Robert A. Caro is just days away from his 86th birthday. He has now made his life a part of history.
The New-York Historical Society established a permanent exhibit to Caro. He was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, as well as many other honors, for his epic biography about Robert Moses, “The Power Broker”, and ongoing series on President Lyndon Johnson. The exhibit “Turn Every Page” opens Friday. It draws on Caro’s archives which he donated in 2020. It contains videos, photographs and draft manuscripts. He also keeps reporters notebooks. Newspaper clippings are included.
On a recent morning, Caro explained that his dream as a child was to become a writer. The exhibit’s second floor displays trace his progression from The Horace Mann Record to being editor at his high school newspaper, The Horace Mann Record to his years working for Newsday as an investigative reporter.
When asked what impression “Turn Every Page” might make on young visitors, he replies that “quality of the writing matters equally in fiction and nonfiction.”
“This guy is kind of crazy.”
Caro started “The Power Broker” over 50 years ago. He has only completed five books since 1974 when the Moses biography was published: the first four Johnson books, the brief “Working” compilation of speeches and essays, and the “The Passage of Power Broker”. He published “The Passage of Power”, his most recent Johnson biography in 2012. He answered the inevitable question about the fifth volume, which he believes will be the last, by saying that no release is possible in the near future.
These artifacts help to explain why.
Caro points to a handwritten document he had compiled in 1970 to prove that Moses was plotting to keep people of color from Jones Beach State Park. It opened in 1929. Caro knew Moses had tried to restrict mass transportation to Jones Beach. But he needed tangible proof. Caro and Ina Caro, his wife and collaborator, stood at the entrance of the beach and tracked people entering and out. They found that most were white.
Caro remembers how much Johnson, a New York City native, needed to learn from Princeton University and private schools in New York City. For Johnson’s books, he expected to interview a few Texans to give him “a little more colour.”
— The exhibit contains a page from “Master of the Senate”, Caro’s third Johnson book. He fondly recalls how he spent so much time in Washington’s Senate that pages called him the “nutin the gallery”. Sessions on the floor would open or close, but Caro would stay, absorbing all that Johnson had to offer as Majority Leader in 1950s.
He says that there is no substitute for being there yourself, because you never know what you might find.”
“That’s why I keep writing so many books.”
Louise Mirrer is the president and CEO for the historical society. She says that the exhibit was the result of conversations with Caro about the archives. Caro lives near the museum and has been coming to the museum since childhood. His work was not limited to a research area. He wanted people to have the same understanding of the world that he had.
She says, “He’s the quintessential New Yorker through which you can see American History.”
In honor of the advice that Newsday managing editor Alan Hathway gave Caro decades ago about how important it is to read every document before signing, “Turn Every Page.” He says that the fun part is the research and “finding out”. The manuscript was from a Johnson crony who acknowledged the theft of votes in Johnson’s famous, narrowly won 1948 Senate election. Also, there are boxes of papers Caro reviewed at Johnson presidential library in Austin. His wife recalls sitting on a floor during pre-Internet times and looking through telephone books to find Johnson classmates.
The writing begins the pain.
Behind the glass front is a manuscript page for “The Passage of Power” that is heavily marked up. Johnson is just a month into his presidency. This began on November 22, 1963 after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Caro would like to recount a late-night telephone conversation between LBJ, Roy Wilkins, and Johnson. Wilkins, like many of his peers has come to admire Johnson after initially distrusting him as a Texas Democrat who had allied with Southern segregationists at the time he joined Senate.
Johnson hangs up as Wilkins is nearing the end of their conversation. Wilkins says to Johnson, “Please take good care of yourself.” Johnson seems to not take Wilkins seriously and Wilkins adds, “We need you.”
The lines on the page have been crossed out and rewritten. Caro recalls being chastised by himself — “You Bob, feel that this is such an telling and revealing moment, and you’re just not doing it” — and then making some small but pleasing revisions. He changed one sentence to “They believed him”, referring to the feelings of civil rights leaders about Johnson. Then he wrote in red in the margin, telling his typist to not miss the paragraph sign.
He says, “I rewrote this so many time, he.”