Robert Allan Caro
October 30, 1935
New York City, U.S.
|The Power Broker|
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Ina Sloshberg (m. 1957)
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 H.L. Mencken Award, 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 Mendelsohn), 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. He 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 senior thesis on existentialism in Hemingway 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 for the Middlesex County Democratic Party as a publicist. 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 Verrazano-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 denounced 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.
- 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 May 2017, Caro has completed 400 typed manuscript pages (roughly corresponding to the "passage of the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid and more than a dozen separate education bills" in 1965) and most of the research for the book. He intends to embark on a major research trip to Vietnam in the near future. 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, though 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.
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)
- 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)
Caro has described his wife, Ina Caro, 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 person other than himself 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.
The Caros have a son, Chase, and three grandchildren. Robert Caro has a younger sibling, Michael, who is a retired real estate manager.
Pop culture references
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.
In the television series The Simpsons, the episode "Treehouse of Horror XVI" features the character Lisa seen reading Master of the Senate in the vignette "Bart A.I." Caro later guest-starred on the episode "Love Is a Many-Splintered Thing".
- Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. 1974. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0394480767). ix + 1246 pp. + xxxiv pp.: illus.
- Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. 1982. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. (ISBN 0394499735). 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 0394528352). 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 9780525656357). 240 pp.
- "Marquis Biographies Online". Search.marquiswhoswho.com. Retrieved 2016-05-14.
- "Princeton Alumni Weekly - Google Books". Books.google.com. Retrieved 2016-05-14.
- Brennan, Elizabeth A.; Clarage, Elizabeth C. (eds.). "1975 Robert Caro". Who's who of Pulitzer Prize winners. pp. 30–40. Retrieved 2013-04-12.
- Leland, John (May 4, 2012). "Rising Early, With a New Sentence in Mind". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-04-12.
- Boeing, G. (2017). "We Live in a Motorized Civilization: Robert Moses Replies to Robert Caro". SSRN: 1–13. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2934079. Retrieved 2017-08-13.
- 100 Best Nonfiction —Modern Library
- Charles McGrath (April 12, 2012). "Robert Caro's Big Dig". The New York Times.
- Alex Shephard, Theodore Ross (December 1, 2016). ""There's No Check on Trump Except Reality": A Q&A with Wayne Barrett". New Republic.
- Christopher Buckley (2014). But Enough About You: Essays. Simon & Schuster. p. 300.
- "WWII Draft Card of Benjamin Caro". Ancestry.com. Ancestry.com. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
- The HM Record Online (Russian copy) Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- McGrath, Charles, "Robert Caro’s Big Dig", The New York Times, April 12, 2012 (April 15 Magazine); web p. 3 (bio), web p. 6 (sources), & various. Retrieved 2012-04-15.
- "APNewsBreak: Caro's fourth LBJ book coming in May". online.wsj.com. November 1, 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "Robert A. Caro's Next Book on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, to be Published by Knopf in May". media-center.knopfdoubleday.com. November 1, 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- "The Passage of Power". Amazon.com. Amazon. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
- Williams, John (June 2, 2017). "Robert Caro, Nearing the End of His Epic L.B.J. Bio, Eyes a Trip to Vietnam". The New York Times. Retrieved December 14, 2017.
- "'Studies in Power': An Interview with Robert Caro". The New York Review of Books. January 16, 2018. Retrieved January 19, 2018.
- Chris Jones (May 2012). "The Big Book". Esquire.
- Washington Post, February 26, 2010 and Suntimes.com 3/4/2010.
- "Robert Caro Wins 2011 BIO Award". The Biographers' Club. February 11, 2011. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
- "Biography or Autobiography". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-24.
- "National Book Awards – 2002". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-20. (With acceptance speech by Caro.)
- The BIO Award, Biographers International Organization Archived March 7, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
- "National Book Award Finalists Announced Today". Library Journal. October 10, 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2012.
- John Williams (January 14, 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names 2012 Award Finalists". The New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
- Joyce Carol Oates (October 4, 2012). "Joyce Carol Oates Salutes Norman Mailer". The Daily Beast. Retrieved April 30, 2013.
- Charles McGrath (April 12, 2012). "Robert Caro's Big Dig". The New York Times.
- Caro, Ina (April 25, 1996). The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France. Mariner Books (first published August 1st 1994). ISBN 9780156003636.
- "Citation for Ina Caro - Doctor of Humane Letters". City University of New York. Retrieved 2 August 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 9780393078947.
- Official website
- 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., 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, Feb 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 (February 17, 2016). "Robert Caro Wonders What New York Is Going To Become". The Gothamist. Archived from the original on January 4, 2017. Retrieved February 18, 2016.