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Editor to many great authors, Robert Gottlieb has died at 92

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Robert Gottlieb died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 92. He was one of the nation's most acclaimed book editors and an author and critic in his own right. NPR's Chloe Veltman has this remembrance.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: In an interview earlier this year with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Robert Gottlieb said the secret to being a good editor is how you respond to what you're reading.

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ROBERT GOTTLIEB: If you're stunned by it, excited by it, amused by it, thrilled by it, then you assume that you're not alone.

VELTMAN: Gottlieb's sparkling roster of writers speaks to his talent for tapping into that innate response and then running with it - Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, John le Carre. The A-listers go on and on.

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ROBERT CARO: He had a unique ability to understand what a writer was trying to do, the unique ability to help the writer do it.

VELTMAN: That's author Robert Caro speaking with NPR. Now 87 years old, Caro worked with Gottlieb on books like "The Power Broker," his acclaimed 1974 biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, and a multi-volume biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. The fifth, and as yet unfinished, volume of this epic is the subject of the documentary "Turn Every Page."

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Fifty years...

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Five books...

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CLICKING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Four thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eight pages...

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...And they're not finished yet.

VELTMAN: Caro says Gottlieb was a rare kind of editor. He understood why an author might want to devote five entire volumes to exploring a subject's life.

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CARO: One of the reasons that I really loved Bob was he never once asked me for a delivery date.

VELTMAN: Yet, their relationship was not an easy one, says Gottlieb's daughter Lizzie Gottlieb, who spoke with NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED earlier this year. She made the "Turn Every Page" documentary.

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LIZZIE GOTTLIEB: Prickly and contentious and - is combatative (ph) too strong a word? I don't know.

VELTMAN: Caro concurs.

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CARO: Kind of contentious. There was a lot of stalking out of rooms in anger.

VELTMAN: Gottlieb himself was more diplomatic about the collaboration in his interview on Fresh Air.

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R GOTTLIEB: Bob and I - it was not that we disagreed. We saw things differently.

VELTMAN: Robert Gottlieb was born in New York in 1931. He chatted with Terry Gross about getting his first gig at Simon and Schuster in 1955.

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R GOTTLIEB: It was not easy for me to get a job because I was this scruffy guy.

VELTMAN: Gottlieb rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster. It was his decision to publish "Catch-22" in 1961 by the then-little-known author Joseph Heller that gave Gottlieb a certain unlooked-for star power.

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ALAN ARKIN: (As John Yossarian) Let me see if I got this straight. In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy, and I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.

JACK GILFORD: (As Doc Daneeka) You've got it. That's Catch-22.

ARKIN: (As John Yossarian) Whoo (ph).

VELTMAN: That's from the 1970 movie adaptation of the wildly successful wartime satire. Gottlieb himself came up with the term catch-22 - now part of our everyday lexicon. He went on to work for Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker and pursued his own work as a dance critic and author. And on the side, he told Terry Gross he collected women's accessories.

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R GOTTLIEB: Well, the thing I collect is a certain kind of plastic woman's pocketbook.

VELTMAN: Gottlieb remained optimistic about book publishing, even as the industry has become more corporate and commercial.

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R GOTTLIEB: I feel there's a tremendous interest in books these days. They are celebrated, and they're thought about. And they're talked about, and they're read.

VELTMAN: Meanwhile, author Robert Caro says he plans to finish the fifth and final volume of his magnum opus about former President Lyndon B. Johnson, though it'll be tough to do it without his longtime editor, sparring partner and friend.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.