I sometimes work in the Allen Room in the NYPL, and it is indeed the greatest resource this city has for people toiling away on projects seemingly without end, reason, or fellow travelers. This was sent to me by Jack (labohrertorium.tumblr.com) and I have reread it a great deal since. I got to hang with Caro last year and talk biography, and he’s as close to a Superman that this weird and sometimes crazy profession has produced. His editorial, below (from the NYTimes) is like a cup of chamomile for the brain.
Sanctum Sanctorum for Writers
By ROBERT A. CARO
Published: May 19, 1995
RECENTLY, walking into the main entrance of the New York Public Library for a ceremonial occasion before its centennial celebration this weekend, I was directed up the stairway to the left. I found myself, however, walking past the stairs, to a corridor behind them. Set into the corridor’s marble wall was a double door of dark wood, tall and forbidding, no lettering on it to identify it, and I stood in front of it, remembering when I had a key to that door — and when that key was one of my most precious possessions.
For some years, in fact, that key — a key to the library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room, a marble and wood-paneled space containing 11 cubicles for writers — was almost a talisman to me, a charm I clung to during those years to try to make myself believe that the biography of Robert Moses on which I was working might actually become a book.
Before I was admitted to the Allen Room in late 1971, it had become harder and harder for me to believe that. I had been working on the Moses biography for about five years. I had begun it because I felt that an examination of Moses’ life would throw new light on the true nature of urban political power and on the history of a great city. As year followed year, and I learned more and more about Moses’ life, I became more and more convinced that the book could indeed do that. But, as year followed year, the project had, in my mind, taken on an air of unreality.
In part, this was due to the lack of any relationship between writing the book and the inescapable realities of the rest of life, such as earning a living. While I had, in 1966, been given a book contract, the advance I had received was $2,500, and it had so long since been spent that it seemed to have no connection with the years that had passed since I received the check. I had been a reporter on Newsday, and as Ina, my wife, and I watched our savings run out, and we sold our house to keep going, and the money from the sale ran out — and my editor assured me that while my early chapters appeared to have literary merit, there would be so little audience for a book on Moses that the printing would be modest indeed — the book sometimes seemed more and more like a rather unreal interlude in my life.
I had always believed I was a writer, but to me being a real writer meant writing more than one book, and I could see absolutely no way of getting to write another one. I was determined to finish this one, no matter what. But the only future I could see after that was to try to persuade Newsday to rehire me. And it was becoming harder and harder to cling to my image of myself as a writer. My editor, the only editor I knew, seemed to be taking longer and longer to answer my telephone calls. My connection with my publisher seemed extremely tenuous.
These factors were changing, however. I had acquired an agent and was switching publishers. And after an interlude with another, only slightly more generous publisher, I was being brought together with a very different type of editor, Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, who was trying to find some kind of mechanism that would allow me to stop worrying constantly about money (and who even liked the title, “The Power Broker”). But these changes had not yet sunk in, and while some things were getting better, what had not got better at all was what I have since realized was the most fundamental reason for the feeling of unreality: that I had, for five years, been living in a world utterly unpopulated by anyone else who was doing what I was doing.
As a reporter, my days had been filled not only with bylines, a weekly paycheck and other trappings that made the journalistic world real, but also with interaction with my editors, with other reporters, with the subjects of my articles. When I had a problem connected with my work, there were many people with whom to discuss it.
When I left Newsday, I entered a world that was very different, and not just because, instead of seeing my writing in print every day, there had been, in 1971, no writing of mine in print for five years. Following the sale of our house on Long Island, Ina, our son, Chase, and I moved to an apartment in Riverdale, in the Bronx. There were certainly other writers in Riverdale, but we didn’t meet any of them. I don’t think that during the first five years I was working on “The Power Broker” I had any contact with a single other writer of serious books. There was no writer with whom I could discuss a writing problem.
By the time I was admitted to the Allen Room, moreover, my feelings about my book involved not only unreality, but doubt as well. For one thing, it seemed far too long to be a book. More and more frequently, as the piles of manuscript on my desk grew, I would calculate the words I had written (the final draft of “The Power Broker” — not a rough draft, the polished final draft — would be 1,050,000 words, cut to 700,000 words for publication) and I had to wonder if what I was doing would ever be published.
I was bothered, too, by the length not only of the manuscript, but also of the time I had been working on it.
That was the thing that made me doubt the most. When I had started, I had firmly believed that I would be done in a year, a naive but perhaps not unnatural belief for someone whose longest previous deadline had been measured in weeks. As year followed year, and I was still not nearly done, I became convinced that I had gone terribly astray.
This feeling was fed by the people Ina and I did know. I was still in the first year of research when friends and acquaintances began to ask if I was “still doing that book.” Later I would be asked, “How long have you been working on it now?” When I said three years, or four, or five, they would quickly disguise their look of incredulity, but not quickly enough to keep me from seeing it. I came to dread that question. A Fifth Avenue Oasis
One day in 1971, I came across a magazine article describing the Frederick Lewis Allen Room. It said that the only requirement for admission was a contract from a publisher, and that its 11 resident writers were allowed to keep books and other research materials at their desks.
The last statement was the one that caught my interest. Users of the Main Reading Room on the library’s third floor, where I had done research, were required to return their books every night and to request them again the next morning, a procedure so time-consuming that I had given up on it, and had stopped using the Reading Room entirely. As soon as I read the article, I applied for the Allen Room, and, after a wait of some months, was assigned one of the 11 desks.
Being able to keep material at your desk was wonderful, and so were the materials. There seemed to be no document or report you needed that was not housed somewhere in that great building on Fifth Avenue or in one of its annexes, and that would not appear with seemingly miraculous speed on the cart just inside the Allen Room door after you had looked it up in the card catalogue, written your name and its call number on a pink slip and handed the slip to one of the always helpful librarians upstairs. Moses’ Ph.D. thesis; a volume of “Yale Verse” he had edited in 1909; the City Comptroller’s confidential reports on the financing of Moses’ 1964-65 World’s Fair (and on his 1939 World’s Fair): the New York Public Library seemed to have, readily at hand, anything I might need on Moses or on the history of New York City.
(And as I would subsequently learn, not just on the history of New York. Years later, working on a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson and living in Texas, I was told there might be a description of one of Johnson’s forebears in a three-volume collection of unedited reminiscences by “The Trail Drivers of Texas,” published in Dallas in 1929. Ina and I searched for those volumes in libraries and used bookstores all over Texas without success; returning to New York, and checking back into the Allen Room, I decided to look up the collection in the New York Public Library’s catalogue. There it was; I filled out a pink slip, and an hour or so later, the three volumes — invaluable volumes, as it turned out — were sitting on the Allen Room cart.) A Room of Writers
It was not books, however, that were the most wonderful things I found in the Allen Room.
When I had used my key for the first time, opened the big door and, carrying my typewriter, walked into the room, none of the people at the desks in it looked up from their work to give me more than a cursory glance. But one of the glances was from a face easily recognizable because of its patriarchal beard; I recognized it because I had seen it not long before on television. The man sitting at the desk next to me was Joseph P. Lash, author of a book that I much admired, “Eleanor and Franklin.”
And that evening, after everyone in the room had left, I walked from desk to desk reading the names on the pink slips sticking out of the books, to find out the identity of the people sitting there. One of the names was “Milford” — Nancy Milford, who had written “Zelda.” One was “Flexner.” The compact little man with the mutton-chop whiskers who had been sitting at the first desk when I walked in — who had sat, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, typing diligently hour after hour without even looking up — was James Thomas Flexner, who had already published three volumes of his magisterial biography of George Washington.
Another name was “Lundberg.” That was a name that might have faded somewhat from the consciousness of literary America, but it had faded not at all from mine; time and again, when I had been writing about the powerful Gold Coast robber barons who had fought Moses on Long Island, I had turned for facts — always there and always reliable — to “America’s 60 Families,” written in 1937 by Ferdinand Lundberg. The day I read the names of the writers to whose work space I had been admitted was the day that I felt I might be a writer, after all.
And these writers provided more for me than merely the glow of their names. In my memory, no one spoke to me for the first few days I was in the room. Then one day, I looked up and James Flexner was standing over me. The expression on his face was friendly, but after he had asked what I was writing about, the next question was the question I had come to dread: “How long have you been working on it?” This time, however, when I replied, “Five years,” the response was not an incredulous stare.
“Oh,” Jim Flexner said, “that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.”
I could have jumped up and kissed him, whiskers and all — as, the next day, I could have jumped up and kissed Joe Lash, big beard and all, when he asked me the same question, and, after hearing my answer, said in his quiet way, ” ‘Eleanor and Franklin’ took me seven years.” In a couple of sentences, these two men — idols of mine — had wiped away five years of doubt.
After a while, the writers of the Allen Room invited me to lunch, which we thereafter ate almost every day in the employees’ cafeteria in the library basement. These writers included not just some who were already famous, but some who were, at the time, little better known than I was, like John Demaray, Lucy Komisar, Irene Mahoney and Susan Brownmiller, who was working on “Against Our Will” and would sit at the desk adjoining mine for the next two years, her petite feet, clad in brightly striped socks, sticking under the partition that divided our desks, giving me an odd feeling of companionship.
The cafeteria setting could hardly have been more grubby — or more gratifying. The talk was often about problems of research and writing: about the mysteries of our craft, our shared craft. Suddenly, just by being given a desk in the Allen Room, I had been made to feel a part of the community of writers. A Place on the Shelf
On a row of bookshelves in the Allen Room were copies of the books that had been written there, not merely the Lash, Milford, Flexner and Lundberg books, but also Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” and Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President: 1964.”
In September 1974, “The Power Broker” was published, and I went off on a promotion tour, and then on a long vacation. One day, in the spring of the following year, I waited until the evening, when I knew the room might be empty, and went back to see if “The Power Broker” was on those shelves.
That was the place, of all places, where it belonged.