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Biographer Robert Caro On Fame, Power And 'Working' To Uncover The Truth

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Robert Caro has spent decades researching and chronicling the lives of notable men.

His biographies have focused on former President Lyndon B. Johnson (The Path to Power) and famed New York City planner Robert Moses (The Power Broker). Still, he says, "I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of a great man."

Instead, Caro is interested in power: "I wanted to use [Johnson's and Moses'] lives to show how political power worked; that's what I was interested in."

Caro points out that though Moses was never elected to anything, he's credited with developing many of New York City's highways, bridges and public housing units.

"He had more power than any mayor, more power than any governor, and more power than any mayor or governor combined," Caro says of Moses.

But uncovering the mechanisms of power can be difficult. Caro says his subjects sometimes didn't welcome his attention. Other times, he had to dig up long-buried facts or discern unseen motives during interviews. Caro writes about his process as a biographer in the new book, Working.

Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of getting sources to talk on the record about Robert Moses

Over 40 years, numerous biographers, some of them quite famous, had tried to do, started to do a biography on him. And I suppose he told them the same thing he told me: I was told it by two public relations men who took me out to lunch and informed me across the table that he would never talk to me; his family and friends would never talk to me. And then they had a phrase — I forget the exact phrase — but the import was "no one who ever wants a contract from state or city will ever talk to you."

But I started interviewing anyway. So I drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center I put a dot. That was Robert Moses. The inner circle was his family and closest friends. The next circle was close friends but not quite as close. I figured he could keep those people in the first couple of circles from talking to me, but out in the outer circles are all the other people that he dealt with. He couldn't think of them all.

And I started interviewing them and I don't know that this is true, since it's complimentary to me, but his closest associate his chief subordinate a guy named Sid Shapiro, once said to me that [Moses] realized that someone was finally going to do a biography of him whether we wanted it or not. And after two years his daughter suddenly calls me out of nowhere. She calls him Poppa Bear, and she said, "Poppa Bear will see you." So I went to have my first interview with Robert Moses.

On interviewing Moses and challenging him

There came a point in the seventh interview where ... a lot of the things that he was telling me did not comport with the facts as I was learning them from the papers of the governors and mayors that he remembered that he served with. As soon as I started asking him questions, I saw his eyes change, and shortly thereafter he said, "Well, that's enough for today," and I never got to see him again. Every time after that that I called, the secretary said he was busy.

On how Moses bent people to his will

Moses, when someone opposed him, a public official, he put what he called his "team of bloodhounds," that's his investigators, onto this person. If they found anything about the person that was derogatory, he basically would say, "I'm going to leak it to the newspapers unless you go along." So I was examining a very mysterious thing that happened in Moses' career. He wanted to run this road — the Cross Bronx Expressway — right across the heart of the Bronx, displacing thousands of people when there was an alternate route just two blocks away that displaced almost no one. And every elected official was against him.

But all of a sudden, the key official, a lawyer for the council to Mayor [Robert] Wagner changed his mind, and wrote a letter saying Moses' route was good. So when I was talking to Moses I said, "What did you do to Henry Epstein?" And he said something like, "Oh we hit him with an ax." I said, "What do you mean?" And he said in their investigation they had found that he had a girlfriend. He was a married man but he had a longtime girlfriend. He said, "I said to Henry, you and this chum of yours. And Henry said, "She's not my chum." And Moses said, "Oh yes, Henry, she's your chum all right." So Moses said to me... "So Henry wrote his letter."

On how he got Lyndon Johnson's brother Sam to tell the truth about his brother's childhood

I had been interviewing his brother Sam Houston Johnson and ... there was a lot of braggadocio and bravado and basically untruthfulness in his stories. I had gotten disgusted with interviewing him and I decided I'm not going to use anything he told me and I'm not going to spend any more time on this. So I'm working with other people.

Now, all of a sudden I hear he's had this terrible operation for cancer and he stopped drinking ... and I took him for a cup of coffee in the cafe there and the guy sitting next to me all of a sudden was a quiet, introspective guy. I decided to try to interview him again. By this time, I knew the key to Lyndon Johnson's youth was this childhood conflict with his father. So I thought of a way to make him remember more accurately what had happened.

I got the National Park Service to agree that I could take him in to the Johnson boyhood home after the tourists were gone. We went in and I sat him down at the dining room table ... I didn't sit at the table. I didn't want anything in his sight that wouldn't remind of his boyhood. So I sat behind him and I said, "Repeat those dinner time conversations with your father."

He started yelling back and forth. "Lyndon, you're a failure! You'll always be a failure!" "Well, what are you dad? You're bus inspector. That's what you are." And he was shouting back and forth. ... I said, "Now Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful anecdotes, those wonderful stories that you and everyone else told about your brother for all these years, only just give me some more details." ... And then he started without any other prompting to give a completely different picture of Lyndon Johnson's youth.

On why he writes his books longhand

It's because of something that was said to me at Princeton by a professor, a very courtly gentleman, Southern gentleman, who was my creative writing teacher. Every two weeks we'd hand in a short story. I was in his course for two years. For two years he gave me high marks, but I always did these short stories at the last minute. ... I would always start at the last minute and just type, because I could write very fast.

At our last session, he hands back my short story ... and he compliments me, and as I'm getting up to go he says, "But you know, Mr. Caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you stop thinking with your fingers." ...

Did you ever realize that someone is seeing right through you? I realized he had seen right through me all along. He knew that I wasn't putting any thought into these. I was just writing, because writing was so easy for me. So when I was a newspaper man, I was a really fast rewrite man. But when I quit to do a book, and I began to realize how complex the story of Robert Moses was; I said I must make myself think things all the way through, and the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper is by writing in hand. So I write three or four or more — sometimes I write a lot of drafts in hand. Then I go to my typewriter and that's how I write.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.