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Stories of 20th century heroes:

When A. Scott Berg '71 danced off stage following the Princeton Triangle Club's 1969 performance of "Call a Spade a Shovel," the curtain seemed destined to fall on his Princeton career.

Backstage, at the Lincoln Center, the talented writer-performer — then a junior at the University — was approached by three agents who sought to represent the rising actor and to secure him a place among Hollywood's young stars.


Berg, the son of a television writer and producer and resident of Los Angeles since he was seven years old, entertained thoughts of pursuing a career in show business.

But University English professor Carlos Baker convinced Berg — who had already begun his senior thesis research on Maxwell Perkins, then editor-in-chief of the publishing company Charles Scribner's Sons — to finish his role as a student.

"He said, 'Scott, you were the star of the Triangle show this year, wouldn't you like to be the star of the English department next year?' " Berg recalled.

Stardom for Berg — the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for his biography "Lindbergh" on the aviator Charles Lindbergh — would come not in the wings of the theater, but in the words that would fly from his pen.

Sitting at a table by the window on the dining level of Frist Campus Center, Berg reflected on his Princeton experience and the distinguished writing career that followed, taking flight after he published "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius." The bestselling biography based on his senior thesis research earned Berg the prestigious National Book Award in 1978 — an early stop on his road map to literary success.

"I suddenly had a career," Berg explained, while returning the greetings of his fellow orange-and-black-clad trustees, who paused to offer warm hellos.


As much as Berg's author status seemed to fall effortlessly into place, his career had been preparing for takeoff since his freshman year. His second day on campus, the self-proclaimed "pretty intense student" ventured into Firestone Library's rare books and manuscripts room. From that moment, until shortly before he graduated, Berg spent hours poring over boxes of original documents chronicling the life of his beloved and admired "Zeus" — F. Scott Fitzgerald '17.

"I became a kind of fixture there for the next four years," Berg said. "I was just hooked. I was sitting there with the first draft of 'The Great Gatsby' in pencil. I was just in heaven."

Berg's fascination with Fitzgerald had surfaced a few years before, when his mother — an avid Fitzgerald fan — suggested that her son research the author for a report his sophomore year at Palisades High School, California.

"He was the most beautiful writer," said Berg. "He's still my favorite."

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At the University, he joined Cottage Club — as did Fitzgerald — where he became the social chairman and created the annual Gatsby party.

By the time Berg received his high school diploma, he had "read every word by and about F. Scott Fitzgerald in the English language . . . literally everything," he said.

"It was the first time I saw the fusion of an artist and his life, a tragic and romantic life," said Berg, citing 'Tender is the Night' as his must-have "desert island" book.

"I just became insane about F. Scott Fitzgerald," Berg said.

In selecting a college, Berg chose to attend Princeton partially to escape Los Angeles' movie madness and partially because the University's East Coast, all-male atmosphere "seemed right out of Fitzgerald's novel."

"Even if I wasn't accepted, I was going just to see the place. My three gods [Fitzgerald, Woodrow Wilson 1879 and Adlai Stevenson '22] went there," he said.

When Berg arrived on campus in the fall of 1967, he realized that Princeton was "not the country club [Fitzgerald] wrote about." The University recently had begun admitting students of color and a handful of women — the "critical language women," or "critters" — already were enrolled to take language courses not offered at other colleges.

Yet Berg remained captivated by the University that would become "the link to everything in my life."

"As soon as I set foot on this campus, it felt right to me," he said. "I found the best of what Princeton had been for all of them [Fitzgerald, Wilson and Stevenson]."

Like Lindbergh, Berg has proven himself a pioneer in the exploration of uncharted territory.

As a sophomore at the University, he performed in Triangle's production of "A Different Kick," which he aptly named for the show's revolutionary features that captured changes both in society and at Princeton. That year, the show included a rock-and-roll band and a single female actress.

"[I said] 'Don't give away the best of Triangle [but] don't make it like any other show,' " Berg said.

The following year, after the election of President Richard Nixon and during the heat of the Vietnam War, Berg also took part in the club's controversial performance of "Call a Spade a Shovel." The show featured various anti-Vietnam messages and parodies of Nixon, which offended many alumni who attended the traveling show.

"The alumni were very conservative. We got booed [at the show] and people walked out of the theater," Berg said.

"My roommate [on tour] and I were minor legends in Triangle history. We went back to our house [a local alum's' residence] and our suitcases were in the middle of the street, in the middle of winter," he said with a chuckle.

While Berg shone in the Triangle spotlight, he also covered new ground in his academic work.

As a freshman, Berg approached Baker, the leading Hemingway expert and proposed to him the idea for a groundbreaking, untold story on Max Perkins.

"He was one of the leading lights on this campus," Berg said of Baker. "I used to see him every afternoon. I would go to his office every day after 5 p.m., when the rare books room closed."

"I think he saw I was a steam roller and he could either ride along with me or get out of the way or get run over," Berg added.

For his senior thesis on Perkins' career between 1919 and 1929, Berg explored the process by which the editor discovered the literary geniuses of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. He used only primary sources to complete his work.

"Baker called me [one] morning and said, 'Your senior thesis is due in one month and you haven't written a word," said Berg, who was in danger of failing to graduate like Fitzgerald — who never received a Princeton diploma.

So Berg buckled himself down at his desk and wrote ten pages a day for twenty-five days. The A+, prizewinning senior thesis "Three to Get Ready" was soon off the ground.

When the department returned to Berg a three-page single spaced critique of his work, stating that it was "the first draft of a book," Berg gained the confidence he needed to launch his career as a writer.

"That was all I needed," said Berg, who would spend the next seven years perfecting "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius."

"I used to race to The New York Times book section," Berg said of his fear that someone else would chart Perkins' work before his own book on the subject hit the shelves. "I'd be in a sweat every Sunday."

In the end, Berg landed his book before anyone else could.

Berg's career gained altitude with his 1989 book "Goldwyn: A Biography" on Hollywood movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and reached new heights with "Lindbergh," published in 1998. Berg's story of the famous aviator whose 33-hour flight across the Atlantic gained him international recognition became the biggest selling biography of the year. It sold 250,000 hardcover copies and was translated into a variety of foreign languages.

"With most biographies, if you sell 10,000 or 20,000 copies, it makes a bestseller. To sell a quarter of a million copies, that was big," Berg said.

"There is an ongoing fascination with Lindbergh because he was one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century," said Berg, who spent a decade researching previously uncovered documents on Lindbergh. "He then became one of the greatest victims when his baby was kidnapped [from his home in Hopewell, NJ in 1932]. And then one of the greatest villains accused of being a Nazi sympathizer.

"He was a mysterious figure. He had a fascinating marriage . . . a good love story," Berg continued.

This unique opportunity to "get inside somebody else's skin" keeps Berg focused solely on writing biographies.

"It's the personal aspect of it," he said.

While he has been able to separate himself from the people he chronicles, Berg has encountered a few uncanny moments, when he has inadvertently adopted some of the characteristics of his biography subjects.

"Max Perkins' daughter called me [one time] and said, 'I just got your last letter and I thought it was daddy's handwriting.' It was very eerie," Berg said.

"I don't really become [my subjects]. I learn life lessons from [them]," Berg continued, citing Lindbergh as having impacted him the most.

"He was purposeful," Berg said of Lindbergh. "He wasted very little time. He packed so much living into so little time. He believed you could make a difference."

"The grim reaper is standing around the corner," Berg added. "[Lindbergh] intensified my own sense of purpose."

"I become almost like an evangelist on my subject. I travel around and spread the word," he said.

As a member of the University's Board of Trustees and the English Advisory Committee, Berg has a distinct message for Princeton students: "think big and think early."

"Professors are waiting for you to come and knock on their doors," he said with a sense of urgency.

"There's a spark [at Princeton]. I get a buzz every time I return to campus. I used to come down Washington Road and my heart would start pounding every time I would make that turn [onto the campus]," said Berg, who jokingly refers to himself as a "recovering Princetonian."

With the help of profits from his 'Lindbergh" book sales, Berg recently created a scholarship for a focused sophomore or junior in the English department who is ready to conduct summer research on a literary topic.

"It gives them a jump start," he said. "It's seed money."

Berg hopes the scholarship will help students pursue their budding interests, just as he did three decades before.

"You may take from Princeton and indeed I think you should take as much as you possibly can, but you must pay back for what you've taken – whether it's service or giving money if you can, even if it's only ten dollars. That's my credo."

Today, Berg is, once again, giving back to the literary world.

Working from his home in Los Angeles, he plans to complete his fourth biography — on Woodrow Wilson 1879 — by 2009.

With his myriad biographies, Berg's ultimate goal is to illuminate the 20th century as seen through the lives of a handful of figures with different backgrounds and achievements.

"Each one is a different wedge of the apple pie. Each book stands on its own, but I hope there will be a shelf of my books with my view of the 20th century," he said.

Still en route to reaching this final destination, Berg — who has devoted almost a decade to each book he has written — is enjoying every step of the writing process.

"There's a division of labor on my assembly line and I like doing every part," he said, referring to the extensive research, writing, rewriting and promotion process he engages in for each book he creates.

"The stars are all in alignment," he said of his prolific career. "Sometimes I think it's all been proscribed for me."