“I have a new mantra,” Bob Gottlieb told me a few months ago when I called him. “Would you like to hear it? It is as follows: I’m 91 years old, and I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to, except die.” Last week, he did what no one who loved him wanted him to do.
Gottlieb excelled at phone conversations—long ones. They would cover all manner of subjects: Doris Lessing’s lovable (to him) peculiarities were a bedrock; a silken Herbert Marshall in the divine Lubitsch comedy Trouble in Paradise; the value of reading multiple translations of Japanese novels or Chekhov short stories; Mae Barnes’s hilarious rendition of “(I Ain’t Gonna Be No) Topsy,” a before-its-time burlesque of the silly and demeaning parts Black actresses were forced to play; the necessity of re-reading Life and Fate, the doorstop novel by Vasily Grossman, which he considered the greatest work of postwar fiction.
During my New Year’s visit to New York last December, he mentioned that I really needed to read the complete essays of V. S. Pritchett, because along with The Spanish Temper they were his best work. Unable to find the heavy paperback edition I’d had in college, I treated myself to a hardcover. Which weighed me down as I carried the package up the stairs. Gottlieb probably went through the whole thing in a day and a half.
In my earliest days as an editor, a few months out of college, I proposed an article on a book Gottlieb had edited. It was a gambit to meet him. We spent 15 minutes on the subject at hand (Lauren Bacall) and then moved on to life, work, psychoanalysis, and his perhaps twinned observations that 1) Whatever your intentions, you always marry your mother the first time, and 2) You can’t tell anyone anything they’re not ready to hear. The first he clearly corrected in his marvelously companionable second marriage to the actress Maria Tucci, whom everyone fell, and falls, in love with on first sight. The second is a lesson too easy to test too often.
He also told me that if I wanted to become an editor at The New Yorker, my ambition at the time, I would go to Boston and convince a “man nobody’s heard of named Bill Whitworth” to give me a job at The Atlantic, which he had just taken over, because “no matter what anyone says, he was going to be the next editor after Mr. Shawn.” (Though becoming editor himself was nowhere in Gottlieb’s thinking, he ended up with the job in 1987.) Those in the publishing world who didn’t know Whitworth soon became admirers of the sterling and landmark work he did editing The Atlantic—which was matched by, or perhaps more accurately reflected, his efforts to make working there a paradise for the staff. Working for Whitworth was, as Gottlieb promised, the best possible training to become a magazine editor.
When decades later we reunited, it was with him as writer and me as an editor, still at The Atlantic, for one of the typically buoyant and incisive essays he wrote after leaving The New Yorker and returning to editing books for Alfred A. Knopf—this one on the lyricist Lorenz Hart.
As is unsurprising for a supremely gifted editor, Gottlieb was a dream writer to work with: responsive to every suggestion, whether to argue with it, correct it, or offer more and better than you asked for; always willing to discuss and consider any aspect of a passage, or the historical, theoretical, or critical implication of an observation; ready to argue at length over a semicolon, as Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, wittily showed in her wonderful recent documentary Turn Every Page, about Gottlieb’s 50-year collaboration with the biographer Robert Caro. I would take unseemly pleasure in noting punctuation suggestions he’d accepted in a fresh set of galleys.
It was part of the game. The back-and-forth of work enthralled him: he would look forward to hours-long sessions with photo and layout editors like a child about to go to a theme park. Life was work, and he made work play.
After the sheer fun of working on the Hart essay—Gottlieb scanted his own writing, referring to it with implied quotation marks as “my art,” but he was as deft as he was diligent, and able to pack remarkable amounts of biographical detail into a short paragraph—we kept working together, with me as informal editor of his marvelous memoir, Avid Reader: A Life, his book on the life and films of Greta Garbo, and numerous essays for various magazines.
Gottlieb was a dream writer to work with: responsive to every suggestion, whether to argue with it, correct it, or offer more and better than you asked for.
He taught me to be faster. Much faster. When I would see an unexpected and always delightful e-mail from him enclosing a manuscript draft or a set of galleys, I knew I had to set everything aside and respond within hours or by the next day at the latest. “Cruelty to animals,” he called making an author wait for an opinion.
His motto, as he writes in his memoir, was “‘Do it now. Get it done. Check, check, and check again.’ I felt the full force of this when, late in life, I drifted into writing. It made me insane when I would deliver a commissioned piece or part of a book and would wait days, sometimes weeks, to hear back from my editor—insane with anxiety and insane with fury. I expected others to do unto me what I did unto others.” I had to take his words to heart.
Mostly, though, I reveled, as all his many friends did, in the joy of his company. Even over the phone you could see his knowing, dimpled smile, and his delivery was unfailingly ebullient yet dry. When I had the luck to be a nominator for the Tony Awards, he demanded, as he’d done with other theater-critic friends, that I take him to “the worst possible dog” of the season, and it had to be a musical.
When tickets to a show unpromisingly titled Beautiful: The Carole King Musical arrived, I thought I’d found just the thing. But at the end of an expertly written and directed, fast-moving show with a powerhouse lead performance by the dazzlingly talented Jessie Mueller (“Just think of her in Funny Girl,” he said as the curtain came down, which I’d already thought of), he turned to me and said crisply, “If she doesn’t win a Tony, it will be a crime. You owe me a dog.”
In late April, I spent the day with him at his Miami house, as he recovered from an illness that got in the way of his mobility but not his mind. Though I expected him to need a nap after an hour or two, we spent almost five hours talking, Maria abetting and contradicting him and the two making teasing and loving fun of each other.
When I left he was giving firm, professional instructions on the phone to a friend on ballet management, a decades-long side career. The last time we spoke, just as his daughter and wife were helping him return north, he made it short, because he was in animated conversation with a visiting friend, and ended with “Talk to you soon, dear boy.”
One day, as I was in the midst of editing one of his pieces, Gottlieb sent an e-mail saying, in toto, “Was that you who just called? And if not, why not?” I won’t stop thinking, and wishing, the same whenever the phone rings.
Robert Gottlieb, the longtime book editor and former editor of The New Yorker, was born in 1931 in New York City. He died on June 14, 2023.
Corby Kummer is the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Food & Society program. A senior editor at The Atlantic, he is also the author of several books, including The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes