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Biographer Struck Gold on Goldwyn

May 05, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

At the start of the 9 years he spent researching and writing about the life of legendary Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, biographer A. Scott Berg was given access to an old storage vault in the heart of Hollywood.

For a biographer, Berg told his audience at a book and author luncheon in Costa Mesa on Wednesday, opening the door to 60 years' worth of Goldwyn's papers and memorabilia was like an archeologist stumbling upon King Tut's tomb.

"As I walked into this tomb, this musty fur vault, I saw nothing but wonderful things," he said.

Heaped upon dozens of steel file cabinets were reels and reels of old films and hundreds of thousands of photographs from Goldywn's films and personal albums, which Berg mined for his book, "Goldwyn: A Biography."

Opening file drawers, Berg discovered a telegram from writer Lillian Hellman during the blacklist days, thanking Goldwyn for his "very strong position in standing up to the rest of the people in town." There were gin rummy IOUs from Harpo Marx and a letter from Ronald Coleman shortly after the advent of talking pictures, in which the golden-throated actor pleaded: "Please, Mr. Goldwyn, don't put me into any talking pictures--not with my voice."

There was even a menu book kept by Mrs. Goldwyn, in which, after each Hollywood party she hosted, she logged what Gary Cooper and other stars ate and drank.

"This," said Berg, "is a biographer's dream, to find this kind of day-to-day stuff, the real minutiae that made their lives different from our lives."

Speaking to a sold-out crowd of 740 gathered in the ballroom of the Red Lion Inn for The Times Orange County Edition's second annual Book and Author Luncheon, Berg, who spent 2 years sifting through the Goldwyn vault, proved to be as gifted a storyteller in person as he is on the printed page. (He was joined on the speakers' dais by novelist Amy Tan, whose first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," is a national best seller, and Maureen Reagan, who discussed her memoir, "First Father, First Daughter.")

In describing the near decade it took him to write his Goldwyn biography, Berg said that early on he remembered an important bit of advice he received at Princeton from Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker: "People die, papers don't."

Berg, who won a National Book Award for his biography of editor Maxwell Perkins a decade ago, said that upon seeing the wealth of Goldwyn documents available in the vault, "I remembered these papers are not going to go anywhere. If I really want to do this book I should start getting to people who knew Mr. Goldwyn himself."

He acted none too soon.

One of his first calls was made to Goldwyn star Merle Oberon, who told him to call her after the Christmas holidays. She died on Thanksgiving day.

Not to be ghoulish, Berg said, but he made a list of all the people he wanted to interview, and he put them in the order of age--and health.

"I'm very sad to say about 60 of the 250 people I interviewed for my book are now dead," he said. "But I'm very happy to say, there they are: I talked to them. I got their stories. They are in my book.

"I've been most reminded of it this week with the passing of Lucille Ball, who became a great friend of this book primarily because her first job in Hollywood was as a Goldwyn Girl. And how lucky I was to be able to sit down with this Goldwyn Girl and have her tell me what it was like getting on the train in 1932 (and coming to Hollywood). . . . Great stories for me to take down."

Berg said he spent about 2 years conducting interviews for the book.

In so doing, he learned much about Sam Goldwyn, including the fact that when Goldwyn, a former glove maker, "jumped into the movie business," the first person he went to talk to was Thomas Edison.

And the last phone call Sam Goldwyn received, according to his papers, was from Warren Beatty.

"I thought, that is the history of the movies right there," said Berg. "My God! It's all in one place; it's in one life. And I can tell that story."

And, yes, Berg said, he discovered that Samuel Goldwyn really did say "Goldwynisms," those "famous fracturings of the English language."

"He did say, I'm happy to report, 'Include me out,' " said Berg, adding that he also discovered that half of the so-called Goldwynisms were actually the work of Hollywood wags.

"But sure enough," Berg said, "he did say to Danny Kaye, 'Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.' "

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