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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Hepburn, Tracy & Now Scott
Princeton educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning author A.
Scott Berg is traveling out from his home in California to promote
his new, best-selling memoir, "I Remember Kate." It’s a celebrity
appearance, but the book is not part of Berg’s grand plan.
The grand plan, as he describes it, is nothing less than a collection
of objectively told life stories of great American cultural figures
of the 20th century, each representing a different wedge of the "apple
pie." Berg, who devised his grand plan at the tender age of 25,
has already served up three substantial pie wedges. The 1971 Princeton
graduate is the author of "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,"
"Goldwyn: A Biography," and the 1998 biography "Lindbergh,"
which won the Pulitzer Prize.
Now he says his engaging account of the life of legendary actress
Katharine Hepburn book is something of a detour along his main route.
Berg will talk about "Kate Remembered," a book he based on
intimate conversations shared with the actress over the course of
a 20-year friendship, on Monday, September 22, at Barnes & Noble in
Speaking in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, the
53-year-old Berg brims with enthusiasm for and reminisces about Princeton
and his Princeton years. A legend among undergraduates then and now,
Berg’s first best-seller, "Max Perkins," grew directly out
of his senior thesis. Berg seems to share the Scribners editor’s personal
credo, uttered as he was starting out in the book business: "There
can be nothing so important as a book can be."
Born in Connecticut but raised in Pacific Palisades, California, Berg
is the second of four sons of Barbara and Dick Berg. His father was
a television writer and producer. In the 1960s he produced the Bob
Hope Chrysler Theater, an extremely successful television drama series
hosted by Bob Hope. The show’s writers included William Inge and Rod
Serling; Ann Bancroft and Robert Redford were among its actors, and
it is even remembered as a launch site for directors that included
Sydney Pollock and Mark Rydell ("On Golden Pond"). Dick Berg
also produced mini-series, movies of the week, and big dramatic specials
such as Ray Bradbury’s "Martian Chronicles."
How Berg became an enthusiast for the writings of his namesake, F.
Scott Fitzgerald, and a Princeton scholar, comes out of the serendipitous
convergence of personality, ability, and passion.
"My mother, in her ninth month of pregnancy, was reading F. Scott
Fitzgerald and she was determined to have a son and name that son
Scott," says Berg. "His first name was Francis, but my parents
thought that was no name for a boy; I’m Andrew Scott."
Up until the age of 15, Berg did not know anything about this.
"I was in high school, at Pacific Palisades High, and I had to
write the obligatory author’s report for 11th grade English,"
he says. "I couldn’t think of an author because I hadn’t been
much of reader. I was a good student but not a big reader. My best
subject, until I was 15, was television — and I was an authority
Berg’s mother suggested a report on F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"My mother said, `You were named for him,’ but it was the first
I had heard of it." She also introduced him to the world of books.
"`Why don’t you look in the library in the TV room,’ she said.
And there, surrounding the television, were hundreds of books I had
never seen before! By the time I graduated from high school I had
read every word by and about F. Scott Fitzgerald in the English language."
Berg’s interest was part of his unusual passion for the 1920s. While
still a teenager, his father once described him as "the youngest
"I think I always wanted to be a ’20s roue like Fitzgerald. In
fact even before I got involved in Fitzgerald, I just loved the ’20s
— I loved the music, I loved the literature, I loved everything
Berg attributes his "Fitzgerald fixation" to the way in which
he fell in love with the author’s very romantic and tragic story.
"There was that 10-year decline, and the fact that he died so
young, at 44," he says. "Twenty-five years after his death
in 1940 he came back into fashion, and now he’s considered one of
the great American writers."
Our conversation took place the day after Princeton University had
announced that the family of Ginevra King, the first love of Fitzgerald’s
life, had donated her diaries and the author’s own transcriptions
of her personal letters, dating from 1915 to 1917, to become part
of its repository of Fitzgerald papers. Ginevra was the beautiful
and wealthy debutante from Lake Forest, Illinois, who became Fitzgerald’s
model for Isabelle in "This Side of Paradise" and, more importantly,
for the alluring and independent figure of Daisy Buchanan in his great
classic, "The Great Gatsby."
Thus Fitzgerald joined the young Berg’s pantheon of heroes, also inhabited
by Woodrow Wilson and Adlai Stevenson.
"Around that time, when I was 15 and started to read like a fiend,
I developed two other obsessions — not as strong, but pretty strong,"
says Berg. "They were Adlai Stevenson, because I had grown up
in a Democratic household and he was the intellectual candidate with
a great sense of humor — I read all his speeches. And I was fascinated
by Woodrow Wilson. I had all three of their pictures up in my room.
And one day I realized — Oh my god, they all went to Princeton."
Now, says Berg, who is three years into his next book on Woodrow Wilson,
"it’s coming full circle."
Berg’s Fitzgerald fixation came into full flower when he arrived at
Princeton. Because Fitzgerald had been a star of Princeton’s Triangle
Club, Berg wanted to do that too. "I wanted to join the Cottage
Club where he had belonged. And I tried to get his dorm room, but
never could — I always had bad luck in room draw," he says.
"I was on the Princeton campus for two days before I made my way
to Firestone Library and started to go through the F. Scott Fitzgerald
archives — and right away I saw this amazing correspondence between
Max Perkins and Fitzgerald. What began to intrigue me, is that people
look at the Fitzgerald-Perkins letters from the Fitzgerald side. But
right away I thought, this is an interesting character, this is the
guy who literally got Fitzgerald published and remained his most trusted
friend from the beginning of his career until the end — and then
Berg learned that Perkins had also edited and encouraged Ernest Hemingway,
Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings, James Jones — "about 25 of
America’s most important writers between the two World Wars."
Max Perkins’ first literary discovery was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the
young author he encouraged to produce his first novel, "This Side
of Paradise." The novel, published in 1920 when Fitzgerald was
just 23, describes life at Princeton among the glittering, bored,
and disillusioned. The novel recounts Amory Blaine’s journey from
childhood to adulthood, a journey that the author himself was just
beginning in the writing arena. The novel was an overnight success
and shot Fitzgerald to stardom as a prince of the Jazz Age and the
pre-eminent portraitist of the post-World War I "Lost Generation."
"I remember it was summer of 1968, I came home to Los Angeles
for the summer and spent it reading literature of ’20s. Then at the
start of my sophomore year I went to Carlos Baker, whom I had never
met. He was just finishing his Hemingway biography, and I told him,
`This Max Perkins guy is really the interesting one. I think there’s
a book in this.’"
Baker’s biography, "Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story," was published
in 1969 and acclaimed for its thoroughness and non-judgmental presentation
of the facts of Hemingway’s life and exploits. Baker’s reply to the
young Berg was prophetic. "`Scott, Max Perkins is the great enigma
of American literature,’ I think he said. `I spent seven years writing
the life of Hemingway and Max Perkins is as much a puzzle to me as
he was seven years ago. Why don’t you start by writing the senior
thesis. And if you like I’ll start working with you now.’"
Berg did begin his sophomore year. But his writing and performing
with the Triangle Club also began to consume more and more of his
time. In his junior year, he had the lead in the big annual show and
almost quit school.
"The Triangle show was playing in New York at Lincoln Center,
and at the end of the show there were three agents waiting backstage
who said, `We’ve got work for you.’
"I called my parents and told them I was seriously thinking of
dropping out of school, and they asked, `Have you discussed this with
Carlos Baker?’ So I went to him and he sat me down and said, `Scott,
you were the star of the Triangle Show this year; next year you could
be the star of English Department. Yes, you have talent as an actor,
but your senior thesis could make a serious contribution. At least
get a college diploma."
"As soon as I graduated I sent my thesis to Scribners where Max
Perkins had worked but a month later I got a letter back from the
editor-in-chief saying, `It’s a nice thesis but we don’t think there’s
a book in Max Perkins. Good luck.’"
Carlos Baker told the young Berg that he thought Scribners was wrong.
"I graduated on June 8 and began work on the book full-time on
June 9," says Berg. Feeling that he had "only just started"
his Perkins research, Berg worked in Firestone Library all summer
and eventually spent seven years developing his thesis into a book.
Finally, in 1978, he dedicated "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius"
to Carlos Baker and his parents. It became a bestseller, won the National
Book Award, and is still in print after 25 years. It has been described
as one of the finest books ever written on the publishing industry.
I ask Berg how he has the patience to devote seven years to a single
"I think it’s mostly stubbornness and being a writer and not having
to look for work," he says with good humor. "I’ve basically
never had a job. I got out of college and started right in on Max
Perkins. This way I know what I’m doing for a decade at a time."
Berg’s three brothers all followed their father into the entertainment
business. His older brother Jeff, who was just starting as an agent
in Hollywood when Berg graduated from Princeton, now runs International
Creative Management, one of the biggest talent agencies in world.
His younger brother dropped out of Berkeley to go into the music business,
where he became successful producer and A&R (artist and repertoire)
man. And his youngest brother also became an agent who now works as
a manager for writers and directors.
"I’m the only one who went east and became legitimate," says
Berg, who finished a four-year term in June as a trustee of Princeton
Berg has also endowed an undergraduate prize to help students like
The A. Scott Berg ’71 Scholarship, set up in 2001, is a $3,500 stipend
designed to help English majors cover the living, travel, and research
expenses of their studies, either independent or related to their
senior theses. Three scholarships were awarded to juniors for summer
study in 2003.
"My goal always was to make enough money off each book to allow
me to write the next book. My parents allowed me to live rent-free
for seven years, then `Lindbergh’ did extraordinarily well. So I said
I’ve got more than enough to write the next book."
Berg’s "Kate Remembered," published a mere 13 days after the
death of Katharine Hepburn, has been described as "a valentine
of devoted friendship." Although it was completed in 2000, Hepburn
insisted that the book remain unpublished until after her death. She
died at home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on June 29, at age 96.
Berg first met Hepburn on April 5, 1983, at her apartment on 49th
Street where he went on assignment for Esquire Magazine. Due to a
dispute with the magazine, the planned feature was never published.
But Hepburn, then in her mid-70s, took a liking to the author and
invited him to stay. Over years, her house became his second home.
Berg says writing a straight biography of the actress
was not an option. "Quite frankly, I walked into her life adoring
her; and over the next 20 years, my admiration for her only swelled."
He says their conversations were an opportunity for the controversial
actress to "set the record straight" on her private and professional
life. "`You’ll write that down, won’t you,’ she would say after
one of our long conversations. `I think you should stay up and write
while it’s fresh,’ she would say," Berg recalls. The book’s goal
is to correct or clarify details of Hepburn’s life, especially her
long-term affair with Spencer Tracy, while offering choice bits of
Most critics think he has accomplished that task. "`Kate Remembered’
offers a rare, unvarnished portrait of one of the 20th century’s most
influential women, achieving a personal intimacy while making the
reader feel welcomed in Hepburn’s private world of privilege,"
writes critic Jeff Shannon.
Just as the public was surprised by Hepburn’s death at age 96, so
were we shocked by the publication of a biography in 13 days —
about the time it would have taken to write an obituary. The task
was accomplished in secrecy, with fewer than 10 people at Putnam in
"It really wasn’t done as a stunt so much as to honor an obligation,"
Berg explains. "Hepburn always said to me I mustn’t publish anything
until she was dead — but then she’d say you should publish as
close to my death as you can. So I knew she would one day die —
although I sometimes thought she might not — she began to seem
immortal to me — and then I would begin."
Berg’s editor has a different idea. "Why don’t you start right
now?" she asked in 1999. "I’ll edit, discuss it with nobody,
lock it up in a safe and keep it locked up."
"I told her it was essential that nobody knows about it, because
at that point she was starting to diminish. I said I don’t want a
book to cause her any unrest, and if word gets out there that I’ve
done a book on Katharine Hepburn the press will start to hang about
her. So my publisher said if you can keep it a secret, we can keep
it a secret."
"In summer, 1999, I sat down and wrote it straight through in
a blaze, remembering my time with Kate and Kate remembering her life.
It’s a very personal book, but I think it brings you close to Katharine
Since 2000, when he finished writing "Kate Remembered," Berg
has been researching a biography of Woodrow Wilson, one of his boyhood
heroes and one of the reasons he chose to attend Princeton, where
Wilson had been an undergraduate, a professor, and the college president.
Does Berg think he’ll have another best seller in Woodrow Wilson?
"Oh yes," he replies. "At the time I signed the contract,
they thought that it would be a bigger seller than Katharine Hepburn
— and that book has been No. 1 from moment it came out."
"So basically Woodrow and I are dating till 2009. But I probably
won’t do Adlai Stevenson," he says. "I think I will have done
that wedge of the pie — But it’s becoming less of a pie, and more
like painting myself in a corner." Having focused on Perkins from
New England, Goldwyn from Poland, and Lindbergh from the Midwest,
the northwest is one missing wedge (or corner), and it remains to
be seen how he’ll fill it.
Berg closes his memoir "Kate Remembered" with a charming,
brief fantasy in which he casts himself opposite Hepburn as one of
the players in her 1940 classic film, "A Philadelphia Story."
For the self-made author who has made so many unlikely dreams come
true, he should probably be careful what he wishes for.
— Nicole Plett
609-716-1570. Free. Monday, September 22, 7 p.m.
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