A peek into Robert Caro's yellowed files

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A peek into Robert Caro's yellowed files
Robert Caro, center, in his office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Nov. 11, 2020, with James Hicks and Debra Schmidt Bach of the New-York Historical Society, which has acquired his archives. The revered author, still at work on a volume on President Lyndon B. Johnson, is giving awed archivists — and New York — access to more than 50 years of research. Jonah Markowitz/The New York Times.

by Dan Barry

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A seasoned curator entered the spare Upper West Side office of her subject the way a student of art might approach the Louvre. Eyes wide, notebook in hand.

Along the wall was pinned the 27-page outline for a section of a long-anticipated book: the fifth and last volume of a magisterial biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In a corner sat the idiosyncratic desk designed decades ago for her subject by the personal physician of another back pain sufferer, John F. Kennedy. And on that desk, a Smith Corona Electra 210, a model of typewriter last manufactured in the 1970s.

Plugged in.

“Wow,” said the curator, Debra Schmidt Bach, which is pretty much all one can say upon entering the writing sanctuary of author Robert A. Caro.

Anyone not familiar with the name can find a measure of his elevated status in the carefully appointed backdrops seen these days on cable news programs. Often prominent on the bookshelves of pundits is “The Power Broker,” the classic, Bible-thick exploration of government, politics and influence.

By Robert A. Caro.

At 85, Caro is bespectacled, graying and old-school; he routinely wears a jacket and tie to an office where he is the only occupant. He is also a superstar chronicler of 20th-century America whose patient methodology — grounded in the belief that time equals truth — has long since entered literary lore.

He has spent most of the last year re-researching and rewriting a single section of the new volume, about how Johnson succeeded in getting monumental initiatives enacted into law — including voting rights and Medicare — while simultaneously escalating American involvement in the tragic Vietnam War.


Early last year the New-York Historical Society arranged to acquire Caro’s substantial archives, including the files for his Johnson masterwork and for “The Power Broker,” which examined how one unelected official, Robert Moses, used his political wiles to reshape the New York metropolitan region.

But as Bach, a curator for the society, would learn, the Caro records extend much deeper into the past — back to when he was a young newspaper reporter — revealing hints of the compassionate rigor that would one day earn the writer international acclaim.

Peering into a file cabinet crammed with Johnsonian nuggets, Caro looked up and, not for the only time, asked, “Do you want to see?”

There was only one answer.

Bach, 58, has curated exhibitions on subjects as varied as the history of New York breweries, the comic book superheroes of Gotham and the treasures of Congregation Shearith Israel. Her mission now was to begin imagining a permanent Caro exhibition, planned for September in the historical society’s building at 77th Street and Central Park West.

“I need to figure out a way to have these paper-based materials displayed so that they can really speak for themselves,” Bach said. (If these papers could speak, they would be in the author’s distinctly New York accent.)

Her quest began in Caro’s office. There are no knickknacks, no works of art; the only appliances are a coffee maker and an electric pencil sharpener.

“I try to have nothing in the room that’s not about writing,” he said. “It’s hard enough to concentrate.”

“Right,” Bach said, taking notes.

His desk is actually two combined, both modest. One he found left behind in an office he used to rent. The other features a half-circle cutout that, like many things in Caro’s world, has a story behind it.

Nearly 50 years ago, when he was just beginning his research for “The Power Broker,” Caro badly injured his back while playing basketball. “We were totally broke, and I couldn’t sit up to write,” he said.

Taking a long shot, his wife, Ina, contacted Dr. Janet Travell, an expert in musculoskeletal pain who was Kennedy’s personal physician. She is responsible for Kennedy’s use of a rocking chair, which became a symbol of his presidency.

Taking on the case, Travell — who also served as physician to Caro’s future subject, Johnson — studied how Caro sat at his desk. She then devised a godsend of a solution: a semicircle cutout in the desktop that alleviates pressure on his back as he types.

“These days, if I hurt my back, the best place to be is not my bed,” Caro said. “It’s my desk.”

Just as iconic, at least among the Caro-obsessed, is the Smith Corona Electra 210. The anachronism is an extension of the man, reflecting his desire to pin down elusive historical moments with strikes of keys against paper you can hold.

Caro has amassed 14 of these machines, which he cycles through a local typewriter shop for maintenance and repair. He also found a man in Cleveland who agreed to make cotton typewriter ribbons — if he ordered in bulk. (He did.)

Under gentle questioning by Bach, Caro said his favorite is on the desk, while a close second is at his home near Sag Harbor, on Long Island.

“Don’t make me sound like too much of a schmuck,” Caro added, just as gently.

How did his archives wind up with the New-York Historical Society? Another story.

Caro grew up on Central Park West, between 93rd and 94th streets. His mother, Cele, learned she had cancer when he was 5 and died when he was 11. On many Saturdays, her sister, his Aunt Bea, would take the boy to lose himself in either the American Museum of Natural History or the New-York Historical Society.

Fast-forward to 2018. Caro realized that he would have to deal someday with his extensive archives; a few libraries had already inquired. “But my head was always in my book,” he said.

In his heart, though, Caro knew where he wanted his papers to go: the same historical society building where he found distraction as a boy, a beloved aunt by his side. He asked a friend to inquire whether there was interest. There most emphatically was.

Louise Mirrer, president of the historical society, made a generous offer and said a few magical words that clinched the deal. At a dinner with the Caros a few nights later, she elaborated: The papers would be processed quickly, made part of a permanent, rotating Caro exhibit and be easily available to future scholars in a dedicated study area — a stipulation dear to a man who had been told too often in his research that so-and-so’s papers were unavailable.

“Everything I wanted, consciously or subconsciously, was suddenly being voiced by the woman across the table,” Caro said.

Now he was showing Bach a small sample of the thousands of interview transcripts, manuscripts and notebooks that the society had acquired. Here was a stenographer’s pad, on the cover of which was scrawled “LBJ I,” and which contained notes from interviews with Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, and brother, Sam. There, a cabinet drawer filled with files: “Campaign aftermath”; “Vietnam”; “Bundy-Moyers.”

The notebooks reflected just one part of Caro’s laborious, step-by-step process: reading, researching, interviewing, organizing, assembling a comprehensive outline and, finally, pecking at a typewriter, with papers sullied by rejected language crumpled and thrown in the general direction of a wastebasket.

“There’s a belief among some — not all — nonfiction writers that all that matters is to get the facts,” Caro said, reflecting on his continuing quest to find the right words. “I don’t believe that. I believe that the quality of writing is just as important in nonfiction as in fiction.”

He said he often keeps a note on his desk lamp that reads, “The only thing that matters is what is on this page.” But so much of Caro’s research never made the page. For example, he interviewed all the key aides to Fiorello La Guardia, who served as New York’s mayor from 1934 to 1945. Yet only a minuscule fraction of that research appeared in “The Power Broker.”

This is one reason he wanted the archives to be accessible to the public. The unpublished materials extend well beyond Moses and Johnson to encompass much of American life over the last century, from the streets of New York City to the rutted roads of the Texas Hill Country — to the marbled halls of the U.S. Senate.

“Years of observation,” he said, by which he meant more than a half-century.

Mirrer said in an email that the acquisition would secure the historical society’s place “as among the greatest destinations for research in — and understanding of — 20th-century history.” The Caro archives, she said, also demonstrate “the transformative effect that the skills of an investigative journalist can have on historical research.”

“I could not be more thrilled,” Mirrer said.

With much more to share, Caro led Bach and James Hicks, an exhibition designer, out into the cold, wet morning and a few dozen paces east to his apartment. Stored there were more than two dozen scrapbooks — many of them never before seen by anyone outside his family — that had been assembled by his wife, his indispensable research partner.

Caro has no shortage of clippings, having won nearly every literary honor, among them the Pulitzer Prize for biography twice; the National Book Critics Circle Award three times; the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and the National Humanities Medal, given to him in 2010 by a big fan, President Barack Obama.

He is even a “living landmark,” according to the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

But the half-dozen scrapbooks he had chosen to share with Bach — already stacked on the dining room table — mostly included items from the time before Robert Caro was ROBERT CARO. To when he was a fledgling reporter trying to find his way.

One scrapbook featured a 1952 front page from the newspaper for the Horace Mann School, the prep school he attended in keeping with his mother’s fervent wish. The headline: “Robert Caro Named Editor of the 1952-53 Record.”

Others contained clippings from his years as a reporter on Long Island for Newsday, including his first big investigation: a 1963 series that exposed a scam in which older people, particularly former New York City police officers and firefighters, were being duped into buying retirement-home sites in Arizona’s Mojave Desert with no access to water or utilities.

“You might want this,” Caro said.

“Yes, we might,” Bach said with a laugh.

“This is the application for the Pulitzer.”

“Wow,” Bach said.

“Well, no,” he said. “I didn’t win.”

Another scrapbook was dedicated to “The Power Broker,” which was published in 1974 after seven years of research, doubt and financial hardship. Its success made Caro.

Here were the early print ads for the book; the many profiles of its author; a note from distinguished journalist Murray Kempton (“…will be seen as a revolutionary challenge to the scholarship that has until now deluded Americans about the way their lives are run.”).

Then Caro fell silent. He had come upon a news clipping he hadn’t seen in more than 50 years: an article he had written for Newsday in 1964 called “Anatomy of a $9 Burglary.”

“I thought for a long time this was the best thing I ever wrote,” he said softly.

The story details the many lives affected by one small criminal moment: A man burglarizes a Long Island home, steals $9 from a wallet and is quickly caught.

Caro tracked down the still-traumatized victim and her daughter, seven of the 12 jurors in the trial and the defense attorney, who ruefully admitted to being fooled by his client’s professions of innocence. Most affectingly, the young reporter gained the confidence of the burglar’s wife, who initially did not want to talk.

She finally opened up about falling in love, realizing that her husband was a criminal, living on welfare while he was imprisoned, trying to protect her two young, heartbroken daughters — and finally deciding to cut ties with their father.

The story, on yellowing newsprint kept now in a binder, may be as forgotten as the crime that prompted it. But like the crime, it is also larger than itself, revealing the journalistic meticulousness — the determination to dig deep beneath a moment’s surface — that would become Caro’s hallmark.

“I remember walking away from her house ...,” he said, then stopped himself. He seemed to struggle with his composure. “I don’t want to say this.”

Caro has done thousands of interviews since, many with people of historical consequence. Still, memories of this long-ago interview, with the wounded but resilient wife of a Long Island criminal, had caught his breath.

After a moment, he recalled crying when he wrote this story. Then, with a veteran curator peering over his shoulder, the celebrated author turned the page.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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