April 29, 1931—June 14, 2023
Robert Gottlieb, legendary editor, writer, notorious eccentric who also collected women’s plastic purses died June 14, 2023, at age 92. Early in his career he discovered and edited Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. As editor-in-chief at Alfred A. Knopf, he went on to edit some of the most famous names in literature including in fiction: John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, and Toni Morrison; and in non-fiction: Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, Nora Ephron, Robert Caro, Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullmann, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and many others. Gottlieb was also a balletomane: a dance critic who served as a member of the board of New York City Ballet and a great friend to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where I worked for some thirty years.
For the Dance Division, he hosted public programs in the Bruno Walter Auditorium, curated exhibitions, haunted the reading room, greeting staff and the public who recognized him with his smile of delight with a hint of sarcasm. His eyes, ever alert, lasered into you. In his intro to the book he edited, Reading Dance, A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncatagorizable Extras, Gottlieb wrote: “As anyone in the dance field can testify, a book like this could not exist without the cooperation of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Time and again, the staff, from top to bottom, came through—as they always do.”
With Arlene Croce, Gottlieb was a creative consultant on the Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s project to add sound to silent Balanchine films, with pianist Dianne Chilgren, supervising artist Violette Verdy, and special consultant Christine Redpath. Gottlieb also participated as speaker in many of the Library’s public programs including A Tribute to Maria Tallchief at the Bruno Walter Auditorium in 2013.
In 2022, his daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, released Turn Every Page, a documentary about her father and his life-long relationship with Robert Caro as editor, from his biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker to the present, as Caro was finishing the fifth book in his series on Lyndon B. Johnson. In the Atlantic article titled “A CIVIL WAR OVER SEMICOLONS: The biographer Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, have been arguing with each other for 50 years,” Gal Beckerman writes “Caro puts on a dark suit every day, writes his drafts out in longhand, and copies them onto carbon paper using his Smith Corona typewriter, after which Gottlieb marks them up with a pencil—like a couple of cobblers still making shoes with an awl.”
In 2004, Gottlieb co-curated with Joy Brown the exhibition at The Performing Arts Library, ”Margot Fonteyn in America: A Celebration.” Gottlieb had edited Fonteyn’s autobiography The Magic of Dance and Joy Williams Brown had been a dancer with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and a long-time friend of Margot Fonteyn. In the process of deciding what went into the exhibition, they fought in Gottlieb/Caro combative style in which Joy Brown proved to be a worthy adversary. Though their fiery disagreements and constant complaints about each other were well-known, we were not privy to the substance of the conflicts. However, I like to imagine their arguments were as specific and carried the same weight as Gottlieb’s war over semicolons with Robert Caro.
Hands in his pockets, a crooked smile on his face, his presence, with his sly humor and quick retorts, will be missed by many, including me and the staff at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
* * *