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How Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn Wrote Their Dishy Memoirs With Robert Gottlieb

Gottlieb served as editor-in-chief of Knopf until 1987.

Whatever you think of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish’s partnership, there’s no denying the influence of a strong editor. Robert Gottlieb is another case in point, not only for his five-year tenure at the New Yorker but for his time as editor-in-chief at Knopf, where he published, among many other things, the memoirs of both Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn. In a new Vanity Fair article excerpted from his forthcoming “Avid Reader: A Life,” Gottlieb delves into his collaborations with the two screen icons, both of which produced best-sellers.

READ MORE: Listen: Robin Williams & Lauren Bacall Remembered on Indiewire’s Podcast, Screen Talk

“Betty didn’t need a collaborator, and in any case would never have put up with one,” he says of Bacall (real name Betty Perske). “What she needed was a way to work.” His solution was to give her an office at Knopf where she could write distraction-free, composing her memoirs longhand and having typists transcribe them at the end of each day.

They did have “one moment of confrontation,” however, stemming from the photo chosen for the back of the book: Bogey and Bacall. “‘Absolutely not,’ she exploded; this was her book, not his.” Gottlieb won that argument, and says that in general she was exceedingly easy to work with. Their efforts paid off, as “By Myself” was a number-one best-seller for weeks on end and eventually won a National Book Award.

READ MORE: Remembering Lauren Bacall

Gottlieb met Hepburn via Irene Selznick, and has just as much revealing insight to share about her. The two were essentially neighbors in New York, and eventually worked together on “The Making of the African Queen: How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.” “The work went easily,” Gottlieb recalls, though the full memoir, “Me,” which was published after he’d left Knopf for the New Yorker, was “a mess of a book, thoroughly disingenuous and narcissistic. Yet at least the title was accurate: from first to last she was about Me.” For more, read the full piece at Vanity Fair.

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