Book Review: ‘Lives and Letters’ by Robert Gottlieb

September 11, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I’m a big fan of profiles, so I was ecstatic to receive a whole book of them in the mail to review for a trade publication.  The book was Lives and Letters, an anthology of profiles and essays by Robert Gottlieb, one of the most prolific editors in America.

Gottlieb is a former editor-in-chief of power publishing houses Simon & Schusters and Alfred A Knopf, and the former editor of The New Yorker.  He has over 50 years of experience in the industry, and is probably best known for ‘discovering’ and editing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and has edited the likes of Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Michael Crichton, Sidney Portier, John Lennon, Bob Dylan…and even John Cheever! (see video below).


Lives and Letters is marvellous collection of 44 pieces of splendid writing, most of which are profiles of celebrated writers and performers in film, theatre and dance, as well as iconic public figures.  Names everyone should recognise include Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Bernhardt, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Katherin Hepburn and the British Royals.  There’s also a couple of more personal pieces — essays on Gottlieb’s love affair with the New York City Ballet, and the surprisingly venomous fallout from Gottlieb replacing William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker.

My favourite pieces were the profiles on Harry Houdini and Minou Drouet, a child poet who took the poetry world by storm when she was just 7 or 8 years old before fading into obscurity.  The piece on the touching relationship between writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and legendary editor Maxwell E Perkins was also a pleasure to read.

All pieces were commissioned for a print publication over roughly the last 15 years, so naturally they differ in length, detail and focus.  Some are as short as 4 pages, while others can go for a dozen or more.  Some are straight profiles, while others feel more like reviews of books or films about the subjects.

Gottlieb’s style is simple, articulate, confident and efficient.  That said, his writings do have a certain highbrow sophistication to them reflective of his privileged upbringing that might irk some people.

The great thing though is that because Gottlieb is such a fabulous writer and editor, every piece is an engaging read that provides illuminating insights into his subjects.  He seems to always be able to find just the right quotes and anecdotes to reveal what makes the subject tick, their quirks, the relationships that defined them, what made them successful, and often, what led to their downfalls.

That said, not every piece was to my personal liking because they might be about subjects I’m not particularly interested in (especially dance and classical music).  Those pieces had many technical references I was not familiar with, and I’m sure other readers without Gottlieb’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts would be in the same boat.

Every now and then Gottlieb’s critical editor eye can also go overboard and overwhelm the narrative by getting too pedantic about every little thing that was wrong with, say, a biography written about the subject, including the author’s/editor’s poor grammar.  That’s why I preferred Gottlieb’s straight profiles — but everyone will have their own preferences and favourites.

Ultimately, Lives and Letters is a superb collection that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  My aim was to read one piece a day, but on most days I read 3 or 4 because they were so fascinating.  Even some of the subjects I thought I knew a little about contained so many juicy nuggets of info that I couldn’t help but read on.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the arts or the lives and scandals of the rich and famous throughout (Western) history.