Checking In With Robert Gottlieb

The legendary book editor tells his story.

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Robert Gottlieb

Photo By Robert Mitra

Robert Gottlieb has had a remarkable career as an editor and publisher. Now 80, he grew up in Manhattan, went to Columbia and then Cambridge University for a couple of years, then, in 1955, got a job as assistant to Jack Goodman, the editor in chief of Simon & Schuster. Gottlieb went on to become the editor in chief of that publishing house himself, a position he held until 1968, when he became president, publisher and editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf. From there, he became the top editor at The New Yorker, succeeding the legendary William Shawn in 1987.

Gottlieb was himself succeeded at The New Yorker by Tina Brown in 1992. He realized then that he didn’t want to run another company or publication and went back to Knopf to become a book editor again, under Sonny Mehta, who had followed him. Gottlieb has also written biographies of George Balanchine and Sarah Bernhardt, serves as the dance critic of The New York Observer and has put together three anthologies on jazz, dance and lyrics, the last with Robert Kimball. Now he has come out with “Lives and Letters” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a book of his journalism for such venues as The New Yorker, The Observer, Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. There’s a story about Charles Dickens in “Lives and Letters,” and his next book will be about Dickens.

In person, Gottlieb looks considerably younger than he is — in fact, he’s looked much the same for decades, like a taller Woody Allen without the red hair, as has been noted by others. He has immense charm, which isn’t surprising in someone who has been able to shepherd the work of such a disparate group of writers through to successful publication. He lives in a town house on Turtle Bay Gardens, one of only three such communal back gardens in Manhattan, across the way from where both Katharine Hepburn and the great editor Maxwell Perkins once lived. The house has some unusual furnishings and details, too. In his sitting room, there are three huge posters of the disembodied heads of Norma Shearer, Clark Gable and Marion Davies. There is also quite a stock, filed away, of movies on tape. And then there are the handbags. Gottlieb has collected plastic and Lucite bags, of the Miami Beach type, for years. He even wrote a book about them, which was published by Knopf in 1988, called, “A Certain Style: The Art of the Plastic Handbag, 1949 to 1959.” They look extraordinary on a series of shelves built for them in a bedroom, their sculptural shapes evoking drive-in movie theaters and Florida Art Deco architecture.

The book features a terrific group of pieces, insightful, informative and well-written. Two of the best — and most unexpected — are those on the French child poet Minou Drouet — who retired at 14 — and the American murderer Scott Peterson.

Gottlieb decided to write about Peterson when he noticed that three books had come out at one time about this person, whom he’d never heard of (he doesn’t watch TV), and all began to climb the bestseller list. He begins the article with a comparison to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” He stacks the protagonist of that book (which was actually inspired by a news story itself) up against Peterson, who doesn’t come off well. “I’m a great Dreiser-lover,” says Gottlieb. “‘Sister Carrie’ is devastating. He’s not a fluent writer, so people find his style off-putting. They prefer [F. Scott] Fitzgerald. For me, he’s too highfalutin. I believe everything Dreiser tells us, just like I believe everything in ‘Madame Bovary.’

“I first read ‘An American Tragedy’ in college, and in my entire life I had never read anything so painful,” he says. “I left the book at my parents’ house, and it took me six months to go back and finish it, because I knew what was coming and I didn’t want it to happen. It’s the same way I feel about [the play] ‘Othello’. I don’t feel that way about the opera; the music stands between you and the bleakness of it.”

Gottlieb doesn’t like George Stevens’ famous 1951 film of the story, “A Place in the Sun,” which stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. “She’s such an unappealing character, you want to kill Shelley Winters yourself,” he says.

Asked about Sarah Bernhardt, who is mentioned in “Lives and Letters” in an article about her rival, Eleanora Duse, Gottlieb says of working on her autobiography, “I ended up really liking and admiring her — because she achieved so much in her art and evolved so much as a person. She started out with a lot against her.” She was Jewish, illegitimate and her mother was a courtesan. Any of these characteristics could have put her beyond the pale socially in the Europe of her time — but, thanks to her enormous fame, didn’t. “She’s thrilling; she’s a romp,” he adds. “She understood publicity more than anyone who ever lived. There’s something Henry James said about her, ‘She will do well in America’ — that’s what he meant.”

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