Sunday, June 20, 2004

Bill Clinton's memoirs get editor's touch

He put the '22' in Catch-22, but publishing legend Bob Gottlieb says Bill Clinton's 957-page autobiography came in the president's longhand.


Bill Clinton's handpicked choice to edit his autobiography, My Life, which comes out Tuesday in a first printing of 1.5 million copies, was New York publishing legend Bob Gottlieb.

Gottlieb's initial response: Well, maybe.

As editor of such renowned books as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Katharine Graham's autobiography, Gottlieb is a big enough name to turn an ex-president down.

''I said sure, but we have to meet first. What if he doesn't like me or I don't like him?'' Gottlieb recalled telling Knopf President Sonny Mehta.

As it happened, the two got along well. Their first meeting, which took place in 2001 at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, revealed that while they outwardly have little in common -- Gottlieb is famously disheveled and bohemian, while the former president dresses like a former president -- they share a bond: humor.

''He's funny and I'm funny, albeit in very different ways,'' Gottlieb said. ``We're very different types and are from different worlds, so we approached each other cautiously, but we ended up respecting and liking each other and having a very good time.''

Gottlieb, a Miami Beach resident when he is not living in and working from his midtown Manhattan apartment, said it was quickly obvious that he and the former president were on the same wavelength.

Clinton chose Gottlieb to edit My Life and received a record $10 million advance for the book. Clinton has said he chose Gottlieb because of his work on the late Washington Post publisher Graham's book, A Personal History, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

His admiration for the famously well-read editor, who allegedly finished Tolstoy's War and Peace in a single day, prompted Clinton to insert ''Robert Gottlieb is the greatest editor in the world'' into his manuscript.

Gottlieb's coy note in response: ``Cut -- reluctantly.''

Expectations for the book are high, and Gottlieb promised that readers will not be disappointed.

''The real success of Clinton's book will be a couple of weeks from now when people are actually reading it and are telling their friends what a good book it is,'' he said.


Gottlieb has a penchant for producing good reads, as well as high art. Formerly with the Simon & Schuster publishing house and New Yorker magazine, Gottlieb has edited John Cheever and Toni Morrison as well as blockbuster novels such as Michael Crichton's Congo and Anne Rice's Interview With A Vampire.

Michael Korda, editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, wrote of Gottlieb in his 1999 memoir, Another Life:

``Bob had a kind of split personality as an editor: He pursued high culture and low culture with equal intensity and seemed to enjoy both. More extraordinary, he was good at both.''

His editorial range -- Gottlieb deftly edits popular potboilers as well as literary novels -- mirrors his eclectic personal interests. He is a fan of the opera as well as Elvis, and he acquires American kitsch such as plastic handbags from flea markets and thrift stores.

Gottlieb laughed when asked about his favorite literary genre. ''It's like asking a parent who the favorite child is,'' he said. In other words, he is not saying.

Gottlieb said he is irked at the number of people who have approached him to question whether Clinton did his own writing. The president wrote the manuscript -- a whopping 957 pages -- in longhand, his editor insists.

His friends and colleagues say Gottlieb's hands-on approach is an anomaly in today's publishing world.

''Most editors today are acquisition editors, and he's a hands-on editor,'' said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables and Miami Beach and a friend of Gottlieb's since the late 1980s. ``He's one of the great minds in publishing, and there aren't many like him.''

One of Gottlieb's strengths is his ability to draw out a writer's distinctive voice, said Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review.

''He has a chameleonlike ability to understand what a writer wants to do and inhabits that writer's thoughts and intentions,'' McGrath said. 'INVISIBLE' MARK

Readers who pick up Clinton's book can expect to see a lot of Gottlieb's work -- and none at all, said McGrath, who edits Gottlieb's frequent contributions to The New York Times Book Review.

''Bob's stamp will be all over it, and it will be invisible,'' he said. ``If it's like anything else Bob does, you won't see Bob there, you'll see Bill Clinton.''

It's not that he doesn't leave his mark on thingsGottlieb famously changed the title of Heller's first novel from Catch-18 to Catch-22, arguing that ''22'' sounded funnier.

As hands-on an editor as he is, Gottlieb is reluctant to take too much credit for Clinton's long-awaited memoir.

''You cannot turn a bad writer into a good writer,'' he said. ``I did a normal editorial job for a long and complicated book.'' | 06/20/2004 | Bill Clinton's memoirs get editor's touch

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