Robert Allan Caro
October 30, 1935
|Education||Horace Mann School|
|Alma mater||Princeton University (B.A.)|
Harvard University (Nieman Fellow)
Columbia University (Carnegie Fellow)
|The Power Broker|
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
After working for many years as a reporter, Caro wrote The Power Broker (1974), a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, which was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. He has since written four of a planned five volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1982, 1990, 2002, 2012), a biography of the former president.
For his biographies, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography, two National Book Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement), the Francis Parkman Prize (awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that "best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist"), three National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Mencken Award for Best Book, the Carr P. Collins Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, the D.B. Hardeman Prize, and a Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010 President Barack Obama awarded Caro the National Humanities Medal.
Life and career
Caro was born in New York City, the son of Celia (née Mendelow), also born in New York, and Benjamin Caro, born in Warsaw, Poland. He grew up on Central Park West at 94th Street. His father, a businessman, spoke Yiddish as well as English, but he didn't speak either very often. He was 'very silent,' Caro said, and became more so after Caro's mother died, after a long illness, when Robert was 12. It was his mother's deathbed wish that he should go to the Horace Mann School, an exclusive private school in the Riverdale section of The Bronx. As a student there, Caro translated an edition of his school newspaper into Russian and mailed 10,000 copies to students in the USSR. Graduated in 1953, he went on to Princeton University, where he majored in English. He became managing editor of The Daily Princetonian, second to Johnny Apple, later a prominent editor at The New York Times.
His writings, both in class and out, had been lengthy since his years at Horace Mann. A short story he wrote for The Princeton Tiger, the school's humor magazine, took up almost an entire issue. His 235-page long senior thesis on existentialism in Hemingway, titled "Heading Out: A Study of the Development of Ernest Hemingway's Thought", was so long, Caro claims, that the university's English department subsequently established a maximum length for senior theses by its students. He graduated cum laude in 1957.
According to a 2012 The New York Times Magazine profile, "Caro said he now thinks that Princeton, which he chose because of its parties, was one of his mistakes, and that he should have gone to Harvard. Princeton in the mid-1950s was hardly known for being hospitable towards the Jewish community, and though Caro says he did not personally suffer from anti-Semitism, he saw plenty of students who did." He had a sports column in the Princetonian and also wrote for the Princeton Tiger humor magazine.
Caro began his professional career as a reporter with the New Brunswick Daily Home News (now merged into the Home News Tribune) in New Jersey. He took a brief leave to work as a publicist for the Middlesex County Democratic Party. He left politics after an incident where he was accompanying the party chair to polling places on election day. A police officer reported to the party chair that some African Americans Caro saw being loaded into a police van, under arrest, were poll watchers who "had been giving them some trouble." Caro left politics right there. "I still think about it," he recalled in the 2012 Times Magazine profile. "It wasn't the roughness of the police that made such an impression. It was the—meekness isn't the right word—the acceptance of those people of what was happening."
After briefly enrolling in the English doctoral program at Rutgers University (where he served as a teaching assistant), he went on to six years as an investigative reporter with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. One of the articles he wrote was a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay, championed by Robert Moses, would have been inadvisable, requiring piers so large it would disrupt tidal flows in the sound, among other problems. Caro believed that his work had influenced even the state's powerful governor Nelson Rockefeller to reconsider the idea, until he saw the state's Assembly vote overwhelmingly to pass a preliminary measure for the bridge.
"That was one of the transformational moments of my life," Caro said years later. It led him to think about Moses for the first time. "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.'"
The Power Broker
They were talking one day about highways and where they got built ... and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: "This is completely wrong. This isn't why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don't find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.
To do so, Caro began work on a biography of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, also a study of Caro's favorite theme: the acquisition and use of power. He expected it would take nine months to complete, but instead it took him until 1974. The work was based on extensive research and 522 interviews, including seven interviews with Moses himself, several with Michael Madigan (who worked for Moses for 35 years); and numerous interviews with Sidney Shapiro (Moses's general manager for forty years); as well as interviews with men who worked for and knew Moses's mentor, New York Governor Al Smith. During the 1967–1968 academic year, Caro worked on the book as a Carnegie Fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
His wife, Ina, functioned as his research assistant. Her master's thesis on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge stemmed from this work. At one point she sold the family home and took a teaching job so Robert would be financially able to finish the book.
The Power Broker is widely viewed as a seminal work because it combined painstaking historical research with a smoothly flowing narrative writing style. The success of this approach was evident in his chapter on the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, where Caro reported the controversy from all perspectives, including that of neighborhood residents. The result was a work of powerful literary as well as academic interest. Upon its publication, Moses responded to the biography in a 23-page statement.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Following The Power Broker, Caro turned his attention to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro retraced Johnson's life by temporarily moving to rural Texas and Washington, D.C., in order to better understand Johnson's upbringing and to interview anyone who had known Johnson. The work, entitled The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was originally intended as a trilogy, but is projected to encompass five volumes:
- The Path to Power (1982) covers Johnson's life up to his failed 1941 campaign for the United States Senate.
- Means of Ascent (1990) commences in the aftermath of that defeat and continues through his election to that office in 1948.
- Master of the Senate (2002) chronicles Johnson's rapid ascent and rule as Senate Majority Leader.
- The Passage of Power (2012) details the 1960 election, LBJ's life as vice president, the JFK assassination and his first days as president.
- One as-of-yet unpublished final volume.
In November 2011, Caro announced that the full project had expanded to five volumes with the fifth requiring another two to three years to write. It will cover Johnson and Vietnam, the Great Society and civil rights era, his decision not to run in 1968, and eventual retirement. As of January 2020, Caro had completed 600 typed manuscript pages and was working on a section relating to the passage of Medicare in 1965. In a 2017 interview, Caro expressed his intent to embark shortly on a research trip to Vietnam. In an interview with The New York Review of Books in January 2018, Caro indicated he did not know when the book would be finished, mentioning anywhere from two to ten years.
Caro's books portray Johnson as a complex and contradictory character: at the same time a scheming opportunist and visionary progressive. Caro argues, for example, that Johnson's victory in the 1948 runoff for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate was only achieved through extensive fraud and ballot box stuffing, although this is set in the practices of the time and in the context of Johnson's previous defeat in his 1941 race for the Senate, the victim of exactly similar chicanery. Caro also highlighted some of Johnson's campaign contributions, such as those from the Texas construction firm Brown and Root; in 1962 the company was acquired by another Texas firm, Halliburton, which became a major contractor in the Vietnam War. In addition, Caro argued that Johnson was awarded the Silver Star in World War II for political as well as military reasons, and that he later lied to journalists and the public about the circumstances for which it was awarded. Caro's portrayal of Johnson also notes his struggles on behalf of progressive causes such as the Voting Rights Act, and his consummate skill in getting this enacted in spite of intense opposition from Southern Democrats.
Among sources close to the late president, Johnson's widow Lady Bird Johnson "spoke to [Caro] several times and then abruptly stopped without giving a reason, and Bill Moyers, Johnson's press secretary, has never consented to be interviewed, but most of Johnson's closest friends, including John Connally and George Christian, Johnson's last press secretary, who spoke to Caro practically on his deathbed, have gone on the record".
Caro's books have been published by Alfred A. Knopf, first under editor in chief Robert Gottlieb and then by Sonny Mehta, "who took over the Johnson project – enthusiastically – after Gottlieb's departure in 1987." Gottlieb, five years Caro's senior, suggested the Johnson project to Caro in 1974 in preference to the planned follow-up to the Moses volume, a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia that was then abandoned. The ex-President had recently died and Caro had already decided, before meeting with Gottlieb on the subject, to undertake the Texan's biography; he "wanted to write about power". Gottlieb has continued as editor of Caro's books since leaving Knopf and excerpted Volume 2 of the Johnson biography at The New Yorker when he was editor in chief there.
Awards and honors
For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, and has won virtually every other major literary honor, including two National Book Awards (one for Lifetime Achievement), the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize.
In October 2007, Caro was named a "Holtzbrinck Distinguished Visitor" at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany but then was unable to attend.
In 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama, the highest award in the humanities given in the United States. Delivering remarks at the end of the ceremony, the President said, "I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I'm sure it helped to shape how I think about politics." In 2011, Robert Caro was the recipient of the 2011 BIO Award given each year by members of Biographers International "to a colleague who had made a major contribution in the advancement of the art and craft of real life depiction."
- 1964 – The Society of Silurians Award for outstanding achievement in the field of Public Service History for a series entitled "Misery Acres", exposing fraudulent real estate sales by mail
- 1964 – The Deadline Club for outstanding newspaper reporting
- 1965 – The Deadline Club for outstanding newspaper reporting
- 1965–1966 – Nieman W. Lucius Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University Nieman Foundation
- 1975 — Washington Monthly American Political Book Award (The Power Broker)
- 1975 – The Francis Parkman Prize awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best "exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist" (The Power Broker)
- 1975 – The Pulitzer Prize for Biography (The Power Broker)
- 1975 – AIA Special Citation
- 1982 – The National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year (The Path to Power)
- 1983 – The Blue Pencil Award from the Columbia Daily Spectator
- 1983 — American Academy of Arts and Letters Award
- 1983 – The Carr P. Collins Award from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters (The Path to Power)
- 1983 – The Mencken Award for the best book of 1982 (The Path to Power)
- 1986 – The Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters
- 1990 – The National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year (Means of Ascent)
- 1991 — Washington Monthly American Political Book Award (Means of Ascent)
- 2002 — The Power Broker was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest non-fiction books of the twentieth century.
- 2002 – The National Book Award (Master of the Senate)
- 2003 – The Los Angeles Times Book Award in Non-Fiction (Master of the Senate)
- 2003 – The Carl Sandburg Award in Literature (Master of the Senate)
- 2003 – The John Steinbeck Award in literature (Master of the Senate)
- 2003 – The Pulitzer Prize for Biography (Master of the Senate)
- 2008 - Elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- 2009 - Elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2010 – Inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame
- 2010 – The National Humanities Medal
- 2011 – The BIO Award from Biographers International Organization for advancing the art and craft of biography.
- 2012 – National Book Award (Nonfiction), finalist, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
- 2012 – National Book Critics Circle Award (Biography), finalist, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
- 2012 – The Los Angeles Times Book Award in Non-Fiction (The Passage of Power)
- 2012 – The New York Historical Society American History Book Prize (The Passage of Power)
- 2012 – The Mark Lynton History Prize (The Passage of Power)
- 2012 – Norman Mailer Prize, Biography.
- 2016 – The National Book Award (Lifetime Achievement)
After graduation from Princeton, Caro married Ina Joan Sloshberg, who was then still a student at Connecticut College. The Caros have a son, Chase Arthur, and three grandchildren, who live in White Plains.
Caro has described his wife as "the whole team" on all five of his books. She sold their house and took a job teaching school to fund work on The Power Broker and is the only other person who conducted research for his books.
Ina is the author of The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France (1996), a book which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called, at the presentation of her honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from The City University of New York in 2011, "the essential traveling companion ... for all who love France and its history." Newsweek reviewer Peter Prescott commented, "I'd rather go to France with Ina Caro than with Henry Adams or Henry James. The unique premise of her intelligent and discerning book is so startling that it's a wonder no one has thought of it before." Ina frequently writes about her travels through France in her blog, Paris to the Past. In June 2011, W. W. Norton published her second book, Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train.
Caro's son, Chase, was disbarred automatically in November 2007 after pleading guilty "to second-degree grand larceny for stealing [over $750,000] from three former clients in the course of real estate transactions." On April 2008, he was sentenced "to 2 1/2 to 7 1/2 years in prison" after admitting to stealing $310,000 meant for his grandparents' trust fund. Additionally, Caro "agreed to pay restitution of $1.1 million, which also includes funds from a third theft." All his sentences ran concurrently. As of 2012, Chase works "in the information-technology business".
In popular culture
In The Stepford Wives (2004), Nicole Kidman's character attends a book club meeting with the Stepford wives and attempts to discuss the third volume of Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, but the group chooses to review a book of Christmas crafts.
Motherless Brooklyn, the 2019 film directed by Edward Norton, loosely based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, was inspired by Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.
In the television series The Simpsons, the 2005 episode "Treehouse of Horror XVI" features the character Lisa reading Master of the Senate in the vignette "Bart A.I." Caro later guest-starred on the episode "Love Is a Many-Splintered Thing".
Due to Caro's work ethic and voluminous work several authors have been compared to him and labelled as "Caro-esque", "Caro-like" or "in the Caro mold" for their own extensive research, such as Renata Adler, Taylor Branch, Douglas Brinkley, David Garrow, Garrett Graff, Gerard Henderson, Jason Horowitz, Francis Jennings, Robert G. Kaiser, David Paul Kuhn, Roland Lazenby, David Maraniss, David McCullough, Charles Moore, Edmund Morris, Roger Morris, David Nasaw, Richard Neustadt, Les and Tamara Payne, Rick Perlstein, Steven Pressfield, Michael Shnayerson, Lytton Strachey, Julia E. Sweig, William T. Vollmann, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Research Department.
In 2011, his alma mater, Horace Mann School, commenced awarding the Robert Caro ’53 Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History at a ceremony held annually at the head of school's home. In 2017 the school named a classroom at Tillinghast Hall “Robert A. Caro ’53 History Classroom" to which Caro reacted by stating that it would be "hard for [him] to think of anything that would make [him] happier."
In January 2020, the New-York Historical Society acquired Caro's complete archive, consisting of "200 linear feet of material", part of which will be digitized and made wholly available to researchers in a Robert A. Caro Study Space. Additionally, a permanent exhibition, named Robert Caro Working after his 2019 book Working, will be set up at the Society's library. Caro stated that he was "just plain delighted" since his "favorite aunt often took" him there as well as having spoken there and "been a recipients of its awards."
- Caro, Robert (1974). The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-48076-3. OCLC 834874.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. 1982. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0-394-49973-5). xxiii + 882 p. + 48 p. of plates: illus.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. 1990. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0-394-52835-2). xxxiv + 506 pp.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. 2002. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York. (ISBN 0-394-52836-0). xxiv + 1167 pp.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. 2012. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York. (ISBN 978-0-679-40507-8). 752 pp.
- Zinsser, William Knowlton (ed.), Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography. 2016. Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-48617-3
- Caro, Robert A., Working. April 2019. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York. (ISBN 978-0-525-65635-7). 240 pp.
- Caro, Robert A. (February 3, 1991). "My Search for Coke Stevenson". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
- Caro, Robert A and Vonnegut, Kurt. "The Round Table: Fiction, Biography and the Use of Power." Hampton shorts. 4 : fiction plus poetry plus drama plus interviews from the Hamptons & the East End. 1999. Hamptons Literary Publications, Water Mill, N.Y.
- Caro, Robert A. (August 27, 2008). "Opinion | Johnson's Dream, Obama's Speech". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
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- 100 Best Nonfiction —Modern Library
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- "Citation for Ina Caro - Doctor of Humane Letters". City University of New York. Retrieved August 2, 2013.
- Book jacket of The Road from the Past, 1994
- Caro, Ina (June 27, 2011). Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-07894-7.
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- Official website
- Official Facebook page
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Booknotes interview with Caro on Means of Ascent, April 29, 1990
- In Depth interview with Caro, April 7, 2002
- C-SPAN Q&A interview with Caro about the writing of his fourth volume, January 4, 2009
- Part one of C-SPAN Q&A interview with Caro about the finished book, The Passage of Power, May 6, 2012
- Part two of C-SPAN Q&A interview with Caro about The Passage of Power, May 20, 2012
- Caro, Robert A., The City Shaper Article on Robert Moses and the writing of The Power Broker, The New Yorker, January 5, 1998.
- Lebow, David, Caro's Lives: Comparative Biography as Political Theory, The Review of Politics 77 (2015), 99–127
- Robert Caro discusses a volume of his biography of President Johnson, LOC.gov video.
- Darman, Jonathan, "The Marathon Man", Newsweek, February 16, 2009.
- Robert Caro: Understanding Power, a documentary on Caro's life.
- Rattiner, Dan, "The Biographer's Biographer," a profile of Caro and his career, December 6, 2011, Construction Magazine.
- Caro appears as an on camera expert in New York: A Documentary Film (1999) directed by Ric Burns for PBS.
- 2012 radio interview (47 minutes) at The Bat Segundo Show
- Jones, Chris, "The Big Book", profile in Esquire, May 2012.
- Robbins, Christopher, "Robert Caro Wonders What New York Is Going To Become" in The Gothamist, February 17, 2016
- Robert Caro, The Art of Biography No. 5, Paris Review, Summer 2016