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Biographer Robert Caro On Fame, Power And 'Working' To Uncover The Truth

Apr 15, 2019
Originally published on April 16, 2019 10:55 am

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Robert Caro has spent decades researching and chronicling the lives of notable men.

His biographies have focused on former President Lyndon B. Johnson (The Path to Power) and famed New York City planner Robert Moses (The Power Broker). Still, he says, "I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of a great man."

Instead, Caro is interested in power: "I wanted to use [Johnson's and Moses'] lives to show how political power worked; that's what I was interested in."

Caro points out that though Moses was never elected to anything, he's credited with developing many of New York City's highways, bridges and public housing units.

"He had more power than any mayor, more power than any governor, and more power than any mayor or governor combined," Caro says of Moses.

But uncovering the mechanisms of power can be difficult. Caro says his subjects sometimes didn't welcome his attention. Other times, he had to dig up long-buried facts or discern unseen motives during interviews. Caro writes about his process as a biographer in the new book, Working.


Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of getting sources to talk on the record about Robert Moses

Over 40 years, numerous biographers, some of them quite famous, had tried to do, started to do a biography on him. And I suppose he told them the same thing he told me: I was told it by two public relations men who took me out to lunch and informed me across the table that he would never talk to me; his family and friends would never talk to me. And then they had a phrase — I forget the exact phrase — but the import was "no one who ever wants a contract from state or city will ever talk to you."

But I started interviewing anyway. So I drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center I put a dot. That was Robert Moses. The inner circle was his family and closest friends. The next circle was close friends but not quite as close. I figured he could keep those people in the first couple of circles from talking to me, but out in the outer circles are all the other people that he dealt with. He couldn't think of them all.

And I started interviewing them and I don't know that this is true, since it's complimentary to me, but his closest associate his chief subordinate a guy named Sid Shapiro, once said to me that [Moses] realized that someone was finally going to do a biography of him whether we wanted it or not. And after two years his daughter suddenly calls me out of nowhere. She calls him Poppa Bear, and she said, "Poppa Bear will see you." So I went to have my first interview with Robert Moses.

On interviewing Moses and challenging him

There came a point in the seventh interview where ... a lot of the things that he was telling me did not comport with the facts as I was learning them from the papers of the governors and mayors that he remembered that he served with. As soon as I started asking him questions, I saw his eyes change, and shortly thereafter he said, "Well, that's enough for today," and I never got to see him again. Every time after that that I called, the secretary said he was busy.

On how Moses bent people to his will

Moses, when someone opposed him, a public official, he put what he called his "team of bloodhounds," that's his investigators, onto this person. If they found anything about the person that was derogatory, he basically would say, "I'm going to leak it to the newspapers unless you go along." So I was examining a very mysterious thing that happened in Moses' career. He wanted to run this road — the Cross Bronx Expressway — right across the heart of the Bronx, displacing thousands of people when there was an alternate route just two blocks away that displaced almost no one. And every elected official was against him.

But all of a sudden, the key official, a lawyer for the council to Mayor [Robert] Wagner changed his mind, and wrote a letter saying Moses' route was good. So when I was talking to Moses I said, "What did you do to Henry Epstein?" And he said something like, "Oh we hit him with an ax." I said, "What do you mean?" And he said in their investigation they had found that he had a girlfriend. He was a married man but he had a longtime girlfriend. He said, "I said to Henry, you and this chum of yours. And Henry said, "She's not my chum." And Moses said, "Oh yes, Henry, she's your chum all right." So Moses said to me... "So Henry wrote his letter."

On how he got Lyndon Johnson's brother Sam to tell the truth about his brother's childhood

I had been interviewing his brother Sam Houston Johnson and ... there was a lot of braggadocio and bravado and basically untruthfulness in his stories. I had gotten disgusted with interviewing him and I decided I'm not going to use anything he told me and I'm not going to spend any more time on this. So I'm working with other people.

Now, all of a sudden I hear he's had this terrible operation for cancer and he stopped drinking ... and I took him for a cup of coffee in the cafe there and the guy sitting next to me all of a sudden was a quiet, introspective guy. I decided to try to interview him again. By this time, I knew the key to Lyndon Johnson's youth was this childhood conflict with his father. So I thought of a way to make him remember more accurately what had happened.

I got the National Park Service to agree that I could take him in to the Johnson boyhood home after the tourists were gone. We went in and I sat him down at the dining room table ... I didn't sit at the table. I didn't want anything in his sight that wouldn't remind of his boyhood. So I sat behind him and I said, "Repeat those dinner time conversations with your father."

He started yelling back and forth. "Lyndon, you're a failure! You'll always be a failure!" "Well, what are you dad? You're bus inspector. That's what you are." And he was shouting back and forth. ... I said, "Now Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful anecdotes, those wonderful stories that you and everyone else told about your brother for all these years, only just give me some more details." ... And then he started without any other prompting to give a completely different picture of Lyndon Johnson's youth.

On why he writes his books longhand

It's because of something that was said to me at Princeton by a professor, a very courtly gentleman, Southern gentleman, who was my creative writing teacher. Every two weeks we'd hand in a short story. I was in his course for two years. For two years he gave me high marks, but I always did these short stories at the last minute. ... I would always start at the last minute and just type, because I could write very fast.

At our last session, he hands back my short story ... and he compliments me, and as I'm getting up to go he says, "But you know, Mr. Caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you stop thinking with your fingers." ...

Did you ever realize that someone is seeing right through you? I realized he had seen right through me all along. He knew that I wasn't putting any thought into these. I was just writing, because writing was so easy for me. So when I was a newspaper man, I was a really fast rewrite man. But when I quit to do a book, and I began to realize how complex the story of Robert Moses was; I said I must make myself think things all the way through, and the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper is by writing in hand. So I write three or four or more — sometimes I write a lot of drafts in hand. Then I go to my typewriter and that's how I write.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Some journalists are great at breaking news. Some like digging deep into their subjects for weeks or months for investigative stories. Our guest today, Robert Caro, has spent decades burrowing into the lives and careers of two men who he says were masters at accumulating and wielding political power.

The result has been five widely acclaimed books about how things get done in the corridors of power, which have earned two Pulitzer Prizes and a host of other awards. Carroll spent seven years writing "The Power Broker" about New York City insider Robert Moses and his influence on the city. And he's written four of five planned volumes on President Lyndon Johnson. At age 83, Caro's working on the last Johnson volume - about the Vietnam War.

But he's also managed to write a short memoir about how he does what he does - unearthing critical facts in old and withered documents, gleaning insights from patient and persistent interviews and writing and rewriting the stories he finds, mostly in longhand. I spoke to Caro last week about his methods and his book, called "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing."

Well, Robert Caro, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You went to Princeton, but you didn't exactly grow up in an Ivy League family. Tell us a little about your background.

ROBERT CARO: Well, perhaps the most salient thing about my boyhood is that my mother died when I was 11 but got very sick when I was 5. You know, in those days, if you got breast cancer and it came back, there wasn't really very much they could do for you. So I remember that a lot.

My father was - he came from Poland when he was a teenager. He spoke English. He taught himself to read and write English by copying out whole columns from The New York Times. But his language with his friends was Yiddish. So the Yiddish version of "Fiddler On The Roof" has been great for me (laughter).

DAVIES: (Laughter) You got sent to a good private school where you got into the school newspaper. You went to Princeton. And you became a newspaper reporter for Newsday, which did a lot of serious investigative reporting.

CARO: In those days, Newsday was a true crusading newspaper.

DAVIES: Right. And you did that for years.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: Why did you decide to give up daily reporting and focus on a book about Robert Moses?

CARO: Oh - you know, I was a reporter for, like, six years. I was an investigative - became an investigative reporter. Then my interest was on politics, political investigations. But you never have a chance to think when you're a reporter. You're running from one story to the next. All of a sudden, I got a Nieman Fellowship. That's a year at Harvard to study the area that you're covering on the paper. I was studying - I had started to get interested in Robert Moses, but that's an anecdote that's going to run a little long (laughter).

DAVIES: Well, you know, a lot of our listeners know who Robert Moses is, but some don't. So maybe just give us a little thumbnail. Who was this guy?

CARO: Robert Moses held power in New - he was never elected to anything. He held power in New York state and New York City for 44 years. He had more power than any mayor, more power than any governor and more power than any mayor or governor combined. And to think of it, he held it for almost half a century. And with it, he shaped New York.

If you are driving on a highway or a parkway around New York City, you are driving on a road built by Robert Moses. He built 627 miles of road. He built 148,000 units of public housing. He reshaped the whole city by putting bulkheads out onto the water - the ocean, the Hudson River - and filling them in with shale. So he transformed the city.

DAVIES: And in doing that, he accumulated power. He had levers of power over people. Powerful people in Albany and in New York listened to Robert Moses.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: So you saw some of this as a reporter. And you decided you wanted to do what?

CARO: Well, I thought of doing a long series on Robert Moses. Where did he get this power? I realized I didn't know where he got it and neither did anyone else. And it struck me - I'll never do this in the context of daily journalism. I have to write a book.

DAVIES: Right. And so you embarked on that project - thinking it would take how long?

CARO: (Laughter) I - well, we had - I - say it this way. We had no savings, so I was trying to do it while I stayed at Newsday. I couldn't get - make any progress. I got a grant for a year. I said to Ina - Ina is my wife - we'll finally get to go to France. They're paying me for a year, and I'll finish this in nine months. That's what my said - outline said. Yeah (laughter).

DAVIES: And at the end of that year?

CARO: We were out of money. I had barely started the book. I knew it was going to take years and years, so we sold our house on Long Island. This was before the real estate boom, unfortunately. So we bought it for 45,000. We sold it for 70,000. So I cleared $25,000. That got us through a second year, and then we were just broke.

DAVIES: You got a little apartment in Spuyten Duyvil...

CARO: In the Bronx.

DAVIES: ...In the Bronx.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: And then - you'd been working on this book. And you reached out to Robert Moses, which is an enormously powerful guy.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: And they told you what?

CARO: Well, you know, over 40 years, numerous biographers - some of them quite famous - had tried to do or started to do a biography on him. And I suppose he told them the same thing he told me.

I was told it by two public relations men who took me out to lunch and informed me across the table that he would never talk to me, his family and friends would never talk to me, his close - no - and then they had a phrase, no one who ever - I don't - forget the exact phrase. But the import was, no one who ever wants a contract from the state or city will ever talk to you. But I kept - started interviewing anyway.

So I drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, I put a dot. That dot was Robert Moses. The inner circle was his family and closest friends. The next circle was close friends, but not quite as close. I figured he could keep those people in the first couple of circles from talking to me. But out in the outer circles are all the other people that he dealt with. He couldn't think of them all. And I started interviewing them.

And I don't know that this is true, Dave, since it's complimentary to me. But his closest associate, his chief subordinate, a guy named Sid Shapiro, once said to me that he realized that someone was finally going to do a biography of him whether we wanted it or not.

DAVIES: Robert Moses realized.

CARO: Robert Moses, yes. And after two years, his daughter suddenly calls me out of nowhere. She calls him Papa Bear. And she said, Papa Bear will see you. So I went to have my first interview with Robert Moses.

DAVIES: What was it like when you met him?

CARO: Well, it was very dramatic. He had a cottage out at - beyond Jones Beach, which is the great bathing beach that he built. There's a little community, summer community called Oak Beach. He lived - he had a summer cottage there, a very modest cottage. But he had ripped out two walls of the living room. So through the left-hand wall, you saw Robert Moses Causeway, the Robert Moses Bridge over to Fire Island. Big...

DAVIES: Big...

CARO: Big bridge, yeah.

DAVIES: Big windows, yeah.

CARO: Oh, big - oh, yes, big - it was like two whole walls of glass. So you saw this long bridge, the Robert Moses Bridge, out the left-hand window. Out the right-hand window, you saw the column of Robert Moses State Park. He sat in the corner in this huge black leather chair - Robert Moses. So when you talk to him, you're looking at Robert Moses framed by his monuments.

DAVIES: Wow. And was he candid?

CARO: Yes. I remember I was - the legislature had been opposed to Jones Beach. I asked him how it was changed. I - he said something like the following.

It was 8-7 against us in Assembly Ways and Means, but the key vote was Stevens (ph) of Cattaraugus County. And Stevens had a mortgage on his farm. And the mortgage on his farm was held by the Rochester First National Bank. And the key to the Rochester bank was so and so. So we got Stevens vote and it was 8-7 on. He remembered all the details. Yeah. (Laughter).

DAVIES: Wow, wow. He knew all those pressure points and remembered?

CARO: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And yet, what was he like when you challenged him?

CARO: There came a point in the seventh interview where he was very - I mean, he educated me a lot. But a lot of the things that he was telling me did not comport with the facts as I was learning them from the papers of the governors or mayors that he served with. Soon as I started asking him questions, I saw his eyes change. And shortly thereafter, he said, well, that's enough for today. And I never got to see him again. Every time after that that I called, the secretary said he was busy.

DAVIES: And when the book was published, he wrote a critique.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: Long critique.

CARO: Yes. You know, he was a great writer himself. He was the editor of the poetry magazine at Yale. He was a great writer. And I remember he used these phrases that, you know, he would attack me for years. You know? And you'd read this thing in the paper, and you'd say, I never think of myself as - he'd say, that poor bastard, Caro. And you'd say, that's me.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CARO: In his first attack, I remember he was trying to make the point - a point of doubtful validity, I must tell you - that I was a Johnny-come-lately environmentalist and that he had always been an environmentalist. And he called me a seasonal Walden Pond. He had great phrases. Yeah.

DAVIES: The book that you've just finished, "Working," has a lot of stories about how you keep at it, and you keep at it and you find things. Give us one example of one of the unseen ways that Robert Moses acquired and used power and how you found out about it.

CARO: Well, for one thing, he wouldn't let me see his papers, of course. And his papers were kept on - his headquarters were on Randall's Island. And there was a corridor with all these file cabinets in it and a guard at the door. I needed those papers. One day, a friend of mine who would become the public relations and a great crusading editor, named Mary Nichols, would become the PR person for the parks department, calls me and said, I hear you're doing a book on Robert Moses. And I said, that's right. And she said, I hear you can't see his papers. And I said, that's right. She said, well, you know what he forgot about? Carbon copies.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CARO: Turns out that he had 12 different agencies that he was the head of, and he communicated with them by carbon copies. This was the era before Xerox. And when he left one of them, the parks commissionership, he forgot about the carbon copies. And she said, I know where they are, and I can get you the key. So they were stored two or three levels down, underneath the 79th Street boat basin next to the Hudson River in Manhattan.

So I went down there. It had been designed as a garage, a huge garage for sanitation and park department trucks, but there were no trucks parked there. I turned on the light, and against the far wall was this row of 30 years of documents. I think there were 23 four-drawer file cabinets. So Ina and I, for months, spent - going through those file cabinets.

DAVIES: You're going in there with a flashlight every day?

CARO: Well, in fact, I - well, you can turn on the light. But what used to happen was that - we used to call them parkies (ph), these little guys in the green uniforms.

DAVIES: Because Robert Moses was head of the park commission for many years.

CARO: Yes. Yes. And they idolized him. He was the commissioner. So they didn't know what exactly what we were doing there, but they knew it was something that the commissioner wouldn't like. So when Ina and I would go out for anything - to have lunch or just to go to the bathroom, we both went out - they'd unscrew the lightbulb - you know, they were just a couple of bare lightbulbs hanging down - and take them out. So we started coming to work every morning with an attache case with four lightbulbs in it.

DAVIES: There are so many stories of how he would bend people to his will - when he needed a vote from the legislature in Albany, when he need an appropriation, when he needed a change made to the route of a road. Can you just tell us one of those stories that show how power works in ways that are unseen to the public?

CARO: Well, you know, Moses, when someone opposed him, a public official, he put what he called his team of bloodhounds - that's his investigators - on to this person. If they found anything about the person that was derogatory, he basically would say, you know, I'm going to leak it to the newspapers unless you go along. So I was examining a very mysterious thing that happened in Moses' career. He wanted to run this road, the Cross Bronx Expressway, right across the heart of the Bronx, displacing thousands of people, when there was an alternate route just two blocks away that displaced almost no one. And every elected official was against him. But all of a sudden, the key official, a lawyer for the council to Mayor Wagner, changed his mind and wrote a letter saying Moses' route was good.

So when I was talking to Moses, I said, what did you do to Henry Epstein? And he said something like, we hit him with an ax. I said, what do you mean? And he said, I said to him, in their investigation they had found that he had a girlfriend. He was a married man, but he had a girlfriend, longtime girlfriend. He said, I said to Henry, you and this chum of yours - and Henry said, she's not my chum. And Moses, said, yes, Henry, she's your chum, all right. So Moses said to me, Bob Caro, so Henry wrote his letter.

DAVIES: Wow. And so that allowed Moses to take the Cross Bronx Expressway through this neighborhood of East Tremont, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people. And here's the interesting question. Why wouldn't he just take that alternate route? Why didn't he do that?

CARO: Because if he took the alternate route, he would have had to - because of a bend at the end of this mile of highway - tear down a business that was profitable to high members of the Bronx Democratic political machine.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Caro. His new book is called, "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and biographer Robert Caro. He has a new book about his life working and writing these biographies. It's called "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing."

After you finished "The Power Broker" - this book about this towering figure who exercised powers in many unseen ways - Robert Moses, you decided you wanted to write about Lyndon Johnson. Why?

CARO: Well, I never was interested in writing a biography of Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the story of a great man. I wanted to use their lives to show how political power worked. That's what I was interested in.

And with Moses, I came to see - I didn't really understand - you know, as you're doing a book, you're finding - you're realizing what you're doing. You don't realize - I've realized, I'm writing a book about urban political power, power in cities. I said, if I ever have - remember; I was broke. My editor had told me no one was going to read this book. I said, if I ever could do another book, I'd like to do national political power, and I'd like to do it through Lyndon Johnson.

Well, as it happens, I say, well, my publisher isn't going to let me do that because I've signed the contract. In order to get enough money to do "The Power Broker," I had to sign a two-book contract, and the second one was to do a biography of Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York. So I was starting on the La Guardia biography. I didn't want to do it.

I figured my publisher was never going to let me out when my editor, Bob Gottlieb - Robert Gottlieb - he calls me up one day. And he says - now, Bob. He says, I know you're a terrible temper. We used to have terrible fights. He said, I want you to come in. I have something I want to talk to you about, and I want you to promise me you won't lose your temper until I finish. And I said, OK.

And he says, I don't think you should do a biography of Fiorello La Guardia, and I have an idea who you should do a biography of. And it should be a biography of Lyndon Johnson. And you should do it in volume so we don't have to cut any of this stuff out. I always felt I increased my advance by some substantial sum by not saying, what a great idea - by saying, oh, I'll think about it (laughter).

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. When I read the first volume of your series about Lyndon Johnson, which is "Path To Power," I always tell people who are daunted by reading a book as long as you write them - trust me; you will find this fascinating from Page 1.

And what you begin with is the history of the hill country where Lyndon Johnson grew up. And I know from what - the book you just did that a lot of people had written biographies of Lyndon Johnson. And you thought, this will not take a lot of effort. That ground's been covered. I'll do a few interviews and get on to the other stuff. That didn't work for you. Why?

CARO: Exactly because when I started interviewing the people of the hill country where Lyndon Johnson grew up, I realized that I wasn't understanding them. These were - this was such a lonely, remote, isolated area of the country. I was being told about a loneliness - I'm a New York boy, as you can tell from my accent, I'm sure. I didn't - I couldn't grasp this loneliness.

You know, his brother once said to me that a quarter of the Johnson Ranch came down near what they call the Austin Fredericksburg Road (ph). It was just an unpaved, graded path. And he said he and Lyndon would sit on that - at the fence at that corner for hours, hoping that one new rider or carriage would come by so they'd have someone new to talk to. These people were very unused to talking to strangers. And I knew they weren't giving me the true story.

DAVIES: Right. You went - you moved to Austin, right? And you went - and you drove out to the hill country to talk to these people. But that wasn't close enough.

CARO: Yes. And I had to tell my wife, you know, I don't understand this country or these people. We're going to have to move there and live there for a while. Ina said to me, why can't you do a biography of Napoleon?

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: But we did that. And for three years, we lived in the hill country.

DAVIES: Robert Caro has written biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. His new book is called "Working."

After a break, he'll talk about what he learned about Lyndon Johnson by moving to the Texas hill country and about talking to LBJ's wife, Lady Bird, about Johnson's long-term relationship with another woman. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album by trumpeter Tom Harrell, which he says is inventive and easy on the ears. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSS BARENBERG'S "HALLOWEEN REHEARSAL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro about writing his groundbreaking biographies of New York power broker Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson. He has a new book explaining his craft called "Working." When we left off, Caro was talking about researching Johnson's early life. He said to get Johnson's friends and associates to tell him the real story, he and his wife moved to the Texas Hill Country for three years.

Give me a sense of what you heard that was different by being there long enough to get acclimated and to have people get acclimated to you.

CARO: You know, Lyndon Johnson had been portrayed in the seven previous books as sort of a Horatio Alger hero of the Hill Country - this popular, charismatic guy that everybody loved. And he was this popular guy at college, and he became the congressman. I was realizing that they - you know, I'd say - I'd tell these people an anecdote, a story, one of these stories. And they'd say, well - something like, well, that's not quite what happened. But they wouldn't - they were so laconic. They wouldn't tell me what had happened.

And there was a turning point for me. The following thing happened. I had been interviewing his brother, Sam Houston Johnson. And Sam Houston Johnson - there was a lot of braggadocio and bravado and basically untruthfulness in what - his stories. And I had gotten disgusted with interviewing him. And I decided, I'm not going to use anything he told me, and I'm not going to spend any more time on this. So I'm working with other people.

Now all of a sudden I hear he's had this terrible operation for cancer, and he stopped drinking. And one day I'm walking around Johnson City, and there's Sam Houston coming towards me. And he's limping. One leg is shorter than the other. He's using a cane now. And I took him for a cup of coffee in the cafe there. And I - the guy sitting next to me all of a sudden was a quiet, introspective guy. I decided to try to interview him again.

By this time I knew the key to Lyndon Johnson's youth was his childhood and his conflict with his father. So I thought of a way to make him remember exactly, more accurately what had happened. I got the National Park Service to agree that I could take him into the Johnson boyhood home after the tourists were gone. We went in, and I sat him down at the table in the same - at the dining room table. It was a plank table. On one side Lyndon's - at the top was his father, on the bottom his mother. His three sisters sat on one side, and Lyndon and Sam Houston Johnson sat on the other. And I said to him, now - and I remember I didn't sit at the table. I didn't want anything in his sight that wouldn't remind him of his boyhood. So I sat behind him, and I said, repeat those - a dinnertime conversation with the father. He started yelling back and forth. Lyndon, you're a failure. You'll always be a failure. Well, what are you Dad? You're a bus inspector, that's what you are. And he was shouting back and forth.

And I thought he was now in the - I said, now Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful anecdotes, those wonderful stories that you and everything else told about your brother for all these years, only just give me some more details. And there was a pause and then Sam Houston said, I can't. And I said, why not? And he said, because they never happened. And then he started without any other prompting to give a completely different picture of Lyndon Johnson's youth that had ever been - and this time when I went back to the other people and said that's what happened - and they'd give me more details.

DAVIES: And you learned that he wasn't an admired figure. He was a self-centered guy who a lot of people found...

CARO: A lot of people found ruthless and fearsome actually.

DAVIES: ...Untrustworthy...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Manipulative, all of that.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: Right. You make the point in this book that truth takes time. If you'd relied on the other books, if you hadn't moved there, you wouldn't have gotten to that layer of depth. Lyndon Johnson is a young man in Congress - been there I think his second full term.

And you notice that in his correspondence he's, like, the new guy and doesn't expect a lot of respect from anybody else. And then there's a point where suddenly he's being treated like a man of influence. And you want to know why. How did you use the documents to figure this out?

CARO: You're a good reader.

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: Well, the change occurs in 1940. You can tell from the correspondence. All of a sudden people are asking for a few minutes of his time although he's a young congressman. So I asked an old Washington fixer named Tommy The Cork Corcoran what happened that - he used to call me kid. So he says, money kid, money. But he says, you're never going to be able to write about it, kid. I said, why not? He said, because Lyndon Johnson never put anything in writing.

And I for a long time thought that was true. And I'm going through all these boxes, you know? And all of a sudden in the middle of a whole box of innocuous papers, there was - he did put something in writing. He put two things in writing. There's a telegram from George Brown of Brown and Root, who were his secret but huge financial backers, saying, Lyndon, the checks are on their way - October 13, 1940.

DAVIES: They owned a huge construction company.

CARO: Huge construction company - and he was getting them huge contracts from the federal government. And Lyndon says, thanks, George; I won't acknowledge this. But he had acknowledged it in writing. And the six names of the people were there, so I could cross-check into their files. And in cross-checking - in the middle of this un-arranged - where people had just shoved letters in at the time, there's the most amazing document that's about six pages long. It's a list. Now, what - his - two of his assistants, John Connally and Walter Jenkins, both told me they typed the list. I don't know which one did it, but it was dramatic. In the left-hand column, typed was the name of the congressman. In the center of the page was what - how much money he wanted - tiny amounts by - $450 for last round...

DAVIES: I didn't understand.

CARO: ...Advertising, $600 for poll watchers? They're cheating us at the polls, Lyndon. But in the left-hand margin, in Lyndon Johnson's handwriting, he had written next to every name. If he was giving the guy as much money as he asked for, this money from Texas, he wrote OK. If he was giving part of it, he wrote OK and the amount he was giving - OK $300 or OK $500. But by some of the names, he wrote none. And by some of the names, he wrote none out.

And I asked John Connally, what did none out mean? Connally says - I can remember his tone. He was never going to get anything from Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson never forgot, and he never forgave. So Johnson is a political genius. He's gotten this money from Texas, and he's giving it out. That's this first source of his power.

DAVIES: All right, so we got this young congressman who gets this - he gives a bunch of federal taxpayer-funded contracts to a big contractor. They in turn recruit contributions from other - these big wheels in Texas.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: Johnson controls that to help other members of Congress in their re-election, who now owe him favors.

CARO: Exactly.

DAVIES: They use power to accrue power.

CARO: Exactly.

DAVIES: Everybody today writes on a computer. You actually...

CARO: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Do your early drafts writing longhand...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Even though you do have a typewriter. You use a typewriter. But your first drafts are longhand.

CARO: And then my - the rest are on a typewriter. I don't use a computer.

DAVIES: OK, but why longhand and not the typewriter from the beginning? Surely when you were a daily newspaper reporter you typed.

CARO: Oh sure, of course.

DAVIES: You closed at the typewriter.

CARO: Of course. Well, it's because - since you asked these very good questions that I deal with in "Working," I'll tell you. It's because of something that was said to me at Princeton by an professor, a very courtly gentleman - Southern gentleman who was my creative writing teacher. Every two weeks, you had to hand in a short story. I was in his course for two years. For two years, he gave me high marks. But I always did these short stories at the last minute. I mean, I remember we used to call it pulling all-nighters. I remember because I would always start at the last minute and just type 'cause I could write very fast.

At our last session, he hands back my short story with the usual, and he compliments me. And as I'm getting up to go, he says, but you know, Mr. Caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you stop thinking with your fingers. You know, I say in "Working," did you ever realize that someone is seeing right through you? I realized he had seen right through me all along. He knew that I wasn't putting any thought into these. I was just writing because writing was so easy for me.

So when I was a newspaper man, I was a really fast rewrite man. But when I quit to do a book and I began to realize how complex the story of Robert Moses was, I said, I must make myself think things all the way through. And the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper is by writing in hand. So I write three or four or more - sometimes I write a lot of drafts in hand. Then I go to my typewriter. And that's how I write.

DAVIES: Our guest is Robert Caro. His new book about his life working is called "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and biographer Robert Caro. He has a new book about his process of working. It's called "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing."

You talk about interviewing people again and again and again...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Which I think most reporters don't. You know, you do it once, and then you move on. Give us an example of how persistence like that made a difference.

CARO: Well, let's say you're trying to - you were never there with Lyndon Johnson. I was never there with Lyndon Johnson. I want to give a picture of what he was like in the Oval Office. What did - what was he physically - what was happening? So his chief domestic adviser was a man named Joseph Califano. He's been an immense help to me. He's been so patient and unstinting with his time. But he used to get so angry at me. I had a lot of interviews with him.

I would say, so Joe, if I was standing there in the Oval Office with you, what would I see? And he'd say, what do you mean - first he'd say something like, what do you mean what do I see? I told you. He was sitting at the desk. He'd get up and walk around. So I'd say again, well, when he got up and walked around, what would you see, you know? He'd say, I told you that already. He just walked up - around. What do you expect me to say? I kept asking. He would get angry at me.

And then one - he said, well - you know, he'd go over to the - Lyndon Johnson was so interested in the news that he had three wire service tickers - the Associated Press, United Press, and INS (ph) - installed in the Oval Office on three tickers there. And he said, well - he was always so - Califano says, well, he was - he'd always go over to those tickers like he couldn't wait to see.

Onto the - I say, no. If I saw him go over to the tickers, Joe, what would I see? Bob, I told you. He went over to the tickers. What do you expect? He read the tickers. I said, Joe, what would I see? And then he suddenly said, you know what, Bob? I forgot it. Sometimes he would get so impatient to see what the reporters were writing that he'd bend over the ticker and take the paper in both hands as if he wanted to pull it out faster from the ticker. You know, details like that help you understand the personality of somebody.

DAVIES: The intensity of the guy.

CARO: The intensity - the right word - intensity of the guy.

DAVIES: Right, right. You also write about interviewing Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...And having to bring up the most delicate subject. I mean, he had extramarital affairs. One of them was meaningful - Alice, Alice Glass.

CARO: Yeah.

DAVIES: You asked her. And what - you couldn't bear to look at her.

CARO: Yes. I - you know, I wasn't going to go into Lyndon Johnson's sexual affairs. He had a lot of affairs, but none of them seemed to have any impact or significance for the way he ran - for his professional life. They didn't seem to mean much to him. But all of a sudden, I discovered there was one affair that he had for a long time, perhaps 25 years. I think the sexual part ended in two or three years. But she was valuable to him 'cause he relied on her political advice. And no one had ever heard of her. Her name was Alice Marsh - Alice Glass and then Alice Marsh. So I went to the small town that she came from and learned about her.

And one day, a mutual friend, a friend who lived in this small town called Marlin, Texas - you know, no one would go to Marlin unless they wanted to - it's in the little town in the middle of nowhere. No one would have gone there unless they wanted to know - learn about Alice Glass. One day this friend of mine calls up and - from Marlin - and says, Bird - in Texas, everyone calls Lady Bird - Bird knows you'd been to Marlin, Bob. So she knows you know about Alice. So I said, well, I can't do anything about that. So the next interview I had with her, the secretary says - I had been interviewing her in Austin in her office. Secretary says she'd like - Mrs. Johnson would like to see you out at the ranch this Saturday. So I went out there...

DAVIES: So she summoned you for this.

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: Oh.

CARO: So she sits at the head of the table, and I'm sitting at her right hand. My stenographer's notebook where I take notes is to my right hand. So I'm looking down at the stenographer's notebook which is - if you picture me as I'm looking away from her. And without a word of preamble, she starts telling me about Alice Glass and how important her influence was in Lyndon's life. And, you know, she talks about how beautiful and elegant she was. She said something like - the quote's in the book. I remember her in a succession of lovely dresses and me in less lovely.

She says, you know, everything Alice told him, he had long - when he comes to Congress, she meets him when he's a new congressman, and his arms are very long and ungainly. She says, make an advantage of that by wearing all these French cuffs with beautiful cufflinks. And he did that for the rest of his life. And there are times in his life where she saved his political career, one in particular.

DAVIES: Alice Marsh did.

CARO: Alice Marsh did. But she's talking about this, Lady Bird. And during the whole time she's talking to me, I can't bear to look up at her. I just sit there writing notes.

DAVIES: So she speaks admiringly of this...

CARO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Woman who probably had an affair with her husband, you know? And it's interesting because you spent so much time talking to Lyndon Johnson's little brother, Sam Houston Johnson, and wanting to get the real story from him. Were you prepared to just leave it there with Lady Bird, I mean, not ask about the pain it might have caused?

CARO: Let's say I didn't ask any questions at that interview. It's the only interview that I can remember where I didn't ask any questions. And in fact, I couldn't bear to look up at the person I was interviewing.

DAVIES: And so you didn't feel like that was something you just needed to get to the bottom of.

CARO: Well, from my point of view, I had gotten to the bottom of it because I had seen and could document how she said, for example, a number of times in which she saved his political career. You know, he relied on her. During the war, he's in Australia. You're allowed - it's 1942. One of the Texas senators has died. He has to decide whether to run for another term in the House of Representatives or to run for the Senate. He's allowed one telephone call. He doesn't call the White House. Franklin Roosevelt has told him, you can always call me.

He calls - I didn't know this. I came across this telegram in the files where Alice - had signed Alice. I had no idea who Alice was. The telegram says, Lyndon, everyone else - which means the White House, I found out - everyone else thinks you should run for the Senate. I think you should run for the House again. He runs for the House again. At a number of points - turning points in his career, it's her advice that he relies on. I didn't really want to go into what you asked me about. I wasn't going to ask Lady Bird about the pain it caused.

DAVIES: Did she appreciate the biographies that you wrote in the end?

CARO: I understand she hated them, but I also - I'm not sure her eyesight was too good, maybe. I'm not sure. From various things she said, I was never quite sure that she actually wasn't relying on what staff people told her about it.

DAVIES: You're working on the last piece of the Lyndon Johnson series. It's about the Vietnam War years.

CARO: Yeah.

DAVIES: I won't ask you how far into it you are. It's going to take as long as it's going to take. You're 83. I know you get asked this a lot. Are you worried about finishing it?

CARO: Well, I don't think about not finishing. You might hear the clock ticking, but you can't let that rush. I'm trying not to rush this book. I'm trying to do it the same way I did the other books because what would be the point if I did a different way?

DAVIES: Robert Caro, it's been fun. Thanks so much. Good luck. We're looking forward to the last volume.

CARO: Thanks for a great interview. Great questions. Thanks.

DAVIES: Robert Caro's books include "The Power Broker" about Robert Moses and four volumes of his biography of President Lyndon Johnson. He's working on the fifth but is taking time to write a short memoir about his research and writing methods called "Working."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album by trumpeter Tom Harrell. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "MAPLE LEAF RAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.