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One On 1: Renowned Biographer Robert Caro

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series entitled "One On 1" — a weekly look at the New Yorkers who make the city great — with a profile of renowned historical biographer Robert Caro.

Growing up on the Upper West Side, Robert Caro knew exactly where he wanted to go.

"I remember walking down Central Park West, wanting to be a writer when I was a kid,” says Caro.

His dream has worked out very well. Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and is renowned for his intensive and deliberate research.

He's spent almost all of his professional life researching and writing about two men: President Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Moses, the man who almost single-handedly controlled the building of highways, bridges, and parks in New York for much of the 20th century.



Why would an author spend 37 years researching and writing four books on but two men?

"You want to explain to people how political power works,” says Caro. “We live in democracy, we all vote. If we can understand how political power works, it's got to make our lives better."

Caro’s entire research team consists of only one person: his wife of 46 years, Ina Caro, a noted historian and author herself.

"Ina is the whole team. She is the only person who has worked for me. I wouldn't trust anybody else," says Caro.

Caro worked for six years as an investigative reporter for Newsday, and then in 1967, turned his attention to Robert Moses. By that time, Moses had already spent more than 40 years running various city and state agencies.

"Here was this guy, who was never elected to anything, and he had more power than anyone who was elected. More than any mayor, more than any governor — and he held it for 44 years,” says Caro. “I couldn't understand — and no one knew — where he got it from."

When Caro began writing “The Power Broker,” his sense of purpose was strong, but his sense of timing was not.

“I got a grant from the Carnegie Foundation for a year. I remember thinking the book would only take nine months, because I had an outline that said I’d be done in nine months,” says Caro. “I always met my deadline at Newsday. I told Ina we're finally going to get to go to Paris."

Paris would have to wait.

“The Power Broker” took seven years. It would eventually be considered one of the landmark books about New York City.



But the story behind the book is almost as good as the book itself.



“I would take substitute teaching jobs, temporary work to pay the rent, or do things of that sort. It was pretty bad," says Ina.

The book’s first editor and publisher left the project, leaving the book, and the Caros in limbo.

"We really didn’t have any money and I didn't know how we were going to go on with the book. I was just in a daze. I remember walking the length of Broadway — we lived in Riverdale — trying to figure out what to say to her," says Caro of his concern over breaking the news to his wife.

"He never mentioned it to me, until years later. And then it took me years to forgive him, the editor, the publisher," says Ina.

But Caro eventually hired a new agent, he received an advance, a new editor was brought in, and the book was alive again.

"I had to write about the effect of power on the powerless,” says Caro. “Not just the guy who wields it, but the effect for good and bad on whom it's wielded."

Caro interviewed New Yorkers affected by the 13 expressways and several bridges Moses built in and around the city. In one chapter, he focused on the East Tremont section of the Bronx, torn apart by Moses' Cross Bronx Expressway.

“I'll never forget going into this one apartment — there was a very beautiful black women there with several children running around — and no matter what I asked her, I wanted to ask her how neighborhood changed since she moved in, that sort of thing,” says Caro. “No matter what my question I asked her, she would always say ÎI’ve got get my kids out of here, I’ve got to get my kids out of here.’"

After seven years of work and more than a thousand pages on Robert Moses, the Caros finally made it to Paris.

"We were in France when we heard he had won the Pulitzer for ÎThe Power Broker,’" says Ina.

What did Moses say after the book was published?

"He said Îhow long will it last? It will disappear before you know it. It will be gone before you know it,’" recalls Caro.

Twenty-nine years after the power broker came out, it is taught in more than 200 universities.

So how does Robert Caro do it? How does he turn years of in-depth, up close research into award winning works of history?

He starts at his office.

"I can write anywhere in the world but at home," says Caro.

Caro's Midtown office is filled with outlines and quotes, old articles and documents, all connected by a system that allows Caro's mind to flow, and fingers to type.

When the outlines and research are done, Caro sits down to write at his old Smith Corona. They stopped making them some 25 years ago. Occasionally, Caro needs a spare part, so he has collected 17 typewriters.

"If you’re nice enough to mention this on your program, I will get calls from people who will say ÎI have a smith corona, will you buy it?’” says Caro. “Sometimes they give it to me."

Since the mid 70's, all of the words produced by the Smith Corona have been about Lyndon Johnson. Caro has written three lengthy volumes about the president, and is now beginning work on a fourth and final book about the White House years.

The Caro style is to live where the subject lived, so they moved to Washington for two years to analyze Johnson's years in the senate, and before that three years on Johnson's home turf, the hill country in Texas.

“A place of almost unimaginable isolation and loneliness,” says Caro. “I felt that if I wanted to make people understand Lyndon Johnson, I had to make people understand this place he came from."

"For the first volume, I spent time interviewing hill country women and researching rural electrification,” says Ina. “I became an expert in contour farming, perhaps the only person on Central Park West who is an expert in contour farming."

Caro knows that it will take years to complete the fourth volume, but he already knows the book's last line.

"I have to be able to see the whole book. I actually have to know the last sentence,” says Caro. “People laugh at that. In “The Power Broker,” the last sentence was, Îwhy weren't they grateful?’"

Generations of history buffs are grateful that so many years ago, Caro realized his dream.

"You never really feel that you've made it. I don't feel like that,” says Caro. “But you feel like you are doing what you want to do, and to be honest with you, that's a wonderful feeling."

--Budd Mishkin

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