The Power Broker: Robert Moses and
the Fall of New York
by Robert Caro
Vintage (Random House)
Published: July 1974
Published in 1974, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” was Robert Caro’s first book – and earned him the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Caro is best known for his ongoing series covering the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for the third volume (“Master of the Senate”) and is currently working on the fifth – and presumably final – book in the series.
“The Power Broker” is notable both for what it is – a monumental investigative work and piercing exploration of a fascinating personality – and what it is not – an easy-to-digest narrative intended for the casual fan of great biography. This 1,162-page book is hefty but engrossing, detailed but illuminating and unquestionably demands more patience and perseverance than most biographies.
Readers familiar with Caro’s series on LBJ will find his writing style strikingly familiar: penetrating and potent but not particularly elegant and frequently dense but rarely dull. And given Caro’s knack for uncovering and piecing together various elements of his subject’s life, his background as an investigative reporter is hardly surprising.
This biography starts off somewhat slowly but once it is running at full steam (after about two-hundred pages) it is almost inexplicably enthralling. Robert Moses is not someone familiar to most readers, but Caro’s biography carefully tracks each phase of his uniquely consequential life – his rise to power, the decades he spent exercising that power and his eventual fall. At times this is as much a study of power as of Robert Moses.
There are too many excellent moments to comprehensively chronicle, but among the best are the chapter outlining Moses’ early vision for the development of Long Island, the review of his rise to power in New York City, descriptions of the ongoing tension between Moses and Franklin Roosevelt and the examination of Moses’ involvement in the Central Park Zoo and Triborough Bridge projects.
Caro also provides excellent introductions to important supporting characters such as Al Smith, Fiorello La Guardia and Nelson Rockefeller. And the chapter dedicated to describing a typical work day for Moses near the peak of his power, including his strategy for entertaining guests and dignitaries, is one of the book’s best.
This book’s few weaknesses are not well-hidden. The narrative rarely hurries to get to the heart of a matter and paragraphs routinely consume most of a page. Lacking both efficiency and a colorful fluidity, this is not a carefree read. In addition, Moses’ early years elapse far too quickly and his personal life proves elusive. But because his life revolved almost entirely around his career, this imbalance is unsurprising if unfortunate.
Overall, Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” is an incredibly interesting, uncommonly penetrating and unquestionably demanding biography of one of New York’s most consequential public figures. Anyone seeking a casual biographical experience will find this book weighty and intense. But readers seeking a a fascinating story about a surprisingly compelling subject (and underpinned by meticulous research) will find few better biographies than this.
Overall rating: 4½ stars
As always, an excellent and insightful review. For me personally, the chapters about routing the Northern State Parkway and Cross-Bronx Expressway were very powerful.
Ah yes, how could I forget to mention the chapters about routing the highways?!? If there is any meaningful (and/or interesting) aspect of Moses’ life which escaped Caro’s attention I would be surprised. The backstories to the Northern State and Cross-Bronx were fascinating (and only slightly disturbing).
I am reading Caro’s “Working” right now. I’ve yet to read The Power Broker or the LBJ series. They continue to sit on my shelf, waiting foe me to climb those mountains.
Those are some tall mountains indeed! But if you ever find yourself with a spare 75 to 100 hours, I do highly recommend the LBJ series!