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

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