Six words is almost too many for publishing icon Robert Gottlieb to sum up his life as an editor, author, ballet aficionado, and plastic-handbag connoisseur. “I got it done,” he replies quickly, when asked to play the popular six-word memoir game. The literary exercise is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who is rumored to have written a novel in exactly that number of words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” You have two more words, I tell Gottlieb. Without missing a beat, he adds, “The avid reader got it done.”
Indeed, Gottlieb is an avid reader. From childhood, as a lonely Jewish boy in the Bronx, he found his life’s work through his exhaustive appetite for books. And indeed, he has gotten it done. During a six-decade-long career, he has published millions of words, at Simon & Schuster; at Knopf, editing his own impressive list, including authors John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, and Toni Morrison, to name a few; and as editor-in-chief of the New Yorker. He’s also written countless New York Review of Books articles, and six books, including a memoir, Avid Reader: A Life, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this month.
In Avid Reader, Gottlieb recounts his life and career, along with some juicy publishing insider stories. He also recalls his past as a nontraditional family man, a faithful friend, and a quirky original who loves Paris and flea markets (at least he used to—his handbag collection, he says, is now complete). Meeting me at his townhouse in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood, in his second floor writing room with its Juliet balcony overlooking the gardens, he is funny and charming, an urban sprite in stocking feet who behaves during this interview like he had all the time in world—even though he’s 85 and has the author of a forthcoming dictionary of jazz waiting downstairs to have lunch with him at his favorite diner.
And despite his agile mind and quick humor, Gottlieb admits he didn’t come up with “The avid reader got it done” on the spot. He’s told his wife, actor Maria Tucci, and others, that he wanted “He got things done” engraved on his tombstone. “But then,” he says, “I realized Adolph Eichmann could say the same thing.” At his 80th birthday party, Lizzie Gottlieb—his daughter, and a documentary filmmaker—said in her toast that her father had three rules he lived by: get it done, do it now, check and check and check again.
Gottlieb also has two sons: Roger, from an early first marriage, and Nicky, named after his father-in-law, Niccolo Tucci. Gottlieb describes Nicky in the book as “a buoyant, appealing oddball,” but he writes little else about this son who was diagnosed with a neurological disorder as a toddler. “Revealing emotions is not my style,” Gottlieb says. “It’s not my style to have them.” He does reveal, though, that writing about Nicky “was the only part [of the memoir] I approached with trepidation.”
When Gottlieb was casting about for a project after finishing Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (FSG, 2012), he says people, including Maria and Lizzie, pushed him to write an autobiography. Nonetheless, Gottlieb says he was a reluctant memoirist. But he did want to “correct some misconceptions,” including the notion that Si Newhouse, head of Advance Publications, which owns the New Yorker, fired William Shawn, Gottlieb’s predecessor at the magazine. “I didn’t want a book with an agenda—this is not a tell-all,” he says. “I wanted to write a book that honestly remembered some things that might be interesting to others, and other things that were interesting to me.”
Gottlieb knocked off the memoir in about a year (he gets things done, remember?) while working on about “20 other things.” The structure for the book came easily, he says, if not the writing. “It’s not writing I don’t like. Maybe it’s making myself do it, forcing myself to start the activity. Give me a first sentence, and I can run with it.” He says he doesn’t revise. “I’m an editor who writes, not a writer who edits. But I’m never done.” He adds, “I like to make some changes in blues,” using the publishing jargon for the final copy before printing. Gottlieb had many editors for the book: his wife and daughter, and three readers whose names you’d recognize, whom he doesn’t want mentioned. He says he’s worried about reviews. “I hope what they’ll say is, ‘He’s a terrible person,’ not ‘What a horrible book.’ ”
Early in his life, Gottlieb had a passion for what sells. He used money he received for his 16th birthday to order a subscription to Publishers Weekly so he could study the bestseller lists. Some years back, he saw all the Scott Peterson books on the lists, but he had no idea who the man was. When he found out that he was convicted of killing his pregnant wife, and that he almost got away with it, he connected the story with Dreiser’s American Tragedy—one of Gottlieb’s favorite books—and wrote a piece about it.
Gottlieb’s tastes in writing run high and low. “I’ve edited everyone from Bruno Bettleheim to Miss Piggy,” he likes to say. He’s also edited Bill Clinton on his checkered presidency, Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Nora Ephron on her neck, both Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall on Hollywood, and Katharine Graham on the national press corps. Gottlieb’s authors read like a who’s who of the 20th century’s literati.
There is one Gottlieb didn’t publish, however: John Kennedy Toole. Gottlieb sent the original manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces back to Toole for extensive revisions. But even after the rewrite, he didn’t think the book worked. Shortly after, Toole committed suicide at age 31. His mother, with the help of Walker Percy, got the book published posthumously and it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Recently, Gottlieb says, he reread the revised manuscript; he claims he would still have rejected the book. “Looking back is a waste of emotion,” he says. “Looking ahead brings on stress and anxiety. I am trying to reduce any tension [in my life].”
Gottlieb seems good at that too. His reputation is secure, as well as his finances—Newhouse provided a generous lifetime severance package when he removed Gottlieb from the New Yorker and replaced him with Tina Brown, and Gottlieb continues to work as an editor emeritus for Knopf, editing a handful of titles annually. He divides his time among residences in New York City, Paris, and Miami, where he devotes himself to the city’s ballet company. Classical dance remains a consistent passion for him, and he writes criticism for the New York Observer. “I never had a strategy for my life, my work, or anything,” Gottlieb says. “I never cared about power or money or notoriety. I just needed to be occupied.”
If anything has guided Gottlieb’s path, it’s his boundless curiosity, the search for what he doesn’t know—another reason he balked at writing a memoir. “I didn’t have to read up about it: it was my life, and I already knew about it,” he says, adding that he prefers to research the lives of choreographer George Balanchine and actor Sarah Bernhardt, both subjects of his biographies.
But writing the memoir provided Gottlieb with some unaccustomed reflection. “I’m more self-aware now,” he says. In his 20s, he underwent psychoanalysis, which he thought would lead him to find out he was “mad, bad, and dangerous.” Instead, he discovered he was “a smart, capable Jewish boy with lots of neuroses—not very interesting.” At a certain point, he says, there’s a choice—not a conscious decision exactly, but an inner drive—to continue evolving. “I’m a different person than I was three years ago. I’m calmer: no regrets, no anxiety.”
And though Gottlieb says “this isn’t the end of my life experience,” he acknowledges that he’s haunted by death—like Woody Allen, another successful Jewish boy from the Bronx. “I’m not afraid of it,” Gottlieb adds. “I just don’t want it.” He pads down the carpeted stairs—the interview is over, his lunch date is waiting. It’s time to get some more things done.
Carrie Tuhy is a writer and journalist in New York City.