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AUTHORS / The people behind the books we read.

Bio Engineering

From a slew of seemingly random facts, biographer A. Scott Berg reconstructs vivid, meaningful lives.

April 21, 1999|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It does sound preordained, or prescribed, as A. Scott Berg says. But then again, biographers are used to pulling order out of the seemingly random events that make up a life.

Berg, biographer of the great editor Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn and now Charles Lindbergh, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize last week, does not say it this way, but it is clear that he feels the inspiration to write these books comes not only from his own well-prepared mind but from the universe as well. Trim, very neat, with his precise gestures, Berg looks, frankly, as though he could make order from just about anything.

Except his own desk.

It's a mess. Well, half of it is a mess. The other half, he claims, took him three weeks to clear. A bust of Lindbergh, a model of the Spirit of St. Louis and Berg's 600-page biography of the famous flyboy perch on the edge of the desk. A top hat and a New Yorker baseball cap dangle from a hatrack. A framed facsimile of the control panel in the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh's plane on his famous 1927 flight from New York to Paris, makes a mockery of the computer keyboard. A Post-it on the computer screen shouts "SO WHAT?"--a reminder, Berg explains later, to stay focused and resist the temptation to use every hard-found fact about a life.

On this windy spring day (if L.A. had a mistral, this would be it), German television is interviewing Berg in his home of 10 years in Beverly Hills. One of the many dramatic moments in Lindbergh's life (besides, of course, the flight to Paris and the kidnapping of his first child) was his flirtation with Nazi Germany, a phase that there are a variety of explanations for. ("Why are you writing about that man?" Berg's grandmother Rose asked him. "He was very bad on the Jews.") Berg does that thing people who are used to appearing in public do: He fusses and is nervous about what he's wearing ("is it too casual, I guess I am the official biographer, maybe I should wear a jacket, what do you think?"), interviews the interviewer and then, when the camera is rolling, relaxes utterly--is charming and flexible and articulate and enthusiastic.

But the eyes give it away. They are a little wild. When he is particularly delighted, which is often, they actually roll back in his head, a feature hardly seen in real life, even on writers.

He Chooses Subjects He Can Live With for Years

How does he choose these subjects?

"I had the idea when I was still in college to write a series of biographies of American 20th century figures who reflected different wedges of the American cultural pie," he says in the luscious bar of the Four Seasons Hotel. "If you think about it, Perkins and Goldwyn are really flip sides of the American dream--Goldwyn the son of Jewish immigrants, and Perkins with his East Coast, upper-class heritage. Then there's Lindbergh, a boy from the Midwest who became the greatest icon of the American dream before or since."

The Lindbergh story was rich in metaphors and drama.

"I believe a biography should be dramatic and yet tell the story using as many facts as possible. I like to choose people through whose lives a bigger story can be told as well about American history. Goldwyn's life, for example, illuminated 60 years of Hollywood history.

"The big question for me in choosing a subject is: Can I wake up with this person every day for several years?" (In the case of the Lindbergh bio, eight years.) "Lindbergh really surprised me," Berg says. "He was an autodidact whose interests changed every five years, allowing me to learn about aviation, medicine, politics and environmental issues. There were plenty of archives and a family that was willing to talk to me, in part because they liked the Perkins bio."

Max Perkins, says Berg, was the warmest and kindest of the three men. Lindbergh was not especially warm, but he had a strong set of values. As for Goldwyn, "the more I learned about his anger and his rages, the more I liked him. My job is not to judge these men but to explain them."

Writing Bios Is the Perfect Job for Him

Writing is, in fact, the only job Berg has ever had, unless you count the season he and his brother, Jeff (now the head of ICM), sold the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in front of the Westwood Bullocks ("It wasn't hard--Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher were divorcing"), or the summer sweeping at Universal Studios, or the stint as a parking lot attendant. Writing biographies is the perfect job for him, he says, a combination of utter isolation and socializing with people he admires.

"Look, I know Anne Morrow Lindbergh!" he grins. (Eyes roll back.) With each book, he says he interviews somewhere between 100 and 150 people, many of whom remain friends.

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