September 27, 1976 12:00 PM

It’s a bit terrifying to invite renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim for lunch and hear him declare after 20 minutes: “I have noticed one thing about your daughter, but perhaps it would be impolite of me to say it.” The parents freeze, then anxiously coax out the feared diagnosis. “Well, the thing I notice about Lizzie,” the doctor reports, “is that at the age of 2½, she’s already considerably more secure than either of you.”

The insecurity of Lizzie’s parents isn’t so severe that they can’t still laugh about the incident a couple of years later. In fact, they both seem to batten creatively on the trait. Lizzie’s dad, who resembles Woody Allen in more than looks, is Robert Gottlieb, already, at 45, New York’s most envied publisher-editor with authors like Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, B.F. Skinner and Lady Antonia Fraser in his stable and thrall at Alfred Knopf Inc. Lizzie’s mom is Maria Tucci, 35, a classical actress critically admired if underrecognized because of her preference for rep (the American Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, Conn.; Princeton’s McCarter Theater) and her aversion to flackery.

She’s no snob (she recently guested on Kojak), but the metaphors of higher arts suffuse what Gottlieb admits are generally “crazed” lives. Pressed about Dr. Bettelheim’s comment on Lizzie, Bob exclaims, “Isn’t that great for her first—and I hope last—review!” Or, referring to the unlikelihood of a Manhattan kid like himself so enmeshed with his Tucci in-laws whose origins are Russian mercantilist and Italian aristocracy, Gottlieb remarks: “I’m an Ibsen character who wandered into a Chekhov play.” No problem, laughs his down-to-earth wife. “Bob may not be what my mother might have expected—he’s not a Roman prince—but for a divorced New York boy, he behaves very well.”

Actually, the family is remarkably accepting. Grandmother Tucci often babysits at the Gottliebs’ East Side townhouse while Maria is at the theater and Bob, who’s on the board of the New York City Ballet, catches his customary five or six dance performances a week. (“Ballet is my obsession,” he quips. “Publishing I do in my spare time.”)

“We lead a demented homelife,” Bob says needlessly. “Like everyone else who lives on a salary, we don’t have any money. But we’ll suddenly have eight for dinner, three kids sleeping over, friends who drop in to stay for two days or six months—it’s like a boardinghouse. Both Maria and I are people who want to live in extended families,” he continues. “If we drop in on friends, Maria will be in the kitchen in 15 minutes.”

Gottlieb has not always enjoyed that sort of easiness. It was all “a mess,” he says, until he finally emerged from eight years of analysis at age 35. “That made my life possible.” The only child of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, he attended private school before Columbia and postgrad work at Cambridge. Though always literary, he had a passion for pop lit, too, and made a point of reading best-sellers from every list since they first appeared in 1895. At a rate of up to four tomes a day, Gottlieb estimates he’s careened through 40,000 in his lifetime. Despite this perfect preparation, he didn’t know publishing was his vocation (“No one does, unless his father owns the company”). So at 24 Gottlieb was back in New York married to his college sweetheart (that ended in 1965), with a son (Roger, now 23) and a job—as a Christmas card salesman at Macy’s.

“I figured my sensitivity would be destroyed forever if I had to work in an office. But after an endless desultory search I got a job at Simon and Schuster at $75 a week. It was miraculous. I was utterly enchanted, excited and fulfilled.” Twelve years later he was the hottest editor in the business, though not because of his facility at the lunch table (almost uniquely, he eats pastrami sandwiches alone at his desk) but due to his respect for writers and felicity with the pencil. When Knopf headhunted and raided Gottlieb in 1968, his top assistants and authors followed, creating a major flap in publishing.

One of the writers who followed him to Knopf had a daughter whom Bob first met while she was still a schoolgirl at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Her father was urbane New Yorker contributor and novelist Niccolò Tucci (Before My Time, Unfinished Funeral). The Tuccis had fled Fascist Italy for America just before World War II. Maria was born in New York and grew up at a dinner table that on any given night might seat Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy or Albert Camus. Maria thought of herself as the ugly duckling. “I was spared the temptation of falling into the life of the ‘Beautiful People’ because I never felt that I was beautiful, and so I had to do something—I had to work. I now look back and think how fortunate I was.

“I always wanted to be an actress,” she remembers. “I kept putting on plays. My best friend, who was very beautiful, was always Cinderella, and I was everyone else.” When she was 12, her mother sent her to study acting at a West Side Y. “I was the shyest girl in the world. And this was like finding…the sun!” At 15 (she lied about her age) Maria went to work sweeping the stages and handling the props of Joseph Papp’s fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival. She later studied with Lee Strasberg and mime Etienne Decroux and suffered one semester at Barnard College (“I thought I’d go crazy, it was so boring”).

Finding their long friendship had deepened, she and Bob were wed in 1969. “Maria would ask me,” he recalls,” ‘How can you marry someone who’s so silly?’ And I told her, ‘You’re the only woman I’ve met who was so basically strong I knew nothing I could do would really hurt you.’ Strangely enough, she doesn’t find much romance in that, but it’s true.”

Maria has also discovered another truth: that “acting is a kind of stealing of other people’s lives. I’ve always questioned myself—do I act for fame? Is it ‘Look at me’? But I think it’s really an attempt to extend one’s life.” Bob cuts in: “That’s why we read books.”

Their daughter proved to be the culmination. “After having Lizzie I changed as an actress,” says Maria, who resumed her career when the child reached 2. “Giving birth forces you to really get in touch with your feelings, to become an animal in the best sense of the word. I really think in the last several years I’ve grown, and I wish the people who had seen me act before could see me now.”

“Lizzie has her mother’s basic happiness and openness to feelings and my organized mind,” finds Gottlieb. “She’s really a very, very happy person, and she’s the best of us.” Likely, Dr. Bettelheim was right all along.

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