• Robert Caro
  • January 5, 2020
    Read, recorded or researched
Robert Caro has won virtually every major literary honour there is for his biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, including two Pulitzer Prizes. In this book, Caro delivers a collection of pieces, some previously published and some newly written, about how he works and what drives him. It’s short and majestic.

The Best Points

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing


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Quick thoughts

  • Caro is famous for investigating and writing about Robert Moses, the man who shaped modern New York City, and Lyndon Johnson, America’s 36th president, on whom he’s been working since 1976.
  • Caro’s books aren’t biographies in the normal sense of the word. What interests him is political power; where it comes from, why, how it’s exercised and how it bears on the lives of the powerless.
  • Moses had never been elected to anything, but he exercised extraordinary influence over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for 44 years until he was ousted in 1968. Caro saw him as a vessel in which he could examine the fundamental realities of political power in one of the world’s great cities. Johnson served the same purpose on the national stage.
  • He’s meticulous. Caro first worked for Newsday and had a reputation for publishing articles quickly. He was efficient, and always met deadlines. But the time pressure of journalism made him frustrated because he had to leave questions unanswered.
  • He took a year out to write a book on Moses, confident he could meet the deadline. But four or five years later, he was still writing. He can’t leave loose ends, made clear by the memo he was taught and works by: “Just remember. Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”
  • Journalists had written about Moses and Johnson before but no-one went as far as Caro. He takes nothing at face value, keeps questioning and persists until the door he didn’t even know existed, opens.
  • For example, he took his wife to live in the town Johnson grew up in for three years because he didn’t think the people he was interviewing were opening up to him. Telling him the truth. Once they saw him as a neighbor, not a journalist, he got to the truth.
  • He suffered and still suffers from self-doubt. He didn’t think many would read his Moses biography, and he was told the same. He didn’t think he was a good writer, but has been hailed the best. However, despite his misgivings, he kept going.
  • Meticulous about preparing each book and paragraph. Needed a clear picture of what the story was and how it fitted together. Painstaking work, which he admits is difficult. Allows you to keep on track, though.
  • Re-write and re-write. Your story must be based on facts, but facts aren’t enough. How do you convey the importance of the fact, show what it actually means? Rhythm can be helpful.

Advice on writing:

  • Interviews: silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer.
  • When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SUs” there.
A sense of place
  • The importance of a sense of place is commonly accepted in the world of fiction; I wish that were also true about biography and history, about nonfiction in general, in fact. The overall quality, the overall level, of writing is, I believe, just as important in the one as in the other.
  • By “a sense of place,” I mean helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which a book’s action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the action is occurring. The action thereby becomes more vivid, more real, to him, and the point the author is trying to make about the action, the significance he wants the reader to grasp, is therefore deepened as well.
  • Because biography should not be just a collection of facts. Its base, the base of all history, of course is the facts, it’s always the facts, and you have to do your best to get them, and get them right. But once you have gotten as many of them as possible, it’s also of real importance to enable the reader to see in his mind the places in which the book’s facts are located.
  • If a reader can visualize them for himself, then he may be able to understand things without the writer having to explain them; seeing something for yourself always makes you understand it better.
  • Example:
I wanted, I guess, to show in terms of Washington, to show in terms of Capitol Hill, the contrast between what he was coming from—the poverty, the insecurity, the land of dog-run log cabins—and what he was trying for. I first got a clue about how I might be able to do this by talking to the young woman who worked with him as the other assistant in that congressman’s office, a woman named Estelle Harbin. I asked her what he had been like and she described him. It was a vivid description. She called him a real tall thin boy, he was gangling, he was skinny, he was awkward, those big ears sticking out, his clothes didn’t fit him well, he had long arms and the sleeves were never long enough, and his wrists were always sticking out of the cuffs. (Alice Marsh, the sophisticated mistress who taught him to wear cuff links was still some years in the future.) He was very poor, Ms. Harbin told me. He arrived in Washington in December, 1931, with a cardboard suitcase and only one coat, a thin topcoat not adequate for Washington winters. I asked Ms. Harbin what would he say to you and she said, Well, he couldn’t stop talking about his train ride to Washington. He would say, “Have you ever ridden in the Pullman [a sleeping car]? I never did until I went up.” “Have you ever eaten in a dining car? I never did.” When he received his first monthly paycheck he told Miss Harbin that he wanted to deposit it in a bank but that he didn’t know how to open a bank account: He had never had one. She also told me how quickly Lyndon Johnson learned, how desperate he was to learn, how he became, so quickly, in her words “the best congressional assistant there ever was.”

Estelle Harbin lived somewhere behind the Library of Congress, and sometimes she would be coming to work and she would see Lyndon Johnson coming up Capitol Hill. And she said to me that every time he got in front of the Capitol he would start running. Well, I wanted the reader to feel all this. I wanted not just to say that he was coming from poverty, the land of little dog-run cabins, and was trying for something monumental. I wanted to make the reader see the contrast between what he was coming from and what he was trying for—to see the majesty and the power of what he was trying for. I wanted to make the reader see this and feel this as Lyndon Johnson saw and felt it. I kept thinking that the key to doing that, to showing that, was somehow on that walk along Capitol Hill. So I kept taking that walk over and over again—I don’t know how many times I took it, but it was a lot of times—but I didn’t see anything there. Yet obviously something on that walk had excited him and thrilled him so much that he’d break into a run every morning. And I wasn’t seeing anything that would account for that. Then something occurred to me. Although I had taken this walk a lot of times, I had never done it at the same hour that Lyndon Johnson took it, which was very early in the morning, about 5:30 in the summers, about 6:30 in winter. Since he and Estelle had been raised on ranches, they got up with the sun. I decided to try doing that to see if there was something, and there was. It was something I had never seen before because at 5:30 in the morning, the sun is just coming up over the horizon in the east. Its level rays are striking that eastern façade of the Capitol full force. It’s lit up like a movie set. That whole long façade—750 feet long—is white, of course, white marble, and that white marble just blazes out at you as that sun hits it. And then I felt I had found a way not to lecture the reader on the contrast between what Lyndon Johnson was coming from and what he was striving toward, and how that contrast helped explain the desperation, the frenzied, frantic urgency of his efforts—a way not to tell the reader but to show the reader that point instead.
  • People are always asking me what my daily schedule is. It’s not fixed. I write each day as long as I can.
  • I write my first drafts in longhand—pen or pencil—on white legal pads, narrow-lined. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I’d say I probably have three or four.
  • Then I do the same pages over on a typewriter. I used to type on what they called “second sheets,” brownish sheets, cheap paper like the paper used in the Newsday city room when I was a reporter. But those sheets are letter size. When I started writing books, I switched to white legal-size typing paper. You can get more words on a page that way. I triple-space the lines the way I did as a newspaperman, so there will be plenty of room to rewrite in pencil.
  • I rewrite a lot. Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there’s hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all—every one has been crossed out. And often there’s been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page has to be tossed out completely. At the end of the day there will be a great many crumpled-up sheets of paper in the wastepaper basket or on the floor around it.
“Turn every page”
  • Always liked finding out how things work and trying to explain them to people.
  • Not long after that, I decided that if I wanted to keep on being a reporter, I needed—for myself—to work for a paper that fought for things.
  • I looked around for a newspaper that fought for causes. There were several at the time, and I wrote letters to all of them asking for a job. It took a while, but I got an offer from Newsday on Long Island—a real crusading paper then—and in 1959 I went to work for them.
  • There are certain moments in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files, making them yield up their secrets to me…Each discovery I made that helped to prove that was a thrill.
  • I responded with my usual savoir faire. “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”
  • For the first time, really, I had a chance to think about what I had been doing and what I wanted to do with my life. And I guess I came to feel that if I could find out where Robert Moses got his power—this power that no one understood; this power that nobody else was really even thinking about, the power was just sort of there, it had been there for more than four decades—if I could explain it, I would be adding something to the knowledge people ought to have about political power, not the kind of things you learn in a textbook but the raw naked realities of power, about how power works in cities, how it really works.
  • The Power Broker, by Caro, became a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1974. But this is how close it came to never seeing the light of day. It’s a revealing illustration of how thin the line between success and obscurity is:
That was the worst night. We were really at the end of our rope. I didn’t know what to say to Ina. I didn’t know how to face her…I knew I was going to have to go back to work, and it was going to be very hard to finish the book. By this time I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I had learned some things it was important for people to know. But they were never going to know them if I didn’t finish the book. And that night, I just couldn’t see any way of finishing it. Soon after, luckily, things changed. My editor left his publishing house, and there was an “out” clause in my contract saying that I could leave if he left. I knew I needed an agent...

...Then I went to see Lynn. I remember sitting across the desk from her, and there was a call she said she had to take. She was selling a Tom Wolfe story to some magazine. And as I listened to her on that call, I said to myself, that’s what I need. Lynn had read my manuscript, and said, “I’d like to represent you, but you have to tell me something first. Why do you look so worried?” I didn’t know I looked worried. But of course I was. I told her, “I’m worried that I won’t have enough money to finish the book.” My editor had left me feeling that few people would read a book on Robert Moses, and that therefore no publisher would give me the money I needed to finish it. She asked how much money I was talking about. I told her I needed enough so I could spend two more years on the book. I thought it would take me two years. I don’t remember the exact amount I specified, but I know it was not that large. And all of a sudden there were other sentences that I’ll never forget. She said, “Is that what you’re worried about? Then you can stop worrying right now. I can get you that by just picking up the phone. Everybody in New York knows about this book.”