‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece
In the spring of 1974, after Robert A. Caro had finished writing The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York—a seven-year ordeal that took the book through three publishers and two editors and nearly bankrupted Caro—the first-time author got a surprise phone call from his agent, Lynn Nesbit.
“I submitted the book to The New Yorker,” she told him, “and Mr. Shawn [William Shawn, who was then the editor of The New Yorker] told me he's never read anything like it, and he's going to publish more of it than he's ever published of any book.”
Caro was stunned. A launch in The New Yorker guaranteed enormous national media attention for a biography concerned almost exclusively with the history of New York City. His publisher, Knopf, was equally excited and pushed back the publication of The Power Broker two months to give The New Yorker excerpts time to generate excitement around the book.
But the day he got Nesbit’s phone call—“That's the day my life changed,” Caro told The Daily Beast.
Of course, as with almost everything concerning the tortuous history of The Power Broker, it wasn’t quite that simple. According to William Whitworth, then the assignment editor at The New Yorker (and not coincidentally a Nesbit client), Shawn was initially put off by the size of the 1,296-page book. “He read it fairly quickly and said it was a wonderful piece of work, but we couldn’t do it,” Whitworth said. “It was just too long.”
Persuading Shawn to let him see what he could do with it, Whitworth spent six weeks paring the 650,000-word book into four 25,000-word pieces.
“Bob [Caro] agreed to the deal, but he absolutely hated what I had done,” Whitworth said. “He just despised it. And here’s why: He had expected excerpts, that I would take whole, coherent chapters the way he had written them. I didn’t excerpt it; I condensed it.” Revisions went back and forth for weeks before Caro finally signed off on versions he could tolerate.
When the check from The New Yorker—which paid Caro more than he had been paid on the actual book—arrived in Nesbit’s mail, she called Caro to let him know. “How long does it take a check like this to clear?” he asked her. “It should be OK tomorrow,” Nesbit said.
The next day, Caro and his wife, Ina, packed their bags, drove to the airport, and bought two tickets to Paris. When they boarded the plane, they didn’t even know where they were going to stay when they landed. “The stewardess conferred with the captain,” Caro said, “and they found us this little hotel in Paris.”
It was the Caros’ first trip to Paris. In the 40 years since—through trips to Texas for research on Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, through his back problems, through his near fatal bout of pancreatitis in 2002—they have gone to France in all but four years since the publication of The Power Broker.
Robert Moses was born to privilege in 1888 in New Haven, Conn., where his father owned a successful department store and his mother found the local culture lacking. In 1897, his family moved to New York. Moses attended Yale, where he starred on Yale’s swim team. He went on to study government at Oxford, and received a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.
In his 20s and 30s, Moses worked through a series of government reform jobs, first for the City of New York and then for New York Gov. Al Smith in Albany. Moses became president of the Long Island State Park Commission and then—additionally—chairman of the State Council of Parks.
In 1927, Moses became—again, additionally—New York’s secretary of state. That particular tenure lasted only two years, but in that brief time Moses managed to take control—or in some cases create and then take control—of many boards and public corporations. At one point, he simultaneously held 12 such positions, effectively controlling transportation planning, public housing, energy policy, and municipal parks in New York City and Long Island without ever having been elected to anything.
His influence on New York City parks alone is immense. “When Robert Moses began building playgrounds in New York City, there were 119,” Caro writes in The Power Broker. “When he stopped, there were 777. Under his direction, an army of men that at times during the Depression included 84,000 laborers reshaped every park in the city and then filled the parks with zoos and skating rinks, boathouses and tennis houses, bridle paths and golf courses, 288 tennis courts, and 673 baseball diamonds.”
Moses left an unprecedented mark on New York’s architecture (Lincoln Center, United Nations), parks (Jones Beach, Central Park Zoo), and transportation (Triborough Bridge, Long Island Expressway). He also uprooted more than 500,000 people and destroyed entire neighborhoods to build them all. He gave New York its beaches on Long Island and its parkway system (a precursor of the nation’s interstate system), but he deliberately built the overpasses so low that buses—the main transportation for poor blacks—could not drive under them, and he failed to extend the subway lines so that only people with automobiles could enjoy the beaches, that is, when they endured the traffic snarls and finally got there.
Through his control of myriad unelected boards and public authorities, Moses reigned for four decades until 1968, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller deposed him from the most powerful of those positions. Rockefeller promised Moses new power in a major reorganization, according to The Power Broker: “The governor had bought Moses’s support with the only coin in which Moses was interested—power, a promise that he would have it under the revised transportation setup.” But when the reorganization came, the role for Moses did not.
Robert Caro was born in 1935 and grew up in Manhattan on Central Park West and 94th Street, which was then a middle-class neighborhood of Jewish emigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe like Caro’s father, who had grown up in Lodz, Poland. Caro’s mother, who was American, died when he was 12.
Caro had an early interest in writing. He wrote long essays at Horace Mann School and was editor in chief of the student newspaper, and thereafter a writer and editor for The Daily Princetonian throughout his four years at Princeton, where he had a sports column called “Ivy Inklings” and rose to managing editor.
“Caro’s pieces were long, and we gave him space because we knew he was good,” said Richard Kluger, who was a year ahead of Caro at Horace Mann and Princeton and editor of The Daily Princetonian when Caro was a junior. “He did a series of articles that were first-rate, depth pieces. You could see even as a kid that he could be a long-distance runner for sure.”
The day after he graduated from Princeton in 1957, Caro married Ina and then went to work as a reporter for The Home News (now Home News Tribune) in East Brunswick, N.J. In 1959, he became a staff writer for Newsday, a large daily serving Long Island and the Bronx. He started out writing human interest stories—a man with a Picasso in his bathroom, a woman still working on the family farm at 80—but within a few years he was covering Long Island government and economic development for Newsday as an investigative reporter.
In 1963, he wrote a six-part series for Newsday called “Suffolk: The Sick Giant” about the stagnating economy in Suffolk County—the large, eastern portion of Long Island—which had become overly reliant on home builders and defense contractors to create jobs. The just-opened Long Island Expressway was supposed to connect Suffolk County to the greater New York economy, but the traffic jams had left Long Island as landlocked and gridlocked as ever.
New York is an archipelago. Staten Island, of course, is an island, as is Manhattan. But even Queens and Brooklyn are part of the larger landmass that makes up Long Island. The only one of the five boroughs connected to the mainland is the Bronx. From the ’30s to the ’60s, construction of hundreds of miles of expressways and seven massive bridges transformed New York into a hyper-connected super region, and the traffic followed, and so did sclerotic traffic jams.
A bridge connecting Long Island to New England, Caro wrote, “would mean that trucks heading from anywhere on Long Island to the rest of the country would no longer be forced to travel through the congestion of New York City.”
In the early ’60s, one proposal to alleviate traffic onto and off of Long Island was a six-mile bridge across Long Island Sound from Oyster Bay on Long Island to Rye, N.Y., near the state line with Connecticut. A more ambitious, 23-mile bridge would stretch from Long Island all the way to Watch Hill, R.I.
“The question,” Caro wrote on February 1, 1965, “is whether it is feasible to build across the choppy waters of Long Island Sound a giant bridge—perhaps the second longest in the world—that would link the eastern end of the island with New England.”
On March 19, 1965, Caro wrote in Newsday that Robert Moses had decided not to push for an authorization of an important feasibility study for his proposed bridge over Long Island Sound. Caro cited “informed sources” saying Moses had been forced to back down because both Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. opposed the project. (Moses was also in the doghouse over the 1964-65 World’s Fair, which he ran and which was losing millions of dollars.)
“Bob, you’d better come back up here,” a friend told Caro a few weeks later. “Robert Moses was up here yesterday.” And all of a sudden, the bill that Rockefeller and Wagner had declared dead was very much alive. On June 3, 1963, the New York state Assembly approved the authorization for the feasibility study 130-0 and sent it to Gov. Rockefeller for signing.
Robert Moses had worked his will.
“Everything I wrote—it didn’t say this in the articles—had this underlying idea that in a democracy the power comes from being elected,” Caro said. “You have moments in your life that you remember. I was driving back to the house in Roslyn. I had won some awards—some minor journalistic awards. I was 26, 27, whatever. When you win anything, you think you know everything. I remember driving back and thinking, ‘Everything I’ve been writing is basically bullshit.’ Here was a man who had never been elected to anything, and he had more power than anyone who was elected.”
In 1965, Caro started a one-year Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, which he got partly on the strength of the “Suffolk: The Sick Giant” series for Newsday. He lived in a boarding house in Cambridge, Mass., while Ina stayed on Long Island with their son Chase, who was in school. Caro spent the Nieman year immersed in study—reading, taking classes, attending lectures—about government and urban planning.
"I first thought I could go back and sell Newsday that I could do a really long series on Robert Moses. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized you couldn’t do this in a newspaper context. So I wrote a letter proposing this," Caro said, pointing to my paperback copy of The Power Broker. The letter was to Richard Kluger, Caro's classmate at Horace Mann and Princeton, who had worked at several newspapers and had been editor of the New York Herald Tribune’s book review before becoming an editor at Simon & Schuster.
“I wanted him to write a book about suburbia,” Kluger said. “Americans had moved to suburbia. There had been some books on it but nothing major. I was looking for a major treatment of American social history about what had happened post-World War II, and I tried to sell him a bill of goods on it.” Caro wasn’t buying it. He wanted to write about Moses. “He’s very strong-willed, as you may have discovered,” Kluger said.
In late 1966, Kluger signed Caro’s book about Moses to a two-year contract with Simon & Schuster for $5,000—$2,500 up front and $2,500 upon finishing the manuscript. After the Nieman year was over, Caro returned to Long Island and to Newsday with $2,500 and a contract to write a book about the man who was at that time New York City parks commissioner, the head of the State Parks Council, the head of the State Power Commission, and the chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
Caro soon realized he would not be able to work full-time as an investigative reporter for Newsday and write a research-intensive biography. He applied for and received a Carnegie Foundation grant that would pay his salary for a full year and provide him with office space at Columbia University. The grant, Caro felt certain, would give him the time and resources he would need to finish the book.
(Caro remembers the day he found out he had received the Carnegie grant—February 1, 1967—because it was the same day Lyndon Johnson’s former special assistant, Bill Moyers, took over as publisher of Newsday. Caro and Moyers have seldom crossed paths since; Moyers is one of the few LBJ insiders who have refused to speak to Caro for The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Caro is writing the fifth—and what he says will be the last—volume in the series.)
“I had this outline that said I was going to be done in nine months,” Caro said. “I had always met my deadlines before at the newspaper, so I thought I would be done in nine months. And that gave us enough money to quit the paper.” Once the book was done, he promised Ina, they would finally take the trip to France they had desired for so long.
When Caro first wrote to Moses to tell him he was writing a biography and would like to interview him, Moses not only said no but dispatched two different PR reps in two different conversations to tell Caro “no” in person. Not only would Moses not speak to him, neither would family members, friends, aides, city officials, or state officials. And he would not provide documents either.
Caro plowed ahead anyway. He drew a series of concentric circles on a page with a single dot—Robert Moses—in the center. The first circle was Moses’ family and friends, the next circle was people in regular contact, and so on, to an outer circle of people who knew Moses, and dealt with him, and were willing to discuss it. “As I was later to be told,” Caro wrote in a 1998 New Yorker article, “Commissioner Moses was more and more frequently encountering people who, unaware of his feelings, said that this young reporter had been to see them.”
Realizing the book was going to happen whether he wanted it to or not, Moses relented. “So you’re the young fellow who thinks he’s going to write a book about me,” Moses said at their first meeting at his summer cottage on Long Island out past Jones Beach on May 26, 1967, turning on the charm with a warm smile.
Caro interviewed Moses seven times over the next year. He interviewed Moses’ brother, Paul Emanuel Moses, 11 times and Moses’ daughter, Jane Moses Collins, three times. Robert and Ina Caro—the only research assistant who has worked on any of his five books—would eventually conduct 522 interviews for The Power Broker. Caro would not finish the Moses book in nine months or in 12 months. “At the end of the Carnegie year, the book was barely started,” Caro said. “I was still doing research.”
In 1968, the Carnegie year and the salary that went with it had ended, the $2,500 book advance from two years before was long since spent, and the book was nowhere close to finished. Caro came home to Roslyn one afternoon from a day of research, and Ina told him she had sold the house. The $25,000 they made on the sale would be enough to live on for another year, and they moved to an apartment in the Bronx.
Ina, who has since researched and written two books about French history, did a lot of the records research for The Power Broker during that year. Caro had injured his back playing pickup basketball during the year of his Nieman fellowship, and he went through bouts of excruciating pain that would last for weeks. “Ina would have to go down to the courthouse,” Caro said. “I knew the courthouse in Nassau County, so I could say, ‘Go to the second floor. Go down the second aisle.’ Ina would call me from a payphone.”
When Caro had written about 500,000 words—considerably longer than the average book but covering less than half of Moses’ life—he had dinner with Kluger, his editor at Simon & Schuster. “I had written a lot of words,” Caro said, “and I gave it to Kluger and asked for the other half of my advance, which was $2,500, and he basically said no.” Kluger says Simon & Schuster gave Caro an additional advance of $1,500. Regardless, Caro had run out of money and was two years or more from completing the book.
In 1970 Kluger left Simon & Schuster to become editor in chief of Atheneum, a prestigious independent publishing company, and managed to take Caro with him.
Kluger says he sacrificed other titles in negotiations with Simon & Schuster over his list: “It’s like draft choices in the sports world; Caro was my top draft choice.” Caro says he had a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave Simon & Schuster if his editor ever left and that he followed Kluger to Atheneum because he didn’t know any other editors, didn’t have an agent, and needed to make a decision quickly: “I knew by that time that I wanted a different editor, but I didn't know any other editors.”
Caro by this point had completed most of the research and written more than half the book. But his progress was glacial. One thing that had made a strong impression on him in the course of his research was the human cost of the massive construction that Robert Moses had wrought in and around New York City. Moses’ major highway projects had destroyed entire neighborhoods and uprooted the lives of thousands of New Yorkers. For a chapter called “One Mile,” Caro decided to trace the impact of a mile of one of Moses’ expressways on hundreds of displaced families. “This is such a human tragedy, and no one writes about these things,” Caro said, “and I want to show what one mile of a highway through a congested city can mean.” That single chapter, the most visceral and moving part of The Power Broker, took Caro six months to research and write.
A year and a half after Kluger and Caro arrived at Atheneum, Kluger departed to write a book of his own—Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (which would be published to wide acclaim in 1975 and was a National Book Award finalist).
Caro wanted a clean start, a new editor, and enough money to survive on while he finished writing The Power Broker. Another writer had referred him to four agents—three men and Lynn Nesbit—and Caro sent his two-thirds-completed manuscript to Nesbit's office. “While I was talking to her, she was selling a Tom Wolfe short story to somebody,’ Caro recalled. “She said, ‘I have to take this call.’ I was listening to her talk and I said, ‘That’s what I need.’”
“I don’t know how I’m going to get enough money to finish the book,” he told Nesbit at that meeting. “Is that what you’re worried about?" she said. “How much are you talking about?” Caro said he needed enough money to spend another two years, maybe three, on the book. “You can stop worrying about that right now,” Nesbit told him. “I can get you that by just picking up this phone. Everybody in New York knows about this book.”
Caro was astonished. He had no idea the publishing industry was waiting to see which publishing house Nesbit would take it to. Nesbit shopped the book to editors at four prominent imprints. Robert Gottlieb, the publisher and editor in chief at Knopf, read the manuscript with great enthusiasm and told Nesbit he wanted to edit the book himself. Nesbit and Gottlieb settled on a two-book contract that included The Power Broker and a biography of former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, completing a deal late in 1971.
“When I look back on the first five years that I wrote on The Power Broker—before this thing happened where I went to Knopf—when Ina and I look back on those years,” Caro said, “all we can really think of those years is being broke.” Caro took a long pause. “I remember the rent up in the apartment in the Bronx, and all I remember is every month we were worried about it. And we had a son, and I wanted him to go to Horace Mann like I did. I felt I had to send him to Horace Mann.”
With a manuscript now more than a million words long—long enough for a half-dozen books—Caro had a guaranteed income for the first time since he started the project five years before. There was work left to do, but he would at least be able to pay his rent while he was doing it.
For much of the time he labored on The Power Broker, Caro’s workspace was a tiny office in the basement of an apartment on Johnson Avenue in the Bronx. “It’s in a part of the Bronx called Spuyten Duyvil,” said Caro, who seems to have never met a detail he didn’t love and couldn’t wait to tell you about. “It’s Dutch for ‘spitting devil.’” In late 1971, he moved his research materials to the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room, an 11-author collective space at the New York Public Library where Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and Theodore H. White wrote The Making of the President, 1964.
Caro was already doing much of his research—about New York in the ’20s and ’30s, about Robert Moses as New York’s young secretary of state, about the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows—at the New York Public Library. “Being able to keep materials at your desk was wonderful, and so were the materials,” Caro wrote in a 1995 New York Times piece about the Public Library’s centennial. “There seemed to be no document or report you needed that was not housed somewhere in that great building on Fifth Avenue or in one of its annexes.”
In the early ’80s, Caro moved to a one-room space in an office building on 57th Street—a gold plate on the door says simply “Robert A. Caro”—that is close to his apartment and to his publisher, and he has worked there ever since. Next to his desk, Caro keeps a small bookcase of materials for whatever chapter he is writing. Above that is a giant, billboard-sized corkboard where he keeps the master outline for what he says will be the last book in his The Years of Lyndon Johnson multi-volume biography. “This was originally supposed to be three volumes, and then it became four volumes, and now it's five volumes,” Caro said. “I will say this is the last volume, but why would you believe me?!”
On the opposite wall are file cabinets full of interview notes and records for the next LBJ book and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase full of books about the Johnson era. Caro has a few copies of The Power Broker on that shelf, but virtually all of his original research materials are neatly arranged in a file cabinet at his house in East Hampton, Long Island, where he lives during the summer.
Like the tools of his trade, Caro’s habits and methodology have changed little in 40 years. He still begins each book with a written statement of its narrative arc. He still works from a detailed outline. He still cuts and pastes—literally, with scissors and tape—as he edits each chapter of each book.
When I asked Caro why the book is subtitled Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, he answered simply, “If you look at the introduction, it explains that.” And then he thumbed through my paperback copy to The Power Broker’s introduction, a dense, lyrical, distillation of the book’s major themes that is also one of the book’s most powerful and literary chapters.
“’In the evening of Robert Moses’s 44 years of power, New York so bright with promise 44 years before was a city in chaos,’” Caro read aloud. “And we can’t even remember this, but this is what New York was. People were afraid. Fear of walking the streets was part of life here. New York has come back, but he didn’t have anything to do with that.” The cracking edifice of Robert Moses on the book’s cover is Moses at the end of his career, and it is New York in 1974.
In one of my later conversations with Caro to check a few dates, he was working on the next LBJ book in a tiny shed behind his East Hampton house. Caro is not finished with the book, there is no publication date set, and nobody asks him how it’s going—not his longtime agent, his longtime editor, or his longtime managing editor. Gottlieb, though, will nudge. Caro is 78 years old. Gottlieb, who has edited every one of Caro’s books, is 83. “He’s always saying, ‘Actuarially, you have to hurry up and finish this.’ It’s a great remark!” Caro said.
Caro laughed every time I spoke to him. Although he does very few interviews, he enjoys talking about his work. Knowing he had a back problem while he was writing The Power Broker and knowing the manuscript was hundreds of pages long, I asked him how he lugged it around.
“This is a great story,” Caro said, smiling widely and pausing the gather the details. “The financial guy [at Knopf] was Tony Schulte. Nice guy. In the early stages of this, there came a point when I had to bring the manuscript in, and it was in seven typewriter boxes. Ina drove me in, I got out of the car, and [the boxes] just reached up to my chin. Seven boxes. And I’m in the elevator going up. This man I’ve never met — Tony Schulte — says to me, ‘Is that a manuscript in there?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘How many copies?’ And I said, ‘One copy.’”
He laughed and I laughed, but he laughed more.
After Caro finished his first draft of The Power Broker, he and Gottlieb began the massive task of cutting 350,000 to 400,000 words—enough for two or three entire books. “There are two entire chapters that were cut out that I'm sorry about,” Caro said. “One was on Jane Jacobs stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway. And one was why the New York City Planning Commission has no power so that someone like Robert Moses could run over the Planning Commission. Those are very significant things. Today I get asked a lot about both those subjects, and then I always have a pang of regret that they’re not in The Power Broker.”
Gottlieb and Caro also cut a tremendous amount of material about former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who figured prominently into the early part of Robert Moses’ career. The LaGuardia materials were supposed to be the foundation of Caro’s second book, but he and Gottlieb decided instead that Lyndon Johnson would be a bigger, more consequential subject.
A month before the book’s publication, so obscure was the name Robert Caro that The New York Times led a piece announcing the book’s publication date—September 16, 1974—with the quip that people in the New York architecture community “have been asking one another who he is, and wondering what his other writings are.”
On August 26, 1974, three weeks before The Power Broker was published, Robert Moses, then 86 years old, released a 3,500-word rebuttal that said the book was “full of mistakes, unsupported charges, nasty, baseless personalities and random haymakers thrown at just about everybody in public life.” But Moses had already lost. His reputation as a power-hungry bully preceded the book, and the rapturous reviews praised Caro's prodigious research and his fair treatment of Moses.
David Halberstam called The Power Broker “surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” New York magazine said it was “the most absorbing, detailed, instructive, provocative book ever published about the making and raping of modern New York City and environs and the man who did it.”
In The New York Times, book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt captured what was special—and frankly revolutionary—about the book. “To begin with, there is the thoroughness with which [Caro] has made his case against Moses—the enormous mass of detail (much of it new and much of it shocking) he has dug up on Moses’s climb to power, on his relations with mayors, governors, bankers, and political bosses he learned to manipulate in order to realize his visions ... Then there is the narrative drive Mr. Caro has managed to impart to a history that easily could have proved cumbersome ... And finally there is the dimension that lends to his portrait. For if Caro blames Moses for all of New York’s present troubles, calls him a bigot and a bully and a worshiper finally of power for its own sake, he also shows us Moses’s brains and charm and vision.”
The book has exerted an immense force on Robert Moses’ legacy. Virtually every examination of his work—his parks, his bridges, his expressways—in the last 40 years has referenced The Power Broker, the devastation that Moses visited upon thousands of lives upended, and the epic traffic jams to which he contributed mightily by ranking the almighty automobile above mass transit. (Ironically, Moses himself never learned to drive.)
A revisionist view of Moses—or at least a renewed appreciation for the more positive aspects of his work—was evident in 2007 in a series of exhibitions and an accompanying book, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, by Columbia University historians Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. Ballon and Jackson praise The Power Broker as “persuasively argued, beautifully written, and thoroughly researched” but disagree that Moses has had a net negative impact on New York’s development in the years since.
“Had the city not undertaken a massive program of public works between 1924 and 1970, had it not built an arterial highway system, and had it not relocated 200,000 people from old-law tenements to new public housing projects,” Ballon and Jackson wrote, “New York would not have been able to claim in the 1990s that it was the capital of the twentieth century, the capital of capitalism, and the capital of the world.”
And yet, there’s still no subway line from JFK or LaGuardia airports into Manhattan, automobile traffic from Long Island into and out of Manhattan is as bad as it was in the ’60s, and the neighborhoods that Moses destroyed with freeways and onramps are gone forever.
In 1975, The Power Broker won the Pulitzer Prize for biography (which Caro would win again in 2003 for Master of the Senate) and the Francis Parkman Prize for American history, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award (which Caro would win for Master of the Senate). Knopf has sold more than 400,000 copies, and the book has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback. College professors assign it as required reading in courses ranging from government and city planning to journalism and literature.
“Caro’s genius is that his books are never warehouses,” said Neal Gabler, who wrote Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and is writing a biography of Ted Kennedy. “They have a novelistic drive to them in which all of that research is integrated in a powerful and sustaining way.”
Gabler, who teaches in the MFA program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, uses Caro’s Master of the Senate as one of his texts. “If you go through paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, you’ll see how he creates the sense of music,” Gabler says, “sometimes symphonic when he wants it to be, sometimes very spare when he wants it to be.”
Bob Spitz, who wrote The Beatles: The Biography and is writing a biography of Ronald Reagan, said he remembers reading The Power Broker new in hardcover on the tour bus in the ’70s when he was traveling as Bruce Springsteen’s road manager.
“It was the first biography that made me want to become a biographer,” Spitz said. “I had just moved to New York. I felt like I wanted to just immerse myself in all things New York, and the Robert Moses story was like a magnet for me. I had no idea the kind of punch that book was going to deliver.”
In his Manhattan office on 57th Street, Caro’s desk is largely uncluttered—a lamp, some legal pads, his Smith Corona 210 electric typewriter. “This is a 210, but the 220 is basically the same,” Caro said, “so I use the Smith Corona 210 or 220. They stopped making these like 25 years ago, so if a part breaks you have to cannibalize.” There is no computer in his office; he barely ever uses one and doesn’t have an email address.
Caro owns 14 of the vintage typewriters, and readers occasionally send him one out of the blue as one did a few weeks before I interviewed him in June. “Some people say, ‘I have one; I’ll sell it to you for $200.’” Sometimes he buys them. Caro wouldn’t call his typewriters vintage; he would call them old. They are not museum pieces but tools of his trade that just happened to go out of production 25 years ago.
Ribbon is also hard to come by: “I want the typing to be dark. I like it to be really dark. That means you’ve got to use a cotton ribbon. They do not make cotton ribbons. Ina found some place—I can’t even remember where it was—which would make cotton ribbons if I ordered enough. The trouble with that is they get dried out. They made me buy a lot. But I’m going to need more.”