Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg implored students to follow their academic passions and act upon the knowledge they gain from these pursuits in an upper school assembly April 28.
The author, whose personal life and writings on various subjects have made him capable of speaking on a wide array of topics, was this year’s Brown Family Distinguished Speaker. He emphasized his lifelong interest in great stories.
“Ultimately, my job as a biographer is to tell great stories,” Berg said. “Great stories of great people’s lives.”
Berg also visited U.S. History and Cinema Studies classes, discussing political movements, American figures and film star Katharine Hepburn and director Sidney Lumet, both of whom were covered in a biography Berg wrote about the late actress.
Berg said that at age 15 he wasn’t an avid reader, but his mother encouraged him to read a biography of author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Though it’s not the case now, at that point [Fitzgerald] was a forgotten author,” Berg said. “But he so fascinated me that I spent the next two years in high school reading everything by, of and about F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
In high school, Berg felt compelled to apply to Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Princeton University.
In his application, he said he felt that even if the school didn’t admit him, he would have to come anyway, to make a “pilgrimage” to the author’s alma mater.
Berg was admitted to Princeton, and after being on the campus for two days of his Fall 1967 semester, he sought out the library’s rare books and manuscripts room, where he found several hundred boxes of Fitzgerald’s papers. The very first box he opened held Fitzgerald’s first draft of “The Great Gatsby,” a book often described as the “great American novel.” He also found personal correspondence between Fitzgerald and book editor Maxwell Perkins, with whom he became enthralled.
In addition to being Fitzgerald’s editor, “[Perkins] became Fitzgerald’s best friend, money lender, marriage counselor and psychiatrist,” Berg said. “That one man changed [The Great Gatsby] by about 20 percent.” Berg wanted to write about Perkins, and took the idea to Princeton professor Carlos Baker, who was named in Ernest Hemingway’s will as the only person permitted to chronicle Hemingway’s life.
“I just went to his office and knocked on his door,” Berg said. “He was an inspiration. You’ve got to find your own inspiration. They’re sitting here on this campus; all you have to do is knock on the door, when you go to college, knock on the door.”
Baker encouraged Berg to develop his idea, which after 10 years’ work became his first bestselling book, “Perkins: Editor of Genius.”
Berg decided after completing one biography that it would be interesting to write a full shelf’s worth of them. He wanted to embark on a career whose books would form all of the wedges in the apple pie that is American culture. He knew this would take him through the realms of American politics, literature, entertainment, sports and innovation, among others.
“I was always interested in Americana. It’s my passion, I’ve always been a flag-waving guy who loved that,” he said. “Besides, I can speak and write Spanish and a little French, but I’m not good enough to go through Louis XIV’s papers and really understand him.”
Filling out his apple pie, Berg wanted to write about the opposite type of person from Perkins.
He migrated west, deciding to write about studio head Samuel Goldwyn, a first generation Jewish immigrant. Berg had an initial meeting with Goldwyn’s son in which he was asked to describe the studio giant, a man he knew nothing about. Berg instead described his grandfather, also a Jewish immigrant. Goldwyn’s son was amazed at how accurate Berg’s description was, and opened up his father’s archive to the second-time author. Berg used the movie mogul’s life as a window into the time in which he lived.
“I could tell the entire history of American movies through the life of one man,” Berg said. This is a tactic that Berg often uses in his writing.
The important thing is not my subject, but the world in which my subject lived,” Berg said. “I’m the lens, and I want to do a pan shot, then come in or the close-ups. I want to write in a cinematic style.”
For his book about Goldwyn, Berg interviewed the last and dying generation of movie producers, directors and stars of old Hollywood.
“In many cases, I was the last person ever to interview them [before they died,]” he joked. “In fact, it was happening so often that word was beginning to spread around town that if you got a letter from me, it was pretty much over.”
From there, Berg wrote about the life of aviator Charles Lindbergh, who he describes as the greatest hero of the 20th century, and Katharine Hepburn, who holds the record for most acting Academy Awards. He had a close relationship with Hepburn that made his biography of her very detailed, including personal anecdotes and experiences.
Next, Berg embarked on a 13-year project that culminated in his most recent work, “Wilson.” Berg views the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, as the most influential figure of the 20th century. One sentence of a 1917 speech Wilson gave to congress has pervaded American foreign policy for the last century, Berg said.
“He said ‘The world must be made safe for democracy,’” Berg quoted.
“There is not a day where you will read a newspaper or go online and see something that does not directly go back to Woodrow Wilson,” he said. And beyond that, he believes the president had the most interesting personal life of any American President.
In his second term, Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke, and his wife Edith became the de facto first female president, Berg said.
Berg had been fascinated with Wilson for much of his life; he even had a poster of the statesman hanging on his wall alongside one of Fitzgerald in his childhood room.
Some of his subjects come into his focus later than others, but all come into it in different ways, he said, but they share a distinct unifying characteristic.
“There is a through-line to all their stories, and it is this: they all had a great passion for something,” he said.
Berg encouraged students to develop similar passions in their lives, be they focused on a field of study, a public figure or any other subject. However, he also encouraged students to avoid having tunnel vision, stressing that it is desirable to be well rounded and knowledgeable about many things.
However, beyond just gathering knowledge, it is important to act on this knowledge to improve the world around us, Berg said.
“’We are not put in this world to sit still and know. We are put in it to act,’” he said, quoting Wilson. “I hope you will all be thinking not only ‘What do I want to know,’ but also ‘What do I want to go out and act upon.’”