In his recent memoir, Avid Reader, publisher and editor Robert Gottlieb describes how his love of books and reading led him to a long and satisfying career, where work was fun.
The pattern for his lifelong career was established when he was a child. “In our house, at dinner we did not talk, we read,” he says.
Books provided the warmth and support that his family life was lacking. As a result of dysfunctional family dynamics, he spent seven years in Freudian analysis and learned to cope with what he calls his insecurity, as well as coming to terms and resolving amicably his relationship with his father, before his father’s sudden death at 69. His father, a lawyer, never quite approved of his son’s occupation and was always ready to provide him with a real job fit for a successful Jewish man, a doctor or a lawyer.
Instead, Gottlieb graduated from Columbia University in literature, went on to Cambridge where, in addition to his voracious reading (as a young boy at camp, he read all of Marcel Proust’s works and had the New York Times delivered to his camp, where he spent most of his time in his tent reading instead of enjoying the great outdoors), he directed plays and attended the ballet. He also married a fellow student, his first non- Jewish wife, Muriel, and had a son, Roger, with whom he claims to have a good relationship.
When he and Muriel divorced, he again married actress Maria Tucci, also non-Jewish, who he’s been with for 50 years. They have a daughter, Lizzie, and a son, Nicolas, who has Asperger syndrome. Gottlieb writes with great sadness and affection about his son.
He is now 85 and officially retired after more than 60 years as possibly the most celebrated publisher and editor of his time. He started as assistant to Jack Goodman, the editorial director of Simon and Schuster, where he claims to have stumbled into a job after a stint at Macy’s gift card department. When Goodman unexpectedly died at 47, Gottlieb found himself during the chaos that ensued, as he puts it, doing most of his creative work. He was soon in charge of the editing department and anything else he was capable of doing and wanted to do.
His first success as an editor was Catch-22 by the then-unknown Joseph Heller, who was working for an advertising agency. The manuscript was first submitted with title Catch-18, but Gottlieb claims that he was able to convince Heller to change the number because Mila 18 by Leon Uris had just been published, and he did not want to cause any confusion.
Books provided the warmth and support that his family life was lacking
Following his success at Simon and Schuster, Gottlieb spent 15 years as president and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, a renowned New York publishing house, where he perfected his craft and published such literary giants as Jessica Mitford, Toni Morrison, historian Barbara Tuchman and spy thriller writer John Le Carre, known to him as David Cornwell, who became a close friend – just a few of his many successes.
He also edited and published the memoirs of Lauren Bacall and Kathryn Hepburn, as well as longtime Washington Post editor Katharine Graham and others, including U.S. president Bill Clinton, whom he describes as a “complete professional” and with whom he shared midnight snacks while polishing his manuscript.
He was also friendly with Mordecai Richler whom he greatly admired. He refers to Barney’s Version as Richler’s greatest work.
He was lured away from Knopf to the fabled New Yorker magazine, by its new owner, S.I. Newhouse, and claims to have been happy there for five years because he greatly admired the publication and therefore made only incremental changes in its makeup. This was apparently not enough for the new owner, and Gottlieb was replaced by the dynamic Tina Brown, the editor of Vanity Fair. He describes his dismissal as sudden but very generous monetarily, which allowed him to pursue his new career as a writer. He also became an avid collector of contemporary kitsch, including Bakelite plastic women’s handbags, and a jazz aficionado. He wrote the biography of George Balanchine, the famous choreographer and manager of New York City Ballet, another of Gottlieb’s lifetime passions. He was on the boards of both the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet.
Gottlieb has a winter residence in Miami. He also wrote the biography of Sarah Bernhard, probably the most celebrated actress of her time. He currently continues as a writer and occasional editor.
He cites as the most satisfying aspects of his life as the love of work and the long and warm friendships he developed during his working life, with both men and many vibrant, successful women writers, agents and colleagues at work. His advice to writers who feel blocked is simple: “Don’t write, type!”