The Long-Distance Reader

Avid Reader

by Robert Gottlieb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pp., $28.00
Lauren Bacall and Robert Gottlieb celebrating the publication of Bacall’s memoir, By Myself, which Gottlieb edited, New York City, January 1979
Jill Krementz
Lauren Bacall and Robert Gottlieb celebrating the publication of Bacall’s memoir, By Myself, which Gottlieb edited, New York City, January 1979

There is a special allure in learning the secrets of people who work behind the scenes, especially when their success—as diplomats, psychoanalysts, or spies—depends in large part on the invisibility of what they do. This is certainly true of book editors. The illusion they seek to promote is that the writer alone has produced the richly textured novel, the pitch-perfect memoir. Robert Gottlieb, now eighty-five and still working, though with a reduced load, at Knopf, where he has had many of his greatest triumphs, pulls the curtain ever so slightly—and reluctantly—aside in his memoir, Avid Reader. “I felt then, and still do, that readers shouldn’t be made aware of editorial interventions,” Gottlieb writes of his early years at Simon and Schuster, when he edited Joseph Heller’s antiwar novel, Catch-22, still his best-known achievement as an editor; “they have a right to feel that what they’re reading comes direct from the author to them.”

Gottlieb has broken his silence, at this late date, for several reasons: the passage of time; the encouragement of his family; the wish to convey certain ideas about editing and publishing; and—perhaps the strongest motivation of all—the understandable impulse to correct the record or settle a score, especially when doing so redounds to his own credit. Who, for example, came up with the title “Catch-22,” when the manuscript, on the verge of publication, was called “Catch-18,” just as Leon Uris’s Mila 18 was announced, mandating a change? Was it because October 22 was, as Heller’s formidable agent, Candida Donadio, let it be known, her birthday? Not at all, Gottlieb says. “One night lying in bed, gnawing at the problem, I had a revelation. Early the next morning I called Joe and burst out, ‘Joe, I’ve got it! Twenty-two! It’s even funnier than eighteen!’”

Gottlieb also wants to inform us about his second career, also mostly invisible, in dance. He first saw George Balanchine’s Orpheus in 1948—“it changed my life”—and calls this early exposure to Balanchine’s art “my great education.” He served for a dozen years as an unpaid programmer, mapping out the season for the New York City Ballet—“a fiendishly complex exercise” in balancing the competing needs of subscribers, dancers, music directors, and choreographers. He describes his relations with Mr. B as “completely impersonal.” He asked Balanchine’s assistant why the great man trusted “the head of a publishing house” to take on such major responsibilities. “It’s your name,” she replied. “Gottlieb [love of god] is the German equivalent of Amadeus. It’s the Mozart connection.” Gottlieb’s late-blooming career as a writer began with dance criticism for the pink-paged New York Observer and…

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