Last month, because he has a great knack for knowing what I’ll want to read, my dad emailed me a link to the Robert Caro profile Chris Jones wrote for Esquire. I’ve been so absorbed in reading one of Caro’s books that I managed to forget to read the profile. Until yesterday. David Dobbs sent me a message, summing up Jones’ piece as “So so so so good.”
And so I read it. It’s splendid. I’m tempted to pay it the highest compliment I can think of: that it manages to be worthy of Caro. But that may not be quite right. While it’s a gorgeous profile, any profile strictly worthy of Caro would — perversely — require hunting and hunting and hunting for the least sympathetic details of Caro’s life. Maybe Jones tried. Maybe he tried hard. Here, as Jones writes, is how a journalist would have tried even harder:
How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?
Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. “As the circles grew outward,” Caro says, “there were people who’d only met him once. He wasn’t going to be able to get to them all.” Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert’s relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp’s social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.
"So that’s how," Caro told Gottlieb.
"Every step of that story is by all ordinary standards insane," Gottlieb says today. "But he didn’t say any of it as though it were remarkable. We’re dealing with an incredibly productive, wonderful mania."
I love that part. Two other passages really hit me. Both deal with propping Caro up during those bleak times when the publishing world still saw his “incredibly productive, wonderful mania” as a pointless obsession with a doomed book.
Block after block he walked, past 96th Street, 110th, 126th, 168th. Had he made a terrible mistake? Had he written a bad book? Caro felt trapped: in too deep to abandon his book, too far away from finishing it to continue. Ina remembers receiving her husband that night, ruined. Her anger is still in her voice today: “I was livid,” she says. “I just thought they’d treated him miserably.” They sat down and talked into the night. “He’s such a beautiful writer,” she says. “I just always felt everything would work out.”
Nesbit, today one of the principals of Janklow & Nesbit, sits in her sunlit office, and the iconic names of her clients jump out from the shelves: Michael Crichton, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Jeffrey Eugenides. But she can still remember sitting down to read those first five hundred thousand words of Robert Caro’s.
"I thought, Who’s Robert Moses?" she says. "I was young and hadn’t been in New York City that many years. I didn’t really know who he was. And then I started reading the manuscript, this incredibly compelling narrative about this man I knew nothing about. He came alive."
She turned the last page and made two phone calls. The first was to Caro. He remembers it as one of the great moments of his life. “I know you’ve been worried,” she said. “You don’t have to worry anymore.”
Those might be the most wonderful words I’ve ever heard attributed to an agent.