Meet Robert Gottlieb

Meet Robert Gottlieb

‘Avid Reader: A Life’ introduces the great editor to his fans

Robert Gottlieb
Robert Gottlieb

Robert Gottlieb is the most renowned American book editor and publisher in the latter half of the 20th century, much as was the legendary Max Perkins in the first half. In his riveting memoir Gottlieb traces the trajectory of his long and productive life with books and reading.

Gottlieb was born to a middle class Jewish family in New York in 1931. His mother was a public school teacher, his father a lawyer. Little Bobby grew up listening to radio and devouring books. As he asserts in “Avid Reader,” he didn’t care much for nature or sports. It was reading he loved. This love is summed up in one memorable line: “From the start words were more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.”

Since the family was atheistic, Judaism played no role in his life. Still, he considered himself a New York Jew; that is a terse, self-identifying phrase that occurs like a leitmotif a number of times in his memoir.

Gottlieb went to a private school in Manhattan whose students were mostly Jewish. “On the High Holy Days, out of my class of 39 only the four Gentiles and atheistically me would be in attendance,” he wrote. When one teacher wondered why so many students were absent, she was told, “It’s Yom Kippur.” Which prompted the teacher to say, “Ridiculous. This isn’t a Jewish school.”

Gottlieb’s parents wanted him to go to Harvard. He applied but flunked the interview. And then, he added, “and there was the notorious Jewish quota. And I was the worst kind of Jew — a New York Jew.”

He attended Columbia, majored in English literature, and edited the school’s literary magazine. Later he got a year-long fellowship to Cambridge, England, where for the first time in his life he got a whiff of anti-Semitism. He had been aware of the “casual anti-Semitism that punctuates English literature,” but that was in books. Here was real life. The English Jews he met, Gottlieb notes, considered themselves the other, and he too senses the English disdain of foreigners and Jews.

Later, when he’s a renowned editor, he has an encounter with the children’s book author, Roald Dahl (one of whose many nasty anti-Jewish remarks was: “There is always a reason why anti-anything crops up; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”) and another with John le Carre. With both he would briefly get a sense of what he had felt in England. Both writers were Englishmen.

Back in the USA he got his first job as a young editor with Simon and Schuster, where he would stay 11 years and publish amazing books, including one of my all-time favorite novels, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” That unique title deserves mention. Heller had called his manuscript “Catch-18,” until Gottlieb saw that a new novel by the author of “Exodus,” Leon Uris, would be called Mila18. The number in Heller’s title would have to be changed.

Heller suggested “14”, but that number was nixed as flavorless. In the middle of the night Gottlieb had a revelation: 22. He called Heller: “I got it. 22. It’s even funnier than 18.” The book went on to sell millions of copies.

With his success at Simon and Schuster, Gottlieb was invited to head Knopf. He was only 36, and looked years younger. By this time Gottlieb had become so famous that his move to Knopf became front-page news in the New York Times.

A2-L-avid-reader-0602For Gottlieb, this was a dream job. To him Knopf was the great literary house of the century. He had been nurtured on the great novelists Knopf was famous for: Thomas Mann, Kafka, Camus, Sartre, D.H. Lawrence. Under his leadership the house brought in celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to write their memoirs. All of them, with Gottlieb’s magic touch, became best sellers. He also added famous writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera to Knopf’s list.

For Robert Gottlieb editing is not shaping a book according to his wishes but making it the best book the writer can write. The key to his success is his constant devotion to his writers. He often spent days with them to help them with their books.

Other famous Americans of Jewish origin who are adamantly secular often try to hide their Jewishness. (Think of Robert Moses, whose biography, “The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro, Gottlieb edited). Gottlieb does not. It bubbles throughout his entire career. Even when he is coaxed into going to Marlene Dietrich’s funeral in Paris and Berlin by his fellow editor (who is editing a book about the famous German entertainer), his Jewish sensibility is engaged. His trip to Berlin is full of qualms:

“I’d never been to Berlin — a child of World War Two, and Jewish, I’d never got past my resistance to everything German (except the music) and had stayed away,” he writes. He notes that the Germans had mixed feelings about Dietrich. “On the one hand she was probably the most famous and admired woman in their history; on the other, she had vehemently sided with the Allies against them during the war.”

Another one of the blockbuster books– Gottlieb edited at Knopf — two million copies sold — was Bill Clinton’s autobiography. From the outset of their meetings he decided to call him Bill. “I couldn’t envisage myself saying things like, ‘I think we need a semicolon here, Mr. President.’” And when Clinton says “I’m very easy to work for,” Gottlieb feels “that was the moment of truth.”

In his view, if equality and balance between writer and editor is not established the relationship will fail. And so Gottlieb “cheekily” tells the president, much to the shock of Clinton’s aides, “Actually, I have to point out that in this instance I’m not working for you, you’re working for me.”

What is most revealing about Robert Gottlieb’s irresistible personality and talent for friendship is that he goes on to form personal relationships with the writers he’s met that last for decades.

From Knopf Gottlieb was appointed editor of The New Yorker (again front page news in the Times) where he stayed for five years before finally retiring.

In the dozen or so years since then Gottlieb has nurtured another of his passions, classical ballet. “Dance liberated me from the bondage of language, and balanced my life,” he writes.

After he wrote a biography of his hero, the great choreographer George Balanchine, Yale University Press lured Gottlieb to write the first biography in its new series, Jewish Lives. His assignment: Sarah Bernhardt, whom he called “the most famous of all French women other than Joan of Arc.”

Although this book is the best-selling short biography in that series, with typical self-denigration Gottlieb asserts its success is not so much about him as it is about the book’s heroine.

Only a great editor like Gottlieb would have the sensitivity to list all the editors and assistants, friends, and colleagues who helped him with “Avid Reader” in its acknowledgments.

It’s hard to believe that Bob Gottlieb is 86 years old. He doesn’t look it, and his energy and creative spirit belie that advanced number. Some people are just fated to remain 44 — or 22 — forever.

Curt Leviant’s most recent novels are the critically acclaimed “King of Yiddish” and “Kafka’s Son.”

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