A Man of Many Words, and Every One Mattered: Robert A. Gottlieb (1931-2023) [by Mindy Aloff]

Bob Gottlieb 2Note: This is part two of a two-part essay on the late Robert Gottlieb (pictured left with his auithor Robert Caro). Part one appeared last Saturday July 1.

Bob could read a booklength manuscript overnight and get back to the author with useful observations about it the next day. He felt that making writers wait for a response to a book just finished was cruel.  As a cosmopolitan thinker who did not, under any conditions, want to be considered an intellectual, he would often exclaim in my hearing that the first rule of writing is to “Get it done!!” As an example, he would offer not George Balanchine choreographing on union time (“Don’t think, just do!”) but rather the lyricists of Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook, who, under commercial pressures, would turn out yet another classic song—or two, or three in an afternoon between the matinee and the evening show.  

In his autobiography, Avid Reader, Bob writes that he arrived at popular lyrics via the movies and dance. With this particular enthusiasm came a remarkable co-editor, the musical theater historian Robert Kimball, who shares the editorial byline with Bob on their unique anthology Reading Lyrics, a compendium of 1,000 U.S. and English entries from across the Twentieth Century. To me, Bob rarely spoke of literary poetry, yet he seemed to have memorized countless song lyrics. In his review of Wilfred Sheed’s The House That Gershwin Built, Bob suggests that “for many aficionados, the best of them all” is Johnny Mercer, and he carried that suggestion to me when I was editing the Library of American anthology of dance writing, proposing I include Mercer’s comic lyric to the Betty Hutton song “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry” (“I had a week to spare / He showed me the ground work, / The walkin’ around work / And told me to take it from there. . . .”) Bob’s generosity, including with his time, was remarkable when he believed in a project. (The poet David Lehman, who edits this web site with Stacey Harwood-Lehman, notes that Bob himself fact-checked his [David’s] volume about a segment of the American Songbook, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs.)

Bob Gottlieb 3In Avid Reader, Bob noted that one of the two best memoirs by dancers he knew of was by Paul Taylor, whose Private Domain Bob had edited (ballerina Allegra Kent, the other “best,” also enjoyed his beneficial scrutiny). Bob was, in his words, “an immense admirer” of Taylor’s choreography and of his dancing (which Bob first saw when Taylor was performing with Martha Graham, back in the 1950s), and that Taylor was the favorite choreographer of Bob’s wife Maria. “I loved Private Domain and I loved the man who wrote it,” Bob’s memoir reads. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Bob had helped Taylor build the scores for a couple of Taylor’s jukebox ballets—Funny Papers and Black Tuesday, whose recordings include unusual covers that, by the end of the last century, only a fan would know.  For Funny Papers, there is the anchoring number, a comic rendition, by classically trained Darlene Edwards, Jo Stafford’s alter ego in the 1970s Helen Reddy song “I Am Woman,” sung in an off-pitch imitation of Darlene Edwards; and, for Black Tuesday, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” the 1931 anthem of the Great Depression, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and music

 by Jay Gorney (a minor-key tune based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby), in the famous ‘30s performance by Bing Crosby, with its pristine diction and altar-boy purity. Bob’s participation in these scores for Taylor’s dances is only my guess, although it’s a guess educated by Bob.

Here are the best afternoons I enjoyed in the company of Bob Gottlieb:

—The first probably won’t sound like fun to most readers, but I was in heaven. Bob had some time on his hands and offered to help me proofread the entire galley of the Library of America anthology on dance that I edited, nearly 700 pages. We accomplished the mission in the silent, light-flooded, book-lined LOA offices. The managing editor, Trish Hoard, set up two copies of the galley side by side at a library table, with pencils and water and coffee: One copy had already been proofed and one was clean of proofreading marks.

At 10 a.m., we began to go over the pages together, checking the proofed ones against the clean ones, with the occasional discussion of spelling and semi-colons, of discrepancies between original and subsequent publications, and of the fantastical prose of George Washington Cable, the eloquence of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s phrasing, the exactitude of Robert Greskovic’s perceptions, the charm and glittering humor in Nancy Dalva. Around 12:30 p.m., sandwiches were sent up, and we continued working and exchanging views on dance writing and writing in general while munching. (In Avid Reader, Bob gives a cameo of proofreading in the Knopf offices with John Le Carré: The two lie down on the office rug and eat their sandwiches there.) Bob and I put down our pencils around 3 p.m.; the entire process took a couple of days. Trish said that not many of the LOA’s anthology editors ask to proofread their volumes in the LOA offices; yet (Bob hated the use of “but” as a conjunction), since we wanted to proofread together, side by side, this location made the most sense. Bob and I are both lovers of orthography and of the history of how English has been presented on the page. As such we were made for this exacting mission, and we had a wonderful, even ebullient time (as ebullient as one can be in sotto voce). Since, in contrast to Bob, I’m one of the slowest readers ever, I was happy to share at least some editorial skill with him. And what a pleasure to read and re-read those marvelous writings, to discuss them and to exclaim together over how much we admired them.

–The second experience occurred in the later 1990s. I was taking my daughter, Ariel, then eight years old, on the train to Stamford, Connecticut, to see the Balanchine ballerina Allegra Kent perform as the mother in a production of Balanchine’s Nutcracker.  By chance, we met Bob and Nicky, his and Maria’s son, then about fifteen, on the train to Stamford, Connecticut, to see the Balanchine ballerina Allegra Kent perform as the mother in a production of Balanchine’s Nutcracker.  We all sat together, saw the show together and took the train back to Manhattan together. At the station, we delighted in an elaborate exhibit of model trains,

In the spirit of that afternoon, I’ll draw this comment to a close with a bit of enthusiasm of my own for my favorite piece of writing by Bob: “A Lost Child,” about Minot Drouet, a French prodigy of a poet who, illegitimate and adopted, was nearly blind for the first three years of her life, heard a Bach organ composition on the radio and kind of woke up, and went on to put words together with taste, musicality, and passion. From then on, she composed fantastically haunting poems and letters, for which she was exploited by her adoptive mother and the complicit press. A forty-eight-page collection of poetry she composed at the age of seven or eight, in the mid-1950s, was heralded so vociferously that she was brought to meet (and be praised by) Jean Cocteau and Pope Pius XII. Life magazine tested her by putting her in a room with paper and pencil and giving her two topics to compose a poem on, with a deadline, as she was monitored to be sure that she received no secret help. She passed with flying colors.

Bob, who visited Paris annually for decades and spoke fluent French, was taken by Minot’s poems and by her story. He called her, now an adult, for an interview, but she turned him down; she had chosen to live in anonymity. And yet, he couldn’t abandon his effort to get to know her. He went to the small town where she lived and walked around it, asking denizens about her. He interviewed other writers about her. He couldn’t seem to accept that she was born with an almost freakish gift for writing, then chose to suppress that gift after being paraded in public by her mother and others, losing her marriage, and publishing a little memoir that read like an afterthought. What gets to me about this essay is that it is Bob’s possibly unique venture into terrain verging on fiction. It goes beyond reading about the poet to an attempt to find the subject himself, physically as well as psychically, refusing to take no for an answer, unable to free himself from obsession by writing. “That she survived at all is a testament to her strength,” he concludes. “That she lost Minou on her way to becoming Mme Le Canu is the price she was willing to pay.” 

Bob knew less about this mysterious genius than he did about the characters created by Dickens or Balzac or Tolstoy. Unlike their creations, the living poet would remain  analyzable though unfinished. It was her very elusiveness that prompted him to leave his reading chair and walk the streets in Jamesian pursuit of traces of her presence on her neighbors. In paying a great price for a calm existence, she became a pearl of great price in Bob’s personal cabinet of curiosities, a puzzle with just one more page to the solution—until Nature at last intervened to close and seal the book of life. 

–Mindy Aloff

Mindy Aloff’s most recent book, Why Dance Matters, was published in January by Yale University Press. She was hired by Robert Gottlieb to write the Dance column of Goings On About Town at The New Yorker, in late 1988, and, with two exceptions, contributed that weekly, without a byline, until mid 1993. In addition, she published 45 Talk Stories and Comments on a great variety of nondance subjects, also without a byline, as well as a long, bylined book lead on Sarah Bernhardt. Everything she published at the magazine was meticulously edited and fact-checked by up to eight individuals, including Robert Gottlieb. He treated all the copy, featured and departmental, with exquisite, personal care.


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