Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say, and don’t jump to conclusions about an author based on what you think you know about him.
Two eye-opening books crossed my cluttered desk this past week and both caught me by surprise. The first is a self-published autobiography by Win Straube, the international trade entrepreneur and owner of the Straube Center office complex in Pennington. Titled "I Don’t Know Where I am Going But I an Enjoying the Ride," and improbably featuring a surfer riding a monster wave on its cover, the book presented itself as a pleasant but not terribly dramatic reminiscence of a septuagenarian businessman.
With my alarm clock set for 6 a.m. on a deadline Monday, I started browsing through the book at midnight, just to see what it was all about. At 2:15 a.m. I finally put it down. It’s a page turner, especially about life in Nazi Germany during World War II. And I will wait until next week to tell more of this story.
The other book is A. Scott Berg’s "Kate Remembered," the extraordinary remembrances of Katharine Hepburn that blossomed on the best seller list within days of the actress’s death at the age of 96. "Oh, I think I may have met Scott Berg," I said when I heard that U.S. 1’s Nicole Plett was interviewing him by phone in advance of his appearance Monday, September 22, at Barnes & Noble (see page 24 for her account of Berg and his book).
The memory began to take shape in my mind. Thirty-five years ago I was a senior in the English department at Princeton, Berg was a sophomore and not yet in the department. My meeting must have happened two years later, when I was back in Princeton after a stint at Time magazine and Berg was introduced to me on the front lawn of Nassau Hall, near Stanhope Hall. He’s done his senior thesis on Max Perkins, someone said, and he’s going to get it published. Sure enough, as I recalled it, the book was soon published — "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius" — and promptly became a bestseller and put the newly minted alumnus, Berg, on the literary map.
I can assure you I was not the only recent English department alumnus who felt a twinge of resentment at Berg’s success. At that time even the authors that Perkins edited — Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, among others — were considered suspect by the venerable Princeton English department to be "modern" writers. How could we know if they were really any good?
My thesis, in contrast, covered the greats: Joseph Andrews, Emma, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the closest I came to a "modern" work. And it worked: An otherwise miserable student, I got a 1 on the thesis — the highest possible grade was a 1-plus. When the grades were handed out, the English department seniors gathered at the Annex restaurant to celebrate and commiserate. The other seniors didn’t believe me when I told them my grade and literally made me show them the mark.
That was the end of my glory days. My thesis wasn’t headed for the popular market, as the title alone suggested: "The Portrait and the Frame: Narrative Distance and Point of View in Four Novels." Two years later the department obviously had loosened up — Berg was the proof. Imagine the resentment among the English seniors that year.
That was my memory. Then I read Plett’s story and discovered that only in my memory did Berg transform his thesis into an instant bestseller. In fact, he had worked seven years (living at home with his parents with no publisher’s contract for the first five years) in order to become the overnight success of my memory.
So I buried my resentment and buried myself in Berg’s book. The serious biographer proves himself as a celebrity journalist. "Kate Remembered," according to the author’s note, is supposed to be Hepburn’s remembrances of people in her life more than Berg’s accounts of Hepburn. But Berg’s tale of Warren Beatty wooing Hepburn to appear in a movie is every bit as entertaining as Hepburn’s account of Howard Hughes wooing her by landing a plane on a golf course and joining her for a few holes.
Seeing the big picture in even the smallest moment is surely the mark of either a good biographer or celebrity journalist. Berg’s account of his and Hepburn’s dinner party with Michael Jackson could have been a cover story in People magazine.
And Berg’s rendering of the day Spencer Tracy died — with Hepburn literally stepping aside so that Tracy’s wife could be at center stage for the funeral and burial of her philandering husband — is riveting. Unlike many celebrity journalists, Berg does not overestimate the role he plays in his subject’s life: "As our conversations would invariably turn to her past, I soon felt she was using me less as a sounding board than as an anvil against which she could hammer some of her emotions and beliefs."
Over on the campus, some kid might be concocting a senior thesis even now about a biographer seeking the essence of 20th century culture.