NEW YORK – Days shy of his 86th birthday, Robert A. Caro has reached the point where his own life is a piece of history.
The New-York Historical Society has established a permanent exhibit dedicated to Caro, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and many other honors for his epic biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” and his ongoing series on President Lyndon Johnson. The exhibit, "Turn Every Page,” begins Friday and draws upon Caro’s archives, which he donated to the society in 2020. It includes videos, photographs, draft manuscripts, reporters notebooks, an outline he keeps on the wall of his office, newspaper clippings and such everyday items as a Smith-Corona typewriter.
Walking through the exhibit on a recent morning, Caro explains that his only dream growing up was to be a writer, “maybe a well known writer." The wall displays on the second floor of the society trace his evolution from editor of his high school newspaper, The Horace Mann Record, to his years as an investigative reporter for Newsday, to his famously lengthy and detailed books.
Asked what kind of impression “Turn Every Page” might leave with young visitors who don't know a lot about him, he responds that "the quality of the writing matters as much in nonfiction as in fiction.” He also anticipates a less reverent take:
“This guy is sort of nuts.”
Caro began “The Power Broker” more than 50 years ago, but has completed just five other books since the Moses biography came out in 1974: his first four Johnson books and the relatively brief “Working,” a compilation of essays and speeches released in 2019. His most recent Johnson biography, “The Passage of Power,” was published in 2012, and he answers the inevitable question about the fifth and presumed last volume by saying no release is likely in the near future.
Some artifacts here help explain why.
— Caro points out a handwritten list he compiled in the early 1970s when he was trying to show that Moses had plotted to keep people of color out of Jones Beach State Park, which opened in 1929. Caro knew that Moses had worked to limit mass transportation to Jones Beach, but he wanted tangible evidence of the results. So Caro and his wife and collaborator, Ina Caro, stood near the entrance to the beach, tracked the people coming in and determined that the overwhelming majority were white.
— Pictures from rural Texas, where Johnson was born and raised, remind Caro of how much he — a child of New York City private schools and Princeton University — needed to educate himself. For his Johnson books, he expected to interview a few Texans for “a little more color." He ended up living there for three years, “at the edge of the Hill Country." He remembers the heavy water buckets that women had to haul because their homes had no plumbing, and poking the hard, infertile earth on the former Johnson family ranch.
— The exhibit includes a manuscript page from “Master of the Senate,” Caro's third Johnson book. He recalls spending so much time in the Senate in Washington that pages called him the “nut in the gallery.” Tourist groups would come and go, sessions on the floor would open and adjourn, but Caro would remain, just absorbing the world that Johnson dominated as Majority Leader in the 1950s.
“There is no substitute for going there yourself,” he says, “because you never know what you’re going to find out.”
“That's why my books keep taking so long.”
Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the historical society, says the exhibit came out of conversations she had about the archives with Caro, who lives nearby and has been visiting the museum since childhood. He didn’t want his work confined to a research room. He wanted attendees to understand the world as he did.
“He's a quintessential New Yorker through whom you can see American history,” she says.
The exhibit is called “Turn Every Page” in honor of advice Caro received decades ago from Newsday managing editor Alan Hathway about the importance of looking through every document in hand. That's the fun part, he says, the research, “finding out”: the manuscript from a long-lost Johnson crony that acknowledged votes were stolen in Johnson's notorious, narrowly won 1948 Senate race; the boxes of papers Caro has reviewed at the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas; the time he and his wife sat on a floor in the pre-Internet years and looked through telephone books to track down old classmates of Johnson.
The pain begins with the writing.
Behind one glass front at the exhibit is a heavily marked-up manuscript page for “The Passage of Power.” Johnson is only a month into his presidency, which began after John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, and Caro wants to describe a late-night phone conversation between LBJ and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins. Like many of his peers, Wilkins has come to admire Johnson, after initially distrusting the Texas Democrat who had allied himself with Southern segregationists when he joined the Senate.
Near the end of their call, as Johnson is about to hang up, Wilkins tells him, “Please take care of yourself." When Johnson appears not to take him seriously, Wilkins repeats, “Please take care of yourself," and adds, "We need you.”
Lines throughout the page are crossed out and written over. Caro remembers chastising himself — “You, Bob, feel this is such a telling and revealing moment and you're not doing it" — before making a couple of small but satisfying revisions. He changed one sentence from “They believed him,” referring to how civil rights leaders felt about Johnson, to “They believed in him.” And he set Wilkins' closing words off in their own paragraph, writing in red in the left margin to instruct his typist not to miss the paragraph sign.
“I re-wrote this so many times, he says.