This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
This is the office of a man who takes himself, and his work, seriously. It’s a monastic, claustrophobic space. There are no sources of music, no pieces of art. There are no photographs, except for a single image of the U.S. Senate chamber, emptied of its occupants, which hangs on the bulletin board. Only the big window provides relief. The austerity of the room is deliberate: “It’s too hard to write,” Caro says wearily. “It’s too easy not to write. If you could do anything else, you’d be doing it.” But write he does. Caro keeps track of his daily word count on a calendar. “Hemingway wrote the word count every day,” Caro avers. “So do I.” He also keeps a note attached to his desk lamp, a stark reminder of his priorities: “When you’re at this desk,” the note reads, “the only thing that matters is what is on the page.”
In 1958, Caro was a restless young reporter for the New Brunswick Daily Home News in New Jersey, the first byproduct of his tenure as managing editor of the Daily Princetonian. In an effort to escape New Brunswick, he sent his resume to a variety of newspapers. Only one answered his call. Newsday, in the early 1960s, was not the first-class paper we know today; it was a smallish daily in Garden City, Long Island. But the paper had a civic-minded, idealistic publisher, Alicia Patterson, who fostered investigative reporting.
Not everyone there was encouraged by Caro’s hiring. In his authorized history of Newsday, Robert Keeler noted that managing editor Alan Hathway “preferred street-wise reporters to eager college boys, and he responded to the hiring of Caro with a grumble.”
Shortly after Caro began, an editor dispatched him to a railroad crossing, just east of the office, to report on a near-accident. “He was so raw,” Keeler wrote, “that he drove to the west instead, and didn’t realize it until he reached Queens.” But Caro would soon demonstrate a gift for both roads and archives. One day he was sent to examine some Federal Aviation Administration documents at what is now the John E Kennedy airport.
Shortly thereafter, Caro was summoned to Hathway’s office, where he expected to be discharged. In Keeler’s account, the crusty old editor proclaimed: “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this. From now on, you do investigative work.”
While at Newsday, Caro developed an interest in New York State Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who was both ubiquitous and elusive in the public mind. During a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1966, Caro decided to undertake a full-length biography of Moses even though Moses’s p.r. man told him at the start that he would have no access to Moses, or to his colleagues and friends. Caro resigned from Newsday, and went ahead and did the research anyway on a paltry advance from his publisher. Still, the Newsday years were crucial to Caro’s development as a writer. “His time as a journalist has helped make him a better historian,” says Pete Hamill, “because he knows how to make the writing vivid, while simultaneously telling a story.” Adds Hamill: “Caro doesn’t bother with the academic babble; it’s as if in his head there’s some old guy from the copy desk looking down at him, and saying: `Uh, Bob, what does this bullshit mean?’”
In May 1967, Moses, impressed by Caro’s tenacity, agreed at last to see him. Caro drove to Moses’s home on the south shore of Long Island, and found him sitting in front of a huge picture window that framed one of many bridges he himself had built. “So,” Moses said with a wide grin, “you’re the young fellow who thinks he’s going to write a book about me.”