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The Life of A. Scott Berg

In which the writer and his celebrated works—among them, in no particular order, volumes on Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and most recently Woodrow Wilson—are submitted for thoughtful examination. With an account of Berg’s years in Bel-Air as a precocious lad and insights from the diabolically hardworking subject himself on the virtues that set him apart from other biographers

Photograph by Joe Pugliese

Andrew Scott Berg was born in Connecticut in 1949 and became an Angeleno eight years later, from the moment the DC-3’s cabin door opened and a whiff of orange blossoms blew in on the breeze. His father, the late Richard Berg, a promising writer at the height of television’s first golden age, had just swept the family up into the greatest migration of artistic genius since talkies.

The invention of videotape was drawing TV writers west, just as The Jazz Singer (1927) had emptied the newsrooms and theater bars of Chicago and New York 30 years before. Every Saturday of his adult life Dick Berg played gin rummy with his best friend, Rod Serling, and Scott was growing up surrounded by writers. They all lit out for California in the same land rush, pitching camp in the same leafy canyons. It sounds like a perfect Twilight Zone episode: A small suburban neighborhood suddenly finds itself transported to an uncharted, climate-controlled, seemingly benign planet on the other side of beyond.

That planet was Bel-Air, and as Scott Berg describes it, “there were literally ten families from Westport that moved out to L.A. Somebody ought to do an article about that, actually. Because I remember my parents would go to parties out here, and there were the same ten people they saw in Westport. It was really kind of amazing.”

Berg was an at-risk kid—the risk being a career in show business, to which two of his three brothers, an agent and a music producer, have long since succumbed. But his mom, Barbara, was a sidetracked historian. At 19 she took a brief time-out from college to raise four boys, then reenrolled a mere quarter century later to earn her bachelor’s and master’s at UCLA. By then she had instilled in Berg a love of history to match her husband’s dedication to literature. With parents like these, he could have wound up writing historical novels, but instead he found his calling writing some of the most novelistic history around: a National Book Award-winning biography of Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s editor, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius; the epic life of immigrant film producer Samuel Goldwyn; the Pulitzer-winning story of aviator Charles Lindbergh. That’s not counting Kate Remembered, Berg’s “biographical memoir” of his late friend Katharine Hepburn.

If Berg’s subjects have a common thread, a figure in the carpet that unites them, it’s that each bloomed late. With at least the becoming appearance of discovering this theme for the first time, Berg ticks them off one by one: Perkins, an ex-newsman; Goldwyn, a glover in his thirties; Lindbergh, who “really gets interesting after the flight”; and now Woodrow Wilson, who didn’t run for public office till he was 53. For a professed Fitzgerald man, Berg has a knack for choosing American lives with pronounced second acts. “They all reinvented themselves,” he says of his subjects. That, and “they all have what Hepburn used to call horsepower: Go, go, go. In fact that was one of her favorite expressions. ‘Let’s go, go, go.’ ”


This feature originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Photograph by Joe Pugliese

A. Scott Berg goes, goes, goes, but he prefers to do most of it from the sanctity of his handsome home office, in the hills above Mel’s Drive-In on the Sunset Strip. Berg has lived under the spell of Woodrow Wilson for most of his life and under contract for his biography for roughly ten years—eight of them researching, the rest to write it. Wilson stares at Berg from about a dozen different photographs and a two-inch bust beside his computer screen. “I’m very big on keepsakes and talismans,” Berg says.

Mel’s had just taken over Ben Frank’s (the hash house where Sonny and Cher first met) when Berg and his partner, Gangster Squad producer Kevin McCormick, bought the home from a TV starlet around the time he started Wilson. Modern but not midcentury, streamlined but not moderne, it’s a sweet perch, all white walls and wide windows. It’d better be, because Berg has a work ethic that makes Sisyphus look like a slugabed.

His mentor, the Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, once likened his own biographical method to a slowly gathering rain cloud, but Berg prefers the metaphor of “a photo developing in a tank.” The image crystallizes only after years and years of research, both at home and in archives around the world. Then Berg writes for much of the day, with breathers only for a bite to eat and his daily fix of The Bold and the Beautiful—which, he claims, “Fitzgerald would have loved.”

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, A. Scott Berg goes by just Scott. He speaks with a suite of intelligence, vocabulary, and complete sentences that people less blessed might mistake for conceit. His voice is that oxymoron, a pleasure to transcribe. One of his brothers describes him as a “major pianist,” too, at least on the living room circuit. It’s easy to imagine him in a scene out of Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sundays,” improvising raffish lyrics to show tunes while unhappier writers around him drink more than he does. Tall and animated, with lips just this side of thin, Scott Berg resembles nothing so much as an uncommonly good-looking Muppet.

He is, especially for a biographer, a highly accomplished, unapologetically early-20th-century prose stylist. His paragraphs march with a Wilsonian cadence, and his unreconstructed “great men of history” approach dates from the pre-postmodern era when biographical criticism roamed the earth. Not for him Tom Wolfe’s exclamation points or David Foster Wallace’s superscripts. His method has less in common with, say, Edmund Morris’s controversially impressionistic life of Ronald Reagan than with James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Just relax into this exemplary passage about Wilson’s declaration of war: “[H]e summoned the country’s most successful speechwriter, one of its foremost historians, one of its first political scientists, one of its most elegant wordsmiths, a spiritual thinker to provide moral grounding, and, finally, his most trusted stenographer to get it all down on paper. There in the second-story study, Woodrow Wilson sat alone.”

The payoff echoes JFK’s famous line, the one where he called a White House dinner for Nobel laureates “the most extraordinary collection of talent...with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Berg remembers with unconcealed pride the very moment, holding Wilson’s original manuscript of the speech, that he came up with the idea for this sentence. Some of us suspect that no writer can ever judge his own work truly until he forgets the moment of its composition. Some of us may be wrong.

As if Scott Berg’s childhood home weren’t word-mad enough, he owes his passion for writing to a Los Angeles legend. For period 5 at Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood, he had the magnetic creative writing teacher Shirley Windward, who later cofounded the Windward School and died last year at 93. “It was a magical class,” he rhapsodizes. “There were about 32 of us, and I remember totally falling in love with writing in that class. She was just extraordinary. She was a seminal figure in my life, when I think of it. She’s much in my mind.”


This feature originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine


Photograph by Joe Pugliese

Somewhere between Shirley Windward and Pali High, Scott Berg discovered Woodrow Wilson. He read a presidential biography and became so besotted that his brother Jeff gave him a campaign poster of Wilson, which Scott tacked up and still keeps. So what kind of high school freak hangs a picture of Woodrow Wilson on his wall? Jeff Berg, happily ensconced in his new entertainment agency’s corner office high above Century City, and with the pleasant guardedness of the burned-before, answers the question with one of his own: “Who starts thinking of college at 13?”

His brother Scott, that’s who. And the college he was thinking of had schooled not only Wilson but Scott Fitzgerald, whom Berg’s mother claimed she was reading when she named him. The college’s library also houses the papers of Max Perkins, whose biography started out as Berg’s senior thesis, and sits no more than ten miles from the Lindbergh estate. In short, Scott Berg got into and out of Princeton but never got over it. He admits that he applied and was accepted into Williams College as well—tempted by its strong theater program—but his decision didn’t exactly hang on a coin flip.

What was it about Woodrow Wilson that inspired the teenage Scott Berg to enshrine that old campaign flyer above his bed like a crucifix? To attend the institution that Wilson himself not only attended, but led as its president until a mere two years before he walked into the White House? To spend a decade studying Wilson, living with him, “waking up to him”?

Ultimately it comes down to strictness. “Strict” isn’t generally thought of as a compliment, but Berg uses it as one, albeit sheepishly. “I loved his strictness,” he says of Wilson. “I mean, he’s so strict. And I love strict. I really love strict. I LOVE strict. I loved it as a student. I always responded to strictness as a student.”

Does he, by any chance, think highly of strictness? “I was in the house I grew up in all through my twenties writing Max Perkins,” says the erstwhile boomerang child. “Because I was not making a living, I felt I was not really entitled to do anything but work. Strict. I told you, I like strict.”

Berg eventually taught a class in biography at Princeton, assigning parts of three or four biographies a week. Long biographies. Biographies that keep the word magisterial from dropping out of the dictionary. How was Scott Berg as a teacher? Guess.

Where does this love of rectitude come from? “Certainly not from my parents,” Berg says, copping to a bit of facetiousness about the whole strict thing. “They expected a lot from us but made no demands that I remember. Maybe it’s an innate desire to impose order, feeling more comfortable knowing just how far I can go...

“Writing does not come all that easily to me; it is, for me, the hardest thing I can possibly do. And that’s the daily challenge. That’s why I get so much out of it. It’s not torture, by any means—nothing masochistic here. It’s just a constant—and thrilling—challenge.”

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Strictness has paid off for Scott Berg. The years he spent back in his childhood bedroom after Princeton, beavering away on Max Perkins, resulted in a biography that helped rewrite 20th-century American literary history. The screenwriter John Logan (RKO 281, Skyfall) has never forgotten the impression that book made on him in college. After his scripts started to sell, he called Berg. “I begged Scott to let me buy the rights,” he e-mails from London, where he’s developing a cable series called Penny Dreadful, about Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dorian Gray. “I’ve been tinkering very privately with the screenplay ever since. It’s my baby bear screenplay, which I have been zealously protecting.”

Lindbergh has had more options than an heiress at a cotillion, including a Spielberg version years ago that might have been nice, but it’s finally Logan’s script for Max Perkins: Editor of Genius—sheared down to the simple Genius—that looks to get made first. Berg is wary of jinxing things. Still, it’s increasingly probable that Colin Firth will play the heroic Scribner editor, with the plum role of You Can’t Go Home Again author Thomas Wolfe likely going to Michael Fassbender. The complicated relationship between writer and editor may not at first seem a logical follow-up to Skyfall, but anyone who’s read Max Perkins knows otherwise. Just think of Wolfe, Fitzgerald, and the other Scribner greats as a collective James Bond, with Max Perkins as M and Q combined.


This feature originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

The Life Examined Published in 1978, Berg’s biography of book editor Max Perkins [ 1 ] began as his college thesis and earned a National Book Award. For his 1989 follow-up Berg wrote about Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn [ 2 ] before focusing on Charles Lindbergh [ 3 ], the 1998 biography that won a Pulitzer. He veered into memoir for the 2003 book on his close friend Katharine Hepburn [ 4 ]. Berg’s latest, on Woodrow Wilson [ 5 ], is out this month.

“What I learned about Scott from many deep readings of Max Perkins during the 13 years of working on the adaptation,” says Logan, “is that he thinks like a dramatist. I mean, this is a story about a book editor that is absolutely thrilling. While the scholarship is deep and bracing—and intimidating to a screenwriter—the drama of the life stories is what emerges most to me. He always goes for the heart and carefully builds his themes and ideas to lead to shattering emotional peaks: the death of Thomas Wolfe in Max Perkins, the harrowing decay of Woodrow Wilson in his new book.”

Scott Berg wouldn’t be the fine student of human character he is if he didn’t know what you’re thinking right this minute. He knows that most of us picture Wilson, provided we can even keep him and the mediocrities who replaced him straight, as a picklepuss, a hypocrite who ran on a peace platform and within months took us to war, a sap who bet his presidency on a gossamer sand castle called the League of Nations and lost. How to reconcile that Wilson with the revisionist one Berg shows us, a virile, adoring husband who can write from the road to his doomed first wife, “I am madly in love with you.... Are you prepared for the storm of love making with which you will be assailed?”—and who is glimpsed actually clicking his heels aboard the presidential sleeping car on the morning after his second wedding night? The biographer’s feat is to give us Wilson anew, celluloid collar and all, and then to break our hearts as we watch him crack.

Berg structures the book around the King James Bible that Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister, knew in his bones. He gives his chapters titles like “Advent” and “Armageddon” and “Pietà.” Berg isn’t trying to make Wilson out to be the Messiah—though Europe welcomed him as one when he delivered them from what he christened, indelibly, the World War. Instead Wilson was a tragic hero, with strictness both his moral center and tragic flaw. Majestic, idealistic, frail, unyielding, absolutist, Berg’s Wilson is less Jesus than Lear, with a little Quixote thrown in.

He’s Obama, too, as Berg goes out of his way to emphasize. The climactic cliffhangers of the Affordable Care Act were playing out in Washington at the same time Berg was at his desk. “As I was writing,” he recalls, “there were literally days I would say, ‘I’m going to forget the name is Wilson. I’ll pretend it is Obama. And I will write it as though it is Obama.’ I had a similar feeling when I was writing the Lindbergh book and the O.J. Simpson trial was going on while I was writing the Hauptmann trial.”

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Los Angeles is not a city lousy with great biographers. The list grows short in a hurry after Jay Martin (who wrote about the lives of Nathanael West and Henry Miller, taught at USC, and is still kicking at 77), Jean Strouse (who grew up here but moved away before consorting with Alice James and J.P. Morgan), Stephen Cooper (the indispensable Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante), and Steven Hackel (Junipero Serra, due this month for the tricentennial of the padre’s birth). Not for the first time, Berg insists that “this is such a wonderful city in which to write—especially long-term projects. The weather doesn’t change much. Max Perkins used to say, When you write, ‘you need to go into a trance.’ And it’s a lot easier to go into a trance state when every day looks more or less the same out the window. I will sit down at my desk one day, and I’ll get up and it’ll be four months later. And suddenly there are 500 pages there, and I don’t remember how they got there.”

Berg travels from Los Angeles for his research, not just to libraries and archives, but also to every place his subjects have lived. He’ll be barnstorming around the country to talk Wilson through most of the next year, too. But the one place he elects never to go, if he can help it, is behind the wheel of his car. Angeleno though he is, down to his pianist’s fingertips, Scott Berg puts maybe 1,000 miles a year on his odometer. Tops. “The fact I live in L.A. with someone who drives a thousand miles a year is quite ridiculous,” his partner, McCormick, harrumphs via e-mail, “and it is sadly true. When he is working, Scott stays completely focused on his subject. (Plus he makes me drive when we go out.)”

Despite his family background, Berg’s principal foray into Hollywood came in 1982, when he and the screenwriter Barry Sandler cocreated Making Love, a well-meaning, gloriously dated comedy that tells the story of a seemingly happily married man who comes out of the closet. Basically it’s Guess Who’s Sashaying to Dinner, a throwback to an era when marriage for gays was not a constitutional right but an alibi. “They did a screening of it last year on the 30th anniversary,” Berg says, “and people of all generations showed up for it, which was kind of great. It really was a groundbreaking film. Everything Brokeback Mountain did, this did 30 years prior.” Maybe not everything, but he has a point.

Berg thinks in metaphors, and for the art of biography he has a fine collection. He quotes his friend and fellow biographer David Michaelis (N.C. Wyeth, Charles Schulz, soon Eleanor Roosevelt), who defines a biographer as a lifeguard on the beach, finding bodies and breathing life into them. Berg’s preferred metaphor, though, is typically American.

“I would like to do an apple pie,” he says. “I would like to do a whole shelf of 20th-century American cultural figures. I don’t know how many slices. At ten years a slice, I may be down to my last sliver. Who knows?...I have to say to myself, Have I done the pie? I’ve written about somebody from the north, the south, the east, and the west. I could go out of the century maybe.”

Berg means the 20th, of course, the one his subjects have mostly inhabited. And on this inevitable question of “Who’s next?”, that’s about as far as he will go. He’s no slouch in the interviewing department himself, so I asked him for the best question he ever asked Hepburn:

“It was kind of a throwaway. It was late one night, we were by the fire in Connecticut, and she was, at that point, maybe around 90. She was starting to lessen, but she was still Katharine Hepburn. And just to kind of break a long silence, I just said, ‘So what’s it all about, Kate? What’s life about?’

“We had had a couple of scotches. I wasn’t really expecting an answer. But she said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s about working hard, and loving someone. Oh, and having fun. And if you’re lucky, you keep your health and someone will love you back.’ That’s the best answer I ever got to any question on anything.”

Scott Berg exudes the satisfaction of a man lucky enough to have found his true calling early, and grateful enough to work hard at it anyway. His dad wrote his way west in search of a better life for his family, and damn if it didn’t work. Berg can’t walk downhill to Ben Frank’s for it, but it’s hard not to wish him another slice or three of pie.        

David Kipen wrote about Jonathan Lethem in the November 2011 issue of Los Angeles. He founded and helps run the nonprofit Boyle Heights lending library Libros Schmibros.


This feature originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine