The New-York Historical Society, the oldest museum in New York City, presents “Turn Every Page”: Inside the Robert A. Caro Archive, the first public exhibition drawn from the archive of the author whose award-winning works on Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson are regarded as masterpieces of modern biography and history. Opening on October 24, the ongoing exhibition includes never-before-seen highlights from the archive—which New-York Historical acquired in 2019—that provide an intimate view of how Caro started his career and how he worked as a reporter. Caro’s meticulousness as a reporter, biographer, and historian—which enabled him to become the country’s premier chronicler of political power—is on view to the public in his research notebooks, handwritten interview notes, scrapbooks, photographs, and original manuscript pages. The exhibition also includes one of Caro’s Smith Corona Electra 210 typewriters. The riches in the archive make it an essential destination for historians, journalists, students, and anyone interested in 20th-century American history and literature, where they can find materials available nowhere else.
“‘Turn Every Page’ will both illuminate and delight audiences,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “This first-ever exhibition of Robert A. Caro’s work offers a unique window into his process, his thinking, and his writing. It also underscores the value investigative journalism has in historical research, and Caro’s extraordinary ability to uncover as well as convey—brilliantly, and with clarity and elegance—the essence of power. That Caro’s research and writing will be permanently on view in our building attests to his monumental standing as a biographer and historian.”
The exhibition traces the arc of Caro’s early career first as a student journalist at Princeton and later as an investigative reporter for Newsday, and highlights his on-the-ground research for both The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson (and the years of reporting he did for those books) as well as his rigorous process of interviewing, writing, and editing. The display reveals the writer’s extraordinary output, his persistent effort to capture a multitude of voices in his research and reporting, and his drive to examine events and understand their deeper causes.
While working on his 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Caro conducted 522 interviews. He found the last few persons alive who worked closely with New York Governor Al Smith, and Caro’s handwritten notes and typed transcripts of those interviews are in the archive. He also interviewed people who worked with New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Future historians wanting to write about Smith or LaGuardia will find in Caro’s transcripts materials on those two figures and scores of others—including Belle Moskowitz, a pioneering and immensely powerful woman in 1920s politics—that exist nowhere else. For the third volume in the Johnson series, Master of the Senate, Caro interviewed not only senators but their assistants and other staff members down to the cloakroom attendants, who gave him insight into the maneuverings in those sacrosanct rooms.
Because of his determination to chronicle “not only the powerful but the powerless,” the Caro Archive contains interviews with residents of New York neighborhoods Moses destroyed and with farmers and ranchers from the Texas Hill Country whose lives young Congressman Johnson transformed by bringing them electricity as well as with African-Americans denied the right to vote—and the heartbreaking consequences to them when they tried to do so—before Johnson passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a subject of great relevance at this very moment. Most of the people Caro interviewed are now deceased, but their testimony—about political power and its potential to do good or ill—now exists on Central Park West, the street on which Caro grew up, in the archives of New-York Historical.
In the Caro Archive are interviews and documents that illuminate aspects of American politics once hidden from view, for example the stolen election of 1948. Key figures and documents from one of the famed stories of Lyndon Johnson’s career—his stealing of the 1948 Senate election by 87 votes—are here, including the written description of the stealing by the election judge who directed it, which he gave to Caro when the author finally tracked him down.
At the core of Caro’s achievement is language itself—his efforts to write prose that is at the same high level as a great work of fiction—and its capacity to make us present, to see and feel and understand exactly what his characters are experiencing. Language is the source of his narrative power, and the archive includes each step in his writing process—from his summary outlines to his in-depth outlines to his manuscripts handwritten on legal pads to his typed drafts and revisions to the typeset proofs containing his many rewrites.
In sum, the archive from which the exhibition is drawn reveals Caro’s development as a writer, the craft of his writing, as well as the sweeping history of New York City and state politics from the 1920s through the 1960s and the history of the United States in the 20th century.
“Turn Every Page” was curated by Michael Ryan, Sue Ann Weinberg Director Emeritus of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library; Edward O’Reilly, curator of manuscripts for the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library; and Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts.
Robert A. Caro graduated from Princeton University and was later a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. For six years, he worked as an investigative reporter for Newsday. His most recent book is Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, a memoir of his experiences as a researcher and writer that offers a firsthand perspective on the process and personal impact of writing his landmark books. Currently, he is at work on the fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. He lives in New York City with his wife, the writer and historian, Ina Caro.
For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, he has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, the National Book Award twice, the National Book Critics Circle Award three times, and virtually every other major literary honor, including the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and 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.” In 2008, he was awarded New-York Historical’s History Makers Award, and in 2013, he received its American History Book Prize for The Passage of Power. In 2010, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal.