I’m one of the legion of Robert Caro fans. Caro, now 87, is the former Newsday reporter, who made a lifetime project writing about the acquisition and perpetuation of power using biographies of Robert Moses, and former President Lyndon Johnson as his vehicle.
Unlike other writers, Caro chose a narrowly defined topic and stuck to it for going on half a century. He still writes all his manuscripts by hand, not just the first draft but multiple drafts. And when he upgrades to automation, he still uses an obsolete typewriter - a Smith Corona Electra 210, which according to a New Yorker article he stockpiles for spare parts. If there is a king of slow (but mighty) writing, it’s Caro.
My copy of The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York first appeared in 1974. It runs 1,246 pages and that’s not counting xxiv pages of index + maps. It was seven years in the works, and went on to win the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. It earned enduring acclaim from readers and critics, as well as tidy royalties.
Caro and his wife Ina, who sold their home and endured years of poverty to produce the book, are widely reported to have earned millions from this title and the LBJ books that followed. According to the New York Times, the original million word manuscript was cut by 400,000 words. As he would later recall in one of his numerous public appearances, it was the largest size his publisher could bind in a single volume.
The Moses bio (1888-1981) focuses on how one unelected man, beginning life with a heartfelt dedication to public service, would go on over the next 40+ years to become both a hero and a villain, a creator and a destroyer. He depicts in infinite detail the man who bent millions of people and billions of dollars to his personal vision. Caro portrays Moses as a man who wielded enormous political power, and shaped and reshaped the face of New York with huge public works projects that included parks, highways, bridges, housing and fairs.
Not satisfied with a profile of power on the state and regional level, Caro followed up with four volumes (so far) on the life of LBJ.
He began work on the life of LBJ in 1977 and the next thing you know here we are in 2023 and still waiting for the fifth and presumably final volume to appear. The Johnson books so far are:
The Path to Power (1982) covers Johnson’s early life growing up in the Texas hill country, through his failed 1941 campaign for Senate.
Means of Ascent (1990) continues the story through Johnson’s election to the US Senate in 1948.
Master of the Senate (2002) chronicles LBJ’s rapid rise to leadership, his battle to pass 1957 civil rights legislation despite opposition from the bloc of segregationist Southern senators. It won the 2003 Pulitzer for biography and numerous other awards.
A mere ten years later, Passage to Power (2012) appeared documenting LBJ’s life from 1958 to 1964 including his rise to the presidency following the assassination of JFK. Another massive book, over 700 pages, it also received multiple awards for excellence in biography. I read it all, and found the chapter where Johnson took the oath of office riveting.
Now, eleven years later, at 87, Caro is working on the fifth and final volume which is expected to cover the Johnson presidency, the policies of the Great Society, the passage of the landmark 1965 voting rights legislation and the Vietnam conflict, as well as the post-presidential years.
His longtime editor Robert Gottlieb, who had edited all of Caro’s books so far, died earlier this year on June 14, 2023, at the age of 92. Gottlieb and Caro were the subject of a documentary film “Turn Every Page” available as a pay-per-view through multiple outlets. The film takes its name from the advice given to Caro as a young reporter by a hard nosed editor who told him the only way to really do research was one page at a time.
It was advice he has repeated many times and has clearly taken to heart.
The Power Broker - A really big book:
I’d heard about Caro’s bio of Moses long before I ever got my hands on a copy of the Power Broker. After years of searching for a free, or nearly free, copy I finally found one last month for $1 in paperback.
I came home and I retired to my bed to read it. A half an hour later, with a huge dent in my stomach (the book weighs more than a sack of potatoes) I got up to search for my utility knife. I sliced it into five parts and retired back to the mattress.
Ok, so he’s a tad OCD, but trust me, it’s good, it’s really good.
His writing is like a set of nesting Russian dolls, each part of the Moses bio has other biographical sketches sprinkled through the text. They are biographies within biographies. All are finely drawn and minutely observed. Particularly wonderful is his depiction of Al Smith (1873 - 1944), the New York City Irish Catholic politician who rose to become a four term governor of NY and was the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. Smith sought the nomination again in 1932 but lost out to FDR. You may never have known you wanted to learn about the life of Al Smith, but Caro makes it sing.
Just as good as a speaker
As compelling as Caro is as a writer he is just as engaging as a speaker. As a subscriber to YouTube Premium I get an ad-free version of the video platform, and oh my goodness there are endless Caro goodies available in this format. There are the ones where he gives a talk on a particular facet of his current or past work and other presentations where he is interviewed. Most have Q&A coming from the audience and his answers are often amusing and surprising.
Caro as a speaker uses a warm self deprecating tone delivered with and a lilting Long Giland accent. So friendly, so earnest, so detailed, so astutely observed.
Can’t sleep? Spend an hour with a really good storyteller. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but here are a couple of longer ones I liked:
Here’s a 2016 lecture that begins with how he became an investigative reporter or try An Evening with Robert Caro from the LBJ library in 2019 or his talk on his writing process in his book “Working” There are many more, I think the long ones are the best.
Still prefer the written word to the spoken? Read this long excerpt from the Paris Review on the Art of Biography from Spring 2016 .
I’ve enjoyed them all, I hope he lives to finish his LBJ series.