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
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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

 

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