Caro’s exhibition ‘Turn the Page’ is a window to her world

Updated 27 minutes ago

NEW YORK (AP) – A few days before his 86th birthday, Robert A. Caro has reached the point where his own life is history.

The New-York Historical Society has created a permanent exhibit dedicated to Caro, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and many other honors for his epic Robert Moses biography, “The Power Broker,” and his ongoing series on President Lyndon Johnson. The exhibit, “Turn Every Page,” begins Friday and builds on Caro’s archives, which he donated to the company in 2020. It includes videos, photographs, draft manuscripts, journalist notebooks , a glimpse he keeps on his office wall, a newspaper clippings and everyday articles like a Smith-Corona typewriter.

Browsing through the exhibit one recent morning, Caro explains that her only dream growing up was to be a writer, “maybe a well-known writer”. newspaper, The Horace Mann Record, to his years as an investigative reporter for Newsday, to his famous long and detailed books.

When asked what kind of impression “Turn Every Page” could leave on young visitors who don’t know him much, he replied that “the quality of the writing matters as much in non-fiction as in fiction. “. He also anticipates a less respectful shot:

“This guy is a little crazy.”

Caro started “The Power Broker” over 50 years ago, but has only completed five other books since Moses’ biography appeared in 1974: his first four Johnson books and the relatively brief “Working,” a compilation of essays and speeches published in 2019. His most recent biography of Johnson, “The Passage of Power”, was published in 2012, and he answers the inevitable question about the fifth and allegedly final volume by saying that no exit is likely in the near future.

Some artifacts here help explain why.

– Caro points to a handwritten list he compiled in the early 1970s when he was trying to show Moses plotted to keep people of color from entering Jones Beach State Park, which opened in 1929. Caro knew that Moses had worked to limit public transportation to Jones Beach, but he wanted hard evidence of the results. So Caro and his wife and collaborator, Ina Caro, stood near the entrance to the beach, followed people entering and determined that the overwhelming majority were white.

– Photos of rural Texas, where Johnson was born and raised, reminded Caro of how much he – a kid in private schools in New York City and Princeton University – needed to be educated. For his Johnson books, he expected to interview a few Texans for “a little more color.” He remembers the heavy buckets of water the women had to carry around because their homes had no plumbing and feeling the hard, infertile dirt of the old Johnson family ranch.

– The exhibition includes a handwritten page from “Master of the Senate”, Caro’s third book on Johnson. He remembers spending so much time in the Washington Senate that the Pages called him a “gallery freak.” Tour groups came and went, ground sessions would open and adjourn, but Caro would stay, simply absorbing the world Johnson ruled as majority leader in the 1950s.

“There’s no substitute for going there yourself,” he says, “because you never know what you’re going to find out. “

“That’s why my books always take so long.”

Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the historical society, says the exhibit is the result of conversations she had about the archives with Caro, who has lived nearby and visited the museum since she was a child. He didn’t want his work confined to a research room. He wanted the participants to understand the world like him.

“He’s a quintessential New Yorker through whom you can see American history,” she says.

The exhibit is titled “Turn Every Page” in honor of advice Caro received decades ago from Newsday Editor-in-Chief Alan Hathway on the importance of going through every document in hand. That’s the fun, he says, part of the research, “discovering”: the manuscript of a long-lost friend of Johnson who admitted that votes were stolen in the infamous 1948 Senate race, which was won narrowly by Johnson; the boxes of papers Caro examined at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas; the time he and his wife sat on the floor in the pre-internet years and scoured phone books to find Johnson’s former classmates.

The pain begins with the writing.

Behind a glass facade of the exhibition is a heavily annotated manuscript page for “The passage of power”. Johnson is only a month away from his presidency, which began after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and Caro wants to describe a late-night phone conversation between LBJ and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins. Like many of his peers, Wilkins came to admire Johnson, having initially distrusted the Texas Democrat who had allied with the segregationists in the South when he joined the Senate.

Towards the end of their call, as Johnson is about to hang up, Wilkins tells him, “Please take care of yourself.” When Johnson seems not to take it seriously, Wilkins repeats, “We need you.”

The lines on the page are crossed out and written. Caro remembers berating herself – “You, Bob, feel like this is such an eye-opening and revealing moment and you don’t” – before doing some minor but satisfying revisions. He changed a sentence from “They believed him”, referring to what civil rights leaders thought of Johnson, to “They believed in him.” And he put Wilkins’ last words in their own paragraph, writing in red in the left margin to ask his typist not to miss the paragraph sign.

“I’ve rewritten it so many times,” he says.

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