I ran into A. Scott Berg the other day. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Charles Lindbergh biography was appearing at a launch party and screening for a documentary film, “You’ll Have the Sky: The Life and Work of Anne Morrow Lindbergh,” which airs Thursday, September 29, at 9 p.m. on WHYY public television. Berg was appearing on a panel with Lynn Olson, the author of several bestselling books dealing with the World War II era; Susan Wallner, the producer and writer of the Anne Morrow Lindbergh documentary; and Elizabeth Allan and Heather Smith, the co-curators of the Lindbergh exhibit at Morven Museum through Sunday, October 23.
The party and screening were held across the street from Morven, at the Present Day Club at 72 Stockton Street. Before the formal program convened, there was an outdoor reception. I have to say: I have been to a few Hollywood premieres and many have been larger in scale than this one, but few have been as engaging, thanks to good food and drink and cheerful company. I was about to grab another drink and bask in the camaraderie when I saw Berg and Olson standing by themselves, away from the crowd. I put down the empty glass and made a beeline toward Berg, from whom I sought closure to a memory that had troubled me for decades.
I was two years ahead of Scott at Princeton, and I knew him slightly through mutual friends in the English department, in which we both majored, and in the Triangle Club, in which he appeared as a sophomore in a show, “A Different Kick,” for which my roommate, Gary Diedrichs, was a writer. The 1968 show dared to be different in more ways than its title. The show featured a woman in the cast and a rock band with electric (!) instruments. But the show also relied on some ingrained traditions: guys in drag, the all-male kickline, and the request that the chairman of the Daily Princetonian review the show, and that the review be grabbed off the press before the rest of the paper was circulated and read aloud at the cast party on opening night. Needless to say, the review was expected to be a rave.
Wouldn’t you know: I was the chairman of the Princetonian that year and I was taking my own dares. My review, dashed off as soon as the curtain closed to make that night’s printing deadline, was not the traditional rave; it quibbled with the show’s pacing, noted that “none of the songs is memorable,” and questioned whether “A Different Kick” was really all that different. But I also had some praise, including this: “Responsible greatly for the success of the satire is Scott Berg, who is marvelous as Groucho Marx in the ‘You Wage Your Life’ sketch, and as the emcee in the ‘Mating Game.’ Berg also excels in a series of one-liners that appear as marginal bits of humor throughout the show.”
By traditional standards, my review was so negative that the Triangle president cursed me out at the printing press and refused to read it to the cast party. So I got their attention, and Berg — at least — may even have felt that I had some reasonable judgment in these creative matters. (My praise for Berg was echoed in subsequent shows. In his junior year, it’s been said, three agents approached him after the show’s performance at Lincoln Center in New York — eager to sign him to a Broadway contract.)
So a few years later, when I returned to campus for a visit and ran into Berg up near Nassau Hall, he was happy to take a few minutes to chat. As the details of the exchange developed in my memory over the years, I asked Berg what he was up to. He told me — most confidently — that he was in process of finding a publisher for his senior thesis on Max Perkins, the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, among other literary heavyweights. In other words he was hoping to turn his senior thesis into a real book.
A grade A naysayer could have scoffed at that idea for any of a number of reasons. Trying to sell a book on Perkins was equivalent to trying to sell a book not on Muhammad Ali but rather on his trainer, Angelo Dundee. Berg’s thesis title, “Three to Get Ready,” referring to Perkins’ triumvirate of literary lions, conjured up Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” more than “This Side of Paradise,” “The Sun Also Rises,” or “Look Homeward, Angel.” Or if one really wanted to be snide, one could have asked Berg how many books had already been written about Perkins. (At this point in my life I was already getting this argument in response to various lame book ideas I had proposed.) The answer would be none. To which the naysayer would respond: “And maybe that’s because it’s just not a good idea for a book.”
In any case, I vividly recall summoning up — as only a 24-year-old can to a 22-year-old — my great wisdom as a writer for Time magazine and man around town. Speaking in that big brotherly tone, I counseled Berg to be prepared for some major rejection. Lots of Princeton seniors think their thesis can turn into a real book. It almost never happens.
That was my memory, and some time later I discovered that Berg’s thesis had in fact been turned into a book, not only a real book but a big book: winner of a National Book Award and springboard to an amazing career, with such bestsellers as “Kate Remembered” and “Wilson,” in addition of course to “Lindbergh.”
For the past 40 or 45 years I have been reminding myself how wrong I can be when assessing what will fly and what won’t. Last week, when I caught up with Berg at the Present Day Club in Princeton, I flat out asked him if he remembered such foolishness coming from me.
Berg vaguely recalled some sort of conversation with me, but he said that any advice about the possibility of rejection would not have been so foolish. Contrary to my belief that his thesis had become an overnight bestseller, his Perkins manuscript had various challenges and rejections before he finally got it published — in 1978. And then, of course, the movie version starring Colin Firth came out just this year, a mere 38 years after the book.
The story of Scott Berg’s senior thesis, it turns out, could practically be a book of its own. Berg applied to Princeton only because it was the alma mater of two of his boyhood idols, Woodrow Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. On his second day on campus as a freshman, he went to the rare books department at Firestone Library and began digging into the Fitzgerald papers. “I became a kind of fixture there for the next four years,” Berg told a reporter for the Daily Princetonian many years later. “I was just hooked. I was sitting there with the first draft of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in pencil. I was just in heaven.”
The intellectual treasure trove for Berg turned out to be the papers of Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publishing firm run by a long line of Princeton alumni, which starting in 1967 had donated some 750 linear feet of papers to Princeton’s Firestone Library. They included a wealth of correspondence between Perkins and his writers. So immersed was Berg in the research that he got a call from his advisor: The thesis was due in a month and he hadn’t written a word. Berg began beavering away, and soon needed to ask for special dispensation to turn in a senior thesis that exceeded the English department’s guidelines. It was 250 pages. Berg was awarded an A+ and the department’s critique pronounced that the work was “the first draft of a book.”
Heady stuff. If I sensed a certain confidence in Berg’s plans for the future, I was not alone. As described in a 1981 New York Times article, when Berg graduated in 1971, he told his roommate his ambitions for the book: “I’ll take three months to research it, three months to write it and then another three months to get it published.” Berg’s punch line to that memory: “I was only six years off.’’
Berg’s research and writing took years, not months. His first draft was 3,000 typescript pages. He did four rewrites in boiling it down to a more manageable 500 pages. The biography was finally published in 1978 not by Scribner’s, the logical choice given the subject, but by E. P. Dutton. And that thesis title had been replaced. The book became “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”
Even as his literary star has risen, Berg has remained grounded in Princeton affairs. He has served on the advisory committee of the English department and endowed three summer fellowships of $3,500 each to students needing to pursue outside research in support of their senior theses. He currently is serving a 10-year term as a charter trustee of the university. More recently he served on the university committee that addressed the issue of Woodrow Wilson’s racist predilections and helped to defuse the controversial issue.
At the panel discussion Berg noted that Lindbergh was on his “short list” of 20th century American icons that he wanted to profile. But, Berg said, “Charles’ papers were locked up for 50 years after Anne died — and she was still alive and well.”
Berg tried for a year to meet Anne, writing letters, copying her youngest and most outgoing child, Reeve. Finally Reeve told Berg that her mother would be willing to meet him in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. “It was clear that I was there to sing and dance. For seven days I sang and danced my heart out,” said Berg, who no doubt drew on his Triangle Club experience to keep this opportunity alive. “After seven days I had run out of songs. As I was getting into my rental car to head back to the airport, Mrs. Lindbergh came trotting out. ‘I’ve written you this letter,’ she said. Inside it was the legal permission to write the book.”
Given access to Charles’ letters at Yale, Berg discovered 1,200 boxes of material. “I went out, sat on a stone bench, and wept,” he said. A week later he received another letter from Anne Lindbergh. “It occurs to me that you can’t write about Charles without writing about me. My papers are at Smith.” Berg headed up to Northampton, Massachusetts, and found another 800 boxes of material.
Daunting as that raw material may have seemed, Berg by then would have known what he needed and what he didn’t need.
Any author needs an editor. In the acknowledgements of the Perkins book, Berg wrote that his editor, Thomas B. Congdon Jr., “undertook a doubly awesome responsibility: He had a massive manuscript to work with. And he unavoidably risked comparison to the master of his profession. He poured his time and special talents into this book, providing unfailing support and imaginative advice — in the true Perkins spirit — from the moment he met me in 1973.”
And Berg also must have known what he didn’t need: Some naysayer telling him how impossible the task would be.