WESTERLY — When Pulitzer Prize winning writer A. Scott Berg comes to speak at the Watch Hill Chapel Thursday, he definitely plans to talk about Woodrow Wilson, but audience members can also expect to hear plenty about Katharine Hepburn.
Berg, who’ll be speaking at a benefit for the Literacy Volunteers of Washington County as part of the Joyce S. Ahern Authors Series, was a close friend of Hepburn’s for the last 20 years of her life.
“I first met her at Fenwick in 1983 when I was writing a magazine article about her,” said Berg last week from his home in Los Angeles. “It was just Katherine Hepburn and me.”
“I ended up staying for eight days and eight nights,” continued Berg with a laugh. “I finally said, ‘This has been fun but I have to go home.’”
“We had a profound friendship,” said the author of “Kate Remembered,” which was a number one best-seller for most of the summer of 2003. “She always said to me, ‘You should really write a book about me.’ So I did.”
Berg said he wrote after each meal they shared and after each walk they took together. When he finished, he locked it up and put it away and didn’t bring it out again until Hepburn’s death.
Berg said that sometimes the two friends would sit and talk and eat chocolates — by the box.
“She loved chocolate,” he said, “and she changed my life forever.”
Berg was born in Connecticut where his father had a gallery and paint and art supply company in Westport.
“But he was a Sunday writer,” he said. “He wanted to be a writer in Hollywood so when I was seven and a half years old and he was 35, we moved to Los Angeles and started life all over.”
“We weren’t exactly the Beverly Hillbillies arriving in Bel Air by truck,” said the National Book Award winner (for his 1978 best-selling biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,”) with a chuckle, “but it was very exciting to move to California and I loved it.”
“It was an adventure,” continued Berg, who also wrote “Goldwyn: A Biography,” and “Lindbergh,” which earned him the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. “I loved the idea of going to school in shorts and having everything outdoors. Life was comfy and easy.”
Berg said his whole family adapted beautifully to life in LA and they became something of a “showbiz family.”
His father, the late Dick Berg, became a television producer best known for creating major history-based miniseries like “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story” and the 13-hour adaptation of James A. Michener’s book “Space.”
His mother, Barbara Freedman Berg, serves on the board of governors of the American Film Institute. His brother Jeff is chairman of a talent agency; his brother Tony is a record producer and executive; and his brother Rick is a manager and producer.
“I was sort of the black sheep,” added Berg, who went to Princeton after graduating from Palisades High School. It was while he was at Princeton that Berg began writing in earnest. His first book, about legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, which won the 1980 National Book Award in Biography, is being made into a film with Colin Firth playing Perkins and Michael Fassbender playing Thomas Wolfe.
Berg said that “Wilson,” his most recent book, has been optioned for a film by Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie company.
“Wilson” chronicles the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the academic-turned-politician who led the United States into joining the allies in World War I.
Ruth Tureckova, executive director of the The Literacy Volunteers of Washington County, said that one of the things that struck her while reading the book was that Wilson was “thought to be dyslexic.”
“In Wilson’s age, and even at the time many of our adult learners were in school, almost no help was available,” said Tureckova, adding that her organization has a volunteer tutor who is a dyslexia specialist. “In recent years there have been a lot of strategies developed to help people with dyslexia.”
“Woodrow Wilson is a great example for our learners of someone who went on to greatness despite a learning difference,” she said.
“Wilson could barely read until he was 15,” Berg said. “He was a very slow reader but he was passionate about reading and passionate about education. He knew the deep significance of literacy,”
Berg said there are some interesting local connections with the Woodrow Wilson story. During his academic career Wilson taught at Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn., and his first wife spent time painting in Connecticut.
“The first Mrs. Wilson was a very good painter,” he said. “She was an extremely good American Impressionist painter who spent time at the arts colony in Old Lyme as a guest of Mrs. Griswold” — Florence Griswold, who operated the boarding house that is the center of today’s Florence Griswold Museum.
Berg calls Wilson, who also graduated from Princeton, “the country’s most educated president.”
“He’s the only president with a Ph.D and a law degree, and he wrote a dozen books,” said Berg. “And he wrote the most surprising letters...they were deeply personal and show how passionate a man he really was. His letters are full of emotion... they’re emotional, intellectual...sexual and romantic.”
“When you read them it makes you wonder if it’s the same sour-faced man you see in photos,” said Berg, chuckling. “But he was a lover and a passionate man.”
Berg said he plans to talk mostly about Wilson and Hepburn but will talk about anything his audience wants to hear about.
“I’ll do whatever they want me to,” he added. “It will be a little of everything ... like a Whitman’s Sampler.”
Berg will speak at the Watch Hill Chapel, 5 Bluff Ave., on Thursday, at 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 for the presentation at the Chapel and an additional $30 for a reception at the Ocean House. Tickets for the event and reception are available at literacywashingtoncounty.org.
For more information, call 401-596-9411 or email ExeDir@LiteracyWashingtonCounty.org.