Robert Gottlieb, the legendary Knopf editor-in-chief and one of the most eminent literary editors in publishing history, died of natural causes on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 92 years old.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1952—and spending two years at Cambridge University—Gottlieb joined Simon & Schuster in 1955, rising to editor-in-chief in just 10 years. Gottlieb then joined Knopf in 1968 as president and editor-in-chief, where he succeeded Alfred A. Knopf, who founded the company in 1915, to become only the second head of house in the venerable publisher's history. Gottlieb would run Knopf until 1987 when, in a move that shocked the book and magazine publishing worlds, he left to become editor of the New Yorker. He worked at the magazine until 1992, when he returned to edit at Knopf.
In a statement, Reagan Arthur, Knopf executive v-p and publisher, said it would be hard to name an editor who had a more lasting and profound impact on American letters than Gottlieb.
"Bob was a consummate editor and also, as his aptly titled memoir put it, an avid reader, with an endless appetite for stories and voices that led him to champion authors of astonishing talent across multiple genres," Arthur said. "He had a vision not just for what worked on the page, but what worked in the marketplace, and as editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, he led our imprint to new heights of literary and commercial success. Bob loved language and he loved books, and countless writers and readers are the richer for it.”
Gottlieb's list of authors is reads like a who's who of English-language literature, including Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Michael Crichton, Nora Ephron, Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Doris Lessing, Robert Massie, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Barbara Tuchman. His longest working relationship, Knopf officials said, was with Robert Caro, whose first book, The Power Broker, the acclaimed and award-winning biography of Robert Moses, was edited by Gottlieb and published by Knopf in 1974.
“I have never encountered a publisher or editor with a greater understanding of what a writer was trying to do—and how to help him do it," Caro said in a statement. "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. 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.”
Gottlieb also edited the first four volumes of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, with a final volume still in the works, and his 2019 book, Working. A documentary about Gottlieb and Caro's famous collaboration, Turn Every Page, directed by Bob’s daughter Lizzie Gottlieb, was released last year.
In a remembrance essay, New Yorker editor David Remnick recalled how. S. I. Newhouse, whose family owned both Knopf and The New Yorker, decided to shake things up by replacing the magazine's longtime, legendary editor William Shawn, with Gottlieb.
"This caused a moment of pain and tumult at the magazine. Even though Gottlieb had edited books by many of its writers, nearly everyone on the staff signed a letter addressed to him, dated January 13, 1987, expressing 'sadness and outrage over the manner in which a new editor has been imposed upon us,' and urging him to 'withdraw your acceptance of the post that has been offered to you.' Gottlieb politely declined to decline the job," Remnick writes. "Although he certainly published an enormous number of distinguished pieces of writing in The New Yorker—including John Cheever’s diaries, Ian Frazier’s 'Great Plains,' and Janet Malcolm’s 'The Journalist and the Murderer'—his boldest contribution may have been walking through the door in the first place."
In a lengthy April 10, 1972 PW article, Gottlieb talked at length about a number of topics in the publishing business, including his thoughts on the author-editor relationship.
"Some writers may want and need a strong psychic relationship with an editor. They want their editor to be a father or a mother, and/or a psychoanalyst, banker, friend, lover, etc. Others not only don’t want and need all that but can’t bear it and want a very calm professional relationship at arm's length," he explained. "On the one hand, you have to be a litmus paper or a chameleon. [An editor] must be able to give whatever it is that’s needed. On the other hand, you have to have a great deal of strength and authority. Otherwise you’re useless, because the writer can’t believe someone who doesn’t believe himself."
One "unbreakable rule" of editing, Gottlieb offered: "keep your hands off a book you don't really like," he said. "Because the editorial impulse has always got to be to help the book become more and better of what it is already rather than change it into something it isn't."
In a 2016 PW interview on the publication of his memoir Avid Reader: A Life, which PW praised as a "canny, exuberant" book that "conveys the enormous energy and creativity of American publishing," Gottlieb was invited to play the famous six-word memoir game. The words he chose to sum up his life and work: "The avid reader got it done."
This article has been updated with further information.