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.”
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