I am sad to hear that Robert Gottlieb — Bob Gottlieb to those who knew him — has died at age 92. He was maybe the single most famous book editor of my time. When I worked at Random House in the early 80s, where he ran the Knopf imprint — his name was spoken in hushed tones.
Bob Gottlieb’s career breakthrough came at Simon & Schuster, where he edited and published Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” He was Heller’s editor from then on. Gottlieb’s list of authors was awe inspiring and included Toni Morrison, who worked at Random House as an editor, as well as Robert Caro, John le Carre, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, among others.
Gottlieb was not just a literary editor. He knew which celebrities would make for good memoirists. Among the autobiographies he was proud of, and became best sellers, were those by Lauren Bacall and Sidney Poitier.
When I was toiling at Ballantine Books in 1983 as a publicist, a novel was bought for paperback called “The Alleys of Eden” by Robert Olen Butler. I grabbed it as a project and met the author, who was working on a new novel but had no publisher or agent. Thanks to my friend Laurie Colwin, who was published by Knopf, I brought Butler to the famed agent Candida Donadio. She sold the new novel to Gottlieb instantly, and I wound up in his office to explain how all this happened. (Butler wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize down the line for another book. Gottlieb knew talent.)
Bob Gottlieb was erudite, incredibly well read, and brilliant. But he had his hobbies. I’ll never forget walking into his office at Knopf where he instructed me to sit in a chair that resembled a large hand, or catcher’s mitt. The office had shelves and shelves of plastic pocketbooks. Bob Gottlieb collected kitsch. His office was filled with it, all kinds of toys and baubles you would never expect to see at stuffy Alfred A. Knopf. We talked (I listened) as he showed me his walls of bestsellers and he told he his whole history. The moment is seared in my memory.
At the old Random House, before Conde Nast bought it, Gottlieb and Gordon Lish at Knopf, Joe Fox and Bob Loomis, these were the towering heroes, as well as Victoria Wilson and a few others. Knowing them was a remarkable thing for young people just entering the world. (Cork Smith was another at Viking, Elizabeth Sifton, too. Jim Howard at Norton was another.) You hear the word ‘storyteller’ thrown around now, but these people were the real storytellers. They shaped character and plot, and made words sing.
Rest in peace, Bob. It’s really the end of an era.