The Editor’s Editor
Legendary editor/publisher Robert Gottlieb has written his memoir, appropriately titled AVID READER: A Life. It will be available on September 13 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. Here’s the link to get yours.
Imagine having a standing invitation to walk through a magical garden and to let yourself into your neighbor’s home, and then encouraged to climb her back stair case and into her bedroom….to work through some pages of her book project (Seriously!) before heading off to your glamorous job as publisher of the most venerable book publishing house in the world?
I’ll not spoil who Gottlieb’s neighbor was…
If there is a word that connotes nostalgia for someone else’s past, do let me know. For now, I shall coin the phrase “Gottliebensehnsucht” to express my emotional state after finishing the narrative morsel from VF.
For fun, I’m re-running “The Editor’s Editor” (with some minor editorial tweaks) from 2013 in salute of one of the last Mohicans from the golden age of book publishing.
When I was a futzing wannabe actor back in the…gulp…late 1980s, I spent a summer at Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.
Not only did I meet my wife there, but I was smitten by the presence of another figure. One of the actresses on the main stage (I was strictly apprentice showcase material and free “strike the set” labor) rented a house for the Summer Stock season. Her daughter Lizzie ran in my coterie of friends.
Lizzie would invite us over to her house after the evening shows to hang out with the big time performers–Christopher Reeve and his fellow actor and offstage romance Dana Morosini, Olympia Dukakis, Daniel Davis, Kate Burton, Jamey Sheridan, Louis Zorich, Marisa Tomei, James Naughton… Plus her father had come up from New York too and a lot of people backstage angled to get an invite.
The house was right out of “New England Country Home” central casting. All weathered shingle and worn stone on an acre or so of freshly mowed lawn. Friendly patches of fireflies led the way to a converted barn out back by a stream where the stoners snuck out to share a joint. An intoxicating atmosphere for a twenty-four year old guy running away from what he was supposed to do. I’d spent my last dime to get there but I’m still getting dividends from the investment.
Lizzie’s mother, Maria Tucci, was fresh from playing Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, stuffed us with spaghetti and great Italian red wine while her dad held court on the back porch. Everyone seemed to hush when he spoke, like ballplayers do when Josh Hamilton takes batting practice. He used big words—many of which I didn’t know but could figure out from the context of his riffing, the only proper way to employ them. Someone asked him what he thought about the latest literary sensations, Less than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City en vogue at the time. Somehow he was able to cut a literary movement to the bone with just a quick rejoinder … “Raymond Carver-lite …” But not without conveying a deep respect and fondness for the writers. “Just wonderful!”
I learned that he was the former head of Alfred A. Knopf, the most prestigious and literary of book publishing houses, and was the guy S.I. Newhouse had brought in to replace the legendary William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Robert Gottlieb had that untamable hair/big glasses/New York Intellectual/Annie Hall era Woody Allen thing going for him. He always looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, having slept in the wrinkled oxford/khaki combo of the distracted academic. And man was he smart. What was even more appealing about him…he was unpretentious.
Lizzie introduced me to him and he made about a microsecond’s worth of eye contact and then went back to regaling the crowd. I can promise you that he has not a clue of who I am today or that we even met all those years ago. Or even on several other occasions.
That’s to his credit. Vapid social niceties mean nothing when you’re living the dream. I had no right to wake him, even if he’d presented the opportunity.
One time, my future wife and I were hanging out at his townhouse eating more of his wife’s glorious food. Maria Tucci has fed armies of broke artists. And then Lizzie gave us a tour. The library was just incredible with first edition after first edition overflowing from the shelves—Chaim Potok, Joseph Heller, Charles Portis, Jessica Mitford, Salman Rushdie, Elia Kazan, Margaret Drabble, John Cheever, John Lennon, Edna O’Brien, Len Deighton, John Le Carre, Lauren Bacall, Bruno Bettelheim, B.F. Skinner…dizzying. Gottlieb had edited them all and scores more. And what was really cool is that one of the bookshelves pulled out and a bathroom appeared. No need to leave the cocoon to relieve oneself. Brilliant!
When we made it upstairs, we walked directly into the master bedroom. There lying in the bed, which I couldn’t tell if it was made up or not as it was literally covered with manuscripts—at about 2:00 p.m. on a working day—was Gottlieb.
Lizzie, who had a familiarity and easy way with her father and mother that were absolutely foreign to me, introduced us again. He failed to look up from one of the pages until he’d zoomed to the end. And then he simply said, “Yes…yes, of course, of course…Williamstown yes.”
Then I noticed something very peculiar. Lining the walls were tens and tens of old plastic women’s handbags. It was really just…odd. Indelibly impressionable. He mistook my perplexed manner as someone in want of an explanation.
“I find myself compelled to buy these… So I do.”
Back to the papers he went.
Years later, at Lizzie’s wedding at his country home—another impossibly beautiful and somewhat eccentric location—I thought I’d try and pull him aside and cozy up to him. By this time, I’d been in book publishing a few years. No doubt attracted to it because of Gottlieb and his unapologetic devotion to it. My inner Sammy Glick was pressing me to make the most of the connection.
Imagine having Robert Gottlieb as your Rabbi! Maybe he could talk to Sonny Mehta and get me inside Knopf!
I approached him but before I could fumble out some lame sycophantic come on…
“Yes…yes, of course, of course…Williamstown yes.” And off he went.
I haven’t met Robert Gottlieb since then, but I did read a memoir by another book publishing legend, Michael Korda, that gave me more insight into how he came to be so assured. Korda wrote a wonderful book called ANOTHER LIFE, which is catnip to anyone interested in the good bad old days of publishing. Korda is as charming as Gottlieb, but in a completely different sort of way. More the Gentleman Editor as opposed to the “Incapable of Thinking of Anything Else” kind.
Korda and Gottlieb worked together at Simon & Schuster where Gottlieb had risen from editorial assistant to editor-in-chief in record time. Korda was sort of Roger Maris to Gottlieb’s Mickey Mantle. While Korda is a member of a distinguished family, Gottlieb is more in the son of humble origins category. One of those guys who my grandmother would call “too smart for his own good.”
Anyway, the legend is that Gottlieb had gone to Columbia and then on to Cambridge to study “Literature” with a capital L. When the Ivory Tower expelled him, or more accurately he could no longer afford to live in its endless unproductive contemplations, he was back in New York. Adrift. He’d taken a job at Macy’s selling greeting cards to keep the wolf from the door. He wasn’t very good at it. And like I did a few years after I’d met him, Gottlieb figured he should find a job where he didn’t have to hide his reading material from his floor supervisor. He pursued a job as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster for far less pay than pushing Hallmark.
In the Paris Review back in 1994 (he’s the only editor interviewed in their legendary author interview series), Gottlieb confessed:
“It has liberated me, being happy being what I am. There are editors who always feel guilty that they aren’t writers. I can write perfectly well—anyone who’s been educated can write perfectly well. But I dislike writing: it’s very, very hard and I just don’t like the activity. Whereas reading is like breathing.”
I’m grateful that Gottlieb picked up the pen despite his distaste for it. Aspiring editors and book publishing professionals need his story to remind us of what a dazzling business it can be.