea to talk about editing and the contributions of editors, since the public likes to think everything in the book comes right from the author. That’s true, and so from that time on, I haven’t.
Of course, if anybody says nice things about me in print it’s pleasant. But the fact is, this glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing. The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one. The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that! As a critic, of course, as a literary historian, I’m interested, but as a reader, I find it very disconcerting. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grateful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place.
Some of Bob’s suggestions for Catch-22 involved a lot of work. There was a chapter that came on page two hundred or three hundred of the manuscript—I believe it was the one with Colonel Cathcart; it was either that or the Major Major chapter—and he said he liked this chapter, and it was a shame we didn’t get to it earlier. I agreed with him, and I cut about fifty or sixty pages from the opening just to get there more quickly.
Joe Heller and I have always been on exactly the same wavelength editorially, and the most extraordinary proof of this came up when we were working on Something Happened. It’s a deeply disturbing book about a very conflicted man—a man who is consumed with anxiety and all kinds of serious moral problems—and his name was Bill Slocum. Well, we went through the whole book, and divided it up into chapters and all the rest of it, and at the end of the process I said, Joe, this is going to sound crazy to you but this guy is not a Bill. He said, Oh really, what do you think he is? I said, He’s a Bob. And Joe looked at me and said, He was a Bob, and I changed his name to Bill because I thought you would be offended if I made him a Bob. I said, Oh no, I don’t think he’s anything like me, it’s just that this character is a Bob. So we changed it back. It was absolutely amazing. How did it happen? I don’t know. I suppose our convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish minds work the same way.
What makes Bob a great editor, probably the best of his time, is that he has read everything, is soaked in the best that has been said and thought and brings this weight of experience into use when he judges the work of his authors. You may think that this kind of background should be taken for granted. Well, once upon a time one could assume that an editor in a serious publishing house had read, could make comparisons. But these days this is not what you find in publishing houses.
A lot of things one doesn’t usually think about can affect the reading experience. The way you structure the book, for example—whether you divide it into chapters or let it run uninterrupted, whether you give the chapters titles . . . Years ago I edited a wonderful novel that later became a successful movie, Lilith, by J. R. Salamanca. It was a powerful and affecting book, and the character who dominated it, who sparked it, was the character named Lilith, but she didn’t turn up at all in the first sixty or eighty pages. I don’t remember what the original title was, but I suggested to Jack that he change it to Lilith, because that way through all the opening pages of the book when Lilith hadn’t yet appeared, the reader would be expecting her. So just by changing the title one created a tension that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
JOHN LE CARRÉ
Bob will tell me how he understands a story, and where he feels slightly disappointed, perhaps; where the satisfactions are not what he expected, or something of that kind—it remains very loose. He will say to me, I’m going to draw a wavy line down these pages; for me, they’re too lyrical, too self-conscious, too over-the-top. And I will say, OK, for the moment I disagree because I’m in love with every word I’ve written, but I’ll rake it over and lick my wounds, and we’ll see what happens. Or he’ll say something like, Actually you didn’t need this beautiful passage of description here . . . in fact I think it’s really a pain. As a rule, he has no quarrel with my characters, though he has always felt I am weaker on girls than on boys, and I think that’s true. Occasionally I’ll say I disagree, in which case we will leave the matter in suspense until I recognize that he is right. In no case have I ever regretted taking Bob’s advice. In all the large things, he’s always been right.
For a while I was editing the two best writers of quality who were writing spy novels, John le Carré and Len Deighton, and you couldn’t find a more perfect pair of opposites in the editorial process. Le Carré is unbelievably sensitive to editorial suggestion because his ear is so good and because his imagination is so fertile—he’ll take the slightest hint and come back with thirty extraordinary new pages. Deighton, on the other hand—who is totally willing, couldn’tbe more eager for suggestions—is one of those writers for whom, once a sentence is down on paper, it takes on a reality that no amount of good will or effort can change. So you can say to him, Len, this is a terrific story but there is a serious problem. He’ll say, What is it? What is it? And you say, Well, on page thirty-seven this character is killed, but on page a hundred and eighteen he appears at a party. Oh my God, Len says, this is terrible, but I’ll fix it, don’t worry. Then you get the manuscript back, and you turn to page thirty-seven, and he’ll have changed it to, He was almost killed.
A Perfect Spy is the novel of mine that is closest to my heart. It is also my most autobiographical novel, and it skates along the edge of a great deal of childhood pain and stuff. It’s always a queasy business when a writer starts moaning about his childhood, so the only way I could redeem the situation was by making the son much less pleasant in many ways. Bob pointed out the places where he felt that the fiction became so autobiographical that it became embarrassing—where he felt that I had really spilled into private experience and had thrown away the mask. He was terribly good at that. What we left on the cutting room floor still makes me blush.
Bob became my editor when David Segal, who had been my editor and heart’s friend at Knopf, died at the age of forty-two of a heart attack just before Christmas 1970. On that same day, or within a week, Bob and Maria’s little daughter Elizabeth was born. Bob called me from the hospital right after her birth and said, Don’t worry, you’re not abandoned, your editor is gone, but I am here, and I will be your editor and publish you. Don’t feel that you’re deserted or lost. It was one of the most astounding acts of generosity I’ve encountered in my life. It occurred in the middle of birth, death, bewilderment, grief. Now, very often when I am writing, I have something like a bird sitting on my right shoulder, a watchful bird looking over my shoulder at what I am doing. I want that bird’s approval—I have to get it. It is a very critical bird, who is in a way a burden, but also grants me permission. This bird is the mind of Bob Gottlieb. It is to him I present what I am working on when I am finished, and it is him I want to satisfy, and more than satisfy—gratify.
I never write with Bob in mind; that would be very bad for me. He isn’t the ideal reader for the product, but he is the ideal editor for it.
The first thing writers want—and this sounds so basic, but you’d be surprised how unbasic it is in the publishing world—is a quick response. Once they’ve finished a new manuscript and put it in the mail, they exist in a state of suspended emotional and psychic animation until they hear from their editor, and it’s cruelty to animals to keep them waiting. I’m lucky, because I happen to be a very quick reader, so I can almost always read a new manuscript overnight. Besides, when I receive a manuscript from a writer I’ve been working with I’m consumed by curiosity to know what he or she has written. But easy or not, one’s first job is a swift and honest response—tempered, of course, by tact.
It took me some time, when I was a very young man, to grasp that a writer—even a mature, experienced one—could have made an emotional transference to me. But of course it makes sense: the editor gives or withholds approval, and even to a certain extent controls the purse strings. It’s a relationship fraught with difficulty, because it can lead to infantilizing and then to resentment. Somehow, to be helpful, an editor has to embody authority yet not become possessive or controlling.