Robert Caro’s “multi-volume, still unfinished” biography of Lyndon B Johnson has taken over 40 years to write and covers more than 3,000 pages, says Gal Beckerman in The Atlantic. And every one of those pages has been edited, in minute detail, by one man: Robert Gottlieb. Their method hasn’t changed in decades: Caro, 87, writes his drafts out by pen and then uses his Smith Corona typewriter to copy them out; Gottlieb, 91, makes his marks with a pencil. They bicker “all the time”, over every comma, full stop and semicolon. “Actually, don’t even get them started on semicolons.” As Gottlieb says in the new documentary Turn Every Page, semicolons are the source of an ongoing “civil war”.
One of the pair’s first jobs together was trimming The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of the urban planner Robert Moses, “from an insane 1,050,000 words to a still pretty insane 700,000”. Both men remember the process as a “gruelling year-long combat”. Another struggle, over whether to cut a “long section on the history of grass” from the first Johnson volume, is described by Caro as “a tremendous battle, an angry, angry battle”. (He lost it.) Other fights have been over individual words: “the verb ‘loom’ is a sore point”. The two men are “set in their ways” – but they’re also perfectionists. As Gottlieb says: “He does the work. I do the clean-up. Then we fight.”