(JTA) — Robert Gottlieb, the legendary literary editor who shepherded into print and best-sellerdom such 20th-century classics as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” and Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” died Wednesday at age 92.
Few editors of his generation had as big an impact on the literary culture, from his time as editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster to his later association with Alfred A. Knopf (now Knopf Doubleday). He edited The New Yorker for five years and wrote numerous books himself, including several on one of his many passions: ballet.
The eye and obsessiveness he brought to editing (and what he once described as his “convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish mind”) were captured last year in a documentary, “Turn Every Page,” about his longtime relationship with Caro, a fellow Jewish New Yorker. The film, by Gottlieb’s daughter Lizzie Gottlieb, remembers when Gottlieb and Caro sat side by side trimming Caro’s massive manuscript for “The Power Broker” — an epic biography of the New York City master builder Robert Moses — into a still weighty 1,200 pages. The book went on to become a bestseller and remains a touchstone for a generation of journalists and city planners.
“From the day 52 years ago that we first looked at my pages together, Bob understood what I was trying to do and made it possible for me to take the time, and do the work, I needed to do,” Caro said in a statement on Gottlieb’s passing. “People talk to me about some of the triumphant moments Bob and I shared, but today I remember other moments, tough ones, and I remember how Bob was always, always, for half a century, there for me. He was a great friend, and today I mourn my friend with all my heart.”
At his death, Gottlieb was working with Caro on the last installment of his five-volume Lyndon Johnson biography. There was no word from Knopf Doubleday on who would finish the edits on the long-awaited book.
A self-described “Jew who knows nothing about Jewishness,” Gottlieb was working at Simon & Schuster when in 1966 he received the manuscript for a novel by a rabbi about two Orthodox Jewish boys — one Modern, one Hasidic. Gottlieb saw the potential in Chaim Potok’s book, thinking it might introduce gentile readers and secular Jews like himself to the world of Orthodoxy while telling a universal story about fathers and sons. Gottlieb advised on the title of the book, and took his scalpel to the manuscript.
“I recognized that the book had come to an end, and that Chaim had written 300 more pages,” Gottlieb told the Paris Review in 1994. “The material that was the motor of the book had worked itself out, and he had gone on to write the sequel. So I called up Chaim’s agent and said, I love the book and would like to talk to him about it, but please explain to him it’s only on the condition that he drop the last 300 pages that I want to publish it; if he wants to leave it as it is, it’s a different book. Chaim immediately saw the point, so there was no problem.”
Following its publication in 1967, the book stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 10 months. It spawned a movie starring Robbie Benson and Rod Steiger, and a sequel, “The Promise.”
Gottlieb also proposed that Potok write a nonfiction history of the Jews. “I grew up in an atheist household; I never attended anything. I thought that Chaim could write a very popular and useful book that might instruct someone like me,” said Gottlieb. “Wanderings” was published by Knopf in 1987.
Gottlieb’s other credits include fiction by future Nobel laureates Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing and V.S. Naipaul; spy novels by John le Carré; lyrics by Bob Dylan; fiction by the Canadian Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler; essays by the Jewish screenwriter, journalist and novelist Nora Ephron, and blockbuster science thrillers by Michael Crichton.
Born and raised in Manhattan, he graduated from Columbia University in 1952. After studying at Cambridge University, he joined Simon & Schuster in 1955 as an editorial assistant. Soon after, he took on a satirical novel by a Jewish writer and former World War II pilot named Joseph Heller. Gottlieb saw its potential when senior editors didn’t, and among his suggestions was changing the book’s title from “Catch-18” to “Catch-22” — to avoid confusion, Gottlieb explained, with Leon Uris’ “Mila 18,” a bestseller about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The book was a huge success and “Catch-22” entered the lexicon as a phrase meaning an unsolvable dilemma.
“I suppose our convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish minds work the same way,” Gottlieb said about his relationship with Heller.
Gottlieb was married twice, the second time to actor Maria Tucci, and had three children. A famous workaholic, he reportedly was reviewing proofs of a book by the Jewish author Cynthia Ozick while helping his pregnant wife through labor.
Earlier this year, Lizzie Gottlieb told the New York Jewish Week that her father and Caro both strongly identified as New York Jews.
“It’s almost a Talmudic focus on their craft, and without that they wouldn’t be who they are,” said the filmmaker. “So to the extent that that’s a Jewish quality, I think that’s essential to their being, to their achievements. There’s something like a Talmudic scholar in going over all these things, the industriousness and the empathy as well, this sort of looking at a thing from all sides and dedicating yourself to this pursuit.”
Lizzie Gottlieb also commented on her father’s various eccentric collections, including kitschy Israeli record albums from the 1960s and ’70s.
“Maybe that’s a Talmudic thing as well, like a deep dive into whatever it is that is interesting to him,” she said. “He says that every subject gets more interesting the deeper you get into it. When something strikes him as charming or funny or curious, he goes all the way with it.”