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Robert Gottlieb Is a ‘Crazed Reader’ Turned Legendary Editor

The author of a new biography of Greta Garbo helped to shape the work of writers like Toni Morrison, John le Carré and Robert Caro

by Emily Bobrow for The Wall Street Journal December 3, 2021

Greta Garbo once observed that she had never felt like a child. In a new biography of the film star published this week, renowned editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb, 90, suggests that her father’s premature death, her family’s poverty and her height—she reached 5’7” by the time she was 12 years old—conspired to deprive her of “ever having felt young,” as she once said. It’s one of the few things Mr. Gottlieb and his subject have in common.

Robert Gottlieb at home in New York City, Nov. 22. Benedict Evans for the The Wall Street Journal

“I certainly was not good at being a child,” he says over the phone from his Manhattan home, which he shares with the actress Maria Tucci, his wife since 1969 and the mother of two of his three children. From the moment Mr. Gottlieb could “devour” books at age 4, he “was a freak, an obsessed, crazed reader,” he says. His parents made him stand outside their New York apartment building for at least an hour every day to make sure he did something else. “From the start, words were more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting,” he writes in his 2015 memoir, “Avid Reader.”

As the editor in chief of two leading book publishers, Simon and Schuster and then Alfred A. Knopf, Mr. Gottlieb helped shape some of the most influential books of the 20th century. He was in his mid-20s when he and Joseph Heller labored over “Catch-22” “like two surgeons poised over a patient under anesthesia,” he writes. He then published “The Chosen” after convincing Chaim Potok to cut the novel’s last 300 pages. Mr. Gottlieb accepted “The Andromeda Strain” only after Michael Crichton promised to rewrite it, and he pushed Toni Morrison to quit her day job and write full time after he published her novel “Sula.” “In no case have I ever regretted taking Bob’s advice,” John le Carré once said.

Mr. Gottlieb continued to nurture writers as editor of The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992. “I never thought that at The New Yorker he would have time to do Cynthia-therapy, but he did,” the novelist Cynthia Ozick once told the Paris Review. When Tina Brown took over with a mandate to shake up the magazine, Mr. Gottlieb returned to Knopf, where he still works as an editor. “I’m a conserver by nature, not a revolutionary,” he says.

Editing is “a service job,” Mr. Gottlieb says. In lectures to young hopefuls pursuing careers in publishing, he explains that it’s the writer’s book, “not yours.” He encourages editors to read submissions and respond to writers right away, explaining that it’s “cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.” Robert Caro, who has worked with Mr. Gottlieb ever since “The Power Broker”—which shed around 300,000 words and took a year to edit before winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1974—has said he always submits his backbreaking manuscripts on Fridays knowing Mr. Gottlieb will have notes for him by Sunday night.

Although he came of age in the Depression, Mr. Gottlieb was an only child who did not want for much. His mother was a public schoolteacher, his father was an “up and coming lawyer,” and “everything was there for little Bobby,” he says. His “loving and thoughtful” mother knew how to feed his young mind, giving him D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” and tickets to Verdi’s “La Traviata” when he was a teenager. His father, however, was “always critical,” he says. “You wouldn’t dare to get an A-minus—that was not up to standard—so I didn’t.”

After studying at Columbia University and then the University of Cambridge, Mr. Gottlieb eagerly fled the ivory tower and returned to New York City. With a degree in literature and a wife and child to support, he manned a cash register at Macy’s and scanned job ads. An employment agency soon pushed the scruffy 24-year-old toward Simon and Schuster, a publishing house he describes as “amazingly successful but not respected.” Hired in 1955, he rose to editor in chief within a decade.

Movie star Greta Garbo is the subject of Robert Gottlieb’s latest book. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Mr. Gottlieb has a keen sense for how books should be packaged and sold. He is delighted, for example, with the jacket of “Garbo,” with its cropped photo of the star’s mesmerizing eyes. His book, after all, is less about Garbo’s films than an attempt to explain why she lingers on “in the unconscious of people.” As the director Billy Wilder once said, “The face, that face, what was it about that face?”

Garbo was “a phenomenon, a sphinx, a myth, but also a Swedish peasant girl, uneducated, naive, and always on her guard,” Mr. Gottlieb writes. She was just 36 when, fed up with fame, film studios and the relentless crush of paparazzi, she abandoned Hollywood and “withdrew from the world.” Garbo then spent nearly 50 years doing little “except wander around,” Mr. Gottlieb says, until she died in 1990 in a New York hospital. By then she was almost completely isolated, except for a doting maid and an enterprising niece, to whom Garbo left nearly every cent of her estimated $55 million estate.

A lively writer, Mr. Gottlieb conveys Garbo’s charisma but also her flaws. He recounts how she used friends and betrayed loyal servants, leaving a mere $3,500 to the maid who cooked, cleaned and cared for her for over 30 years. During World War II, she once refused an autograph to a uniformed American soldier on crutches. Erratic, self-serving and intellectually uncurious, she carefully eluded marriage—“I don’t think she wanted that kind of intimacy or control over her,” Mr. Gottlieb posits—but always had someone around to take care of her.
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Mr. Gottlieb admits he was “put off” by Garbo’s self-absorption. She generally behaved “with the selfishness of a spoiled child,” according to Adrian Adolph Greenburg, the renowned Hollywood costume designer, as quoted in “Garbo.” But mostly Mr. Gottlieb felt sorry for her. “Here’s this girl who at 19 arrives in a new country without knowing the language or knowing anybody, and two minutes later she’s the most famous woman in the world,” he explains. Garbo’s beloved big sister and the Swedish director who discovered and squired her to California both died soon after she arrived. “God, it is horrible,” she wrote at the time. “This ugly, ugly America, all machine, it is excruciating.”

Over the years, Mr. Gottlieb says he has had plenty of doubts about himself, “as a man, as a person, as a human,” but he has never doubted his professional taste. A natural editor, he tweaks his sentences as he speaks them. He explains that he constantly revises his work as he writes but doesn’t “want to use a fancy word like refine or improve” to describe this process, instead settling on “adjust.” Mr. Gottlieb has no idea where his editorial certainty came from, but he is grateful it still propels him forward. “I’m very, very fortunate,” he says. “And I know it.”

He is similarly upbeat about the state of the book industry, despite the consolidation of publishers and booksellers. “Ever since I’ve been in publishing I’ve been hearing about the death of publishing,” he says. “My beloved Doris Lessing had a phrase: That’s a load of old socks.” There will always be a market for books, he explains, so there will always be a need to publish them, “one way or another.”