Today is the birthday of American writer Robert Caro (books by this author), born in New York City (1935), and best known for his five-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which he began in 1976. About writing biography, he once said, “The power of the historian is the power of the truth, a very basic thing.”
Caro got his start as an investigative reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday. He wrote a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay would be a bad idea and found himself fascinated by Robert Moses, the urban planner behind the bridge.
Moses had been instrumental in the construction of the Staten Island Expressway, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Lincoln Center, and the placement of the United Nations headquarters in New York City instead of Philadelphia. Caro had been convinced his articles would sway the decision to build the bridge, but the state’s Assembly voted to begin construction. Caro was stunned. He said: “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’”
It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker (1974), a 1,300-page biography of Robert Moses. He was so broke while he was writing the book that his wife sold their Long Island house without telling him. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
To write biography well, Robert Caro believes it must read like fiction. He says: “Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.”
Caro keeps a strict routine when writing, like wearing a suit and a tie and keeping the same hours every day. He tends to do obsessive research, particularly for the biographical volumes of Lyndon B. Johnson. One reviewer even remarked that Caro’s research was so detailed that he described the average annual rainfall in the Texas Hill Country in the years before Johnson was even born. He interviewed Lyndon B. Johnson’s speechwriter 22 times and lived in Texas for several years while doing research. He wrote for a long time on a typewriter, even when taking notes in the Johnson Library, until the noise of the typewriter became so distracting that the library forbade him to use it. Now he uses a computer.
Robert Caro writes with a note taped to his lampshade. It reads, “The only thing that matters is on the page.”