Beyond the Bubble | Jan. 12

New biography portrays Wilson as passionate lover, draws interest from Hollywood

“Wilson,” a recent biography of former University president Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, has drawn attention from Hollywood for its characterization of the late president as a passionate lover. The film rights to the book have been optioned by Appian Way, the production company owned by Leonardo DiCaprio.

A. Scott Berg ’71, a University trustee and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, released “Wilson” in September 2013 after 13 years of research and writing. Wilson has been a figure of interest to Berg ever since he first began reading about the former president in high school and even motivated him, in part, to attend the University.

Berg said he attempted to distinguish his biography from existing works on Wilson by “humanizing” Wilson. He explained that Wilson has often been portrayed as a severe Presbyterian minister’s son, which is an accurate but incomplete depiction of Wilson.

“This was also a really red-blooded, deeply emotional, extremely passionate man,” Berg explained, “and I really wanted to capture that for the reader.”

Berg’s book describes Wilson as a romantic and sexual man, at least with his wives, Ellen and then Edith. His biography also discusses the “emotional affair” he had with a woman named Mary Peck while vacationing in Bermuda.

The subject of Wilson’s love life is controversial because it is ambiguous whether Wilson was involved in an extramarital affair, said philosophy professor John Cooper, author of the definitive biography “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.”

In “Wilson,” Berg concludes that Wilson reserved his passion for his wives. James Axtell, a historian and professor at the College of William and Mary and author of “The Making of Princeton University: Woodrow Wilson to the Present,” agreed with Berg’s assessment.

“There’s no doubt that Wilson was a passionate guy, sexually driven and adventurous, but not in general; I mean only with his wives,” Axtell said.

Cooper thinks otherwise. Referring to Wilson as “one hot guy,” Cooper said that Wilson very possibly had sex with his second wife before marriage and that Wilson’s relationship with Mary Peck may have been more serious than Berg concludes.

“There was certainly something there that Wilson felt very guilty about,” Cooper said in reference to Wilson’s relationship with Peck.

Now that DiCaprio’s company has optioned the biography, Berg and his publisher are currently deciding between screenwriters who will turn Berg’s book into a motion picture.

Berg is not new to the film industry; his father was a writer and producer, and all three of his brothers went into show business. Berg has also been involved in other films, like the literary drama based on his biography of Max Perkins that will be filmed next year.

Berg said he chose DiCaprio’s production company because, in addition to already being on friendly terms with the actor, he was most impressed by the company’s understanding of the book and he has always had a high opinion of DiCaprio. DiCaprio will star as Woodrow Wilson in the film, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

While the story was well received in Hollywood, Cooper and Axtell said they had certain reservations about the book.

Cooper commended Berg for being a “superb writer” and for his “unflinching condemnation” of Wilson’s close-minded policies regarding race, but he took issue with what Berg omits from his book.

“It’s funny what he leaves out. He leaves out the politics; he leaves out the thought; he basically leaves out as much of the context as he can,” Cooper said.

Axtell said he believes that Berg’s portrayal of Wilson’s personal life is a repetition of other scholars’ work.

“I don’t think there’s anything novel about Berg,” he said.

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