President Barack Obama presents the 2009 National Humanities Medal to journalist and biographer Robert A. Caro.

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 National Humanities Medal to journalist and biographer Robert A. Caro.

Oh, to study those yellowed pages, with words pecked by a typewriter, then crossed out and scribbled over and typed on more pages. To marvel at those scrapbooks — more than two dozen of them — holding clips dating back to the early 1950s. And to search for treasures in those interview notes — long, probing talks with some of the most powerful and influential people of the 20th Century, all opening themselves to the meticulous scrutiny of one Robert Caro.

Robert Caro at the 2019 PEN American Literary Gala

Author Robert Caro attends the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in New York.

All that will be possible soon, thanks to a gift by Caro — the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and biographer who, at 85 and still writing, is turning a lifetime of notes and research and memories over to the New York Historical Society. That may not be the stuff of blockbuster news in Hollywood, but in the world of journalism, it is a priceless trove of history, process and craft.

Fellow Pulitzer-winner Dan Barry of the New York Times followed a curator and designer from the Historical Society into Caro’s writing and storage sanctuaries. His piece, published Jan. 8, 2020, took readers on a tour of what, for some of us, can only be considered a magic land: the unadored room Caro writes in and the Smith-Corona electric typewriter he writes on; the specially made desk to accommodate Caro’s pain-riddled back, designed by the same woman who made a special chair for John F. Kennedy; the 27-page outline, pinned to the wall, of Caro’s in-progress final volume in his five-book biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

This from Barry’s story:

The notebooks reflected just one part of Mr. Caro’s laborious, step-by-step process: reading, researching, interviewing, organizing, assembling a comprehensive outline and, finally, pecking at a typewriter, with papers sullied by rejected language crumpled and thrown in the general direction of a wastebasket.

“There’s a belief among some — not all — nonfiction writers that all that matters is to get the facts,” Mr. Caro said, reflecting on his continuing quest to find the right words. “I don’t believe that. I believe that the quality of writing is just as important in nonfiction as in fiction.”

He said he often keeps a note on his desk lamp that reads, “The only thing that matters is what is on this page.”

Caro is well-known in the world of journalism and has been frequently featured in Storyboard through the years. Most recently, we pulled lessons from his mini-memoir, “Working.”

He spoke of inspiration for his ideas, working with sources, and how he maintains enthusiasm  — and those meticulous work habits — in a two-part interview as part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Nieman Foundation in 2013. Caro was a 1966 Nieman Fellow.

Several other Storyboard posts featuring Caro can be found here.

And soon we will be able to tug on some white cotton gloves and thumb through the mind of a master.

Further Reading

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