Bergreen, Laurence R. 1950-

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BERGREEN, Laurence R. 1950-

PERSONAL: Born February 4, 1950, in New York, NY; son of Morris H. (a lawyer) and Adele (a lawyer; maiden name, Gabel) Bergreen; married Elizabeth Freeman (a musician), June, 1975. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1972.

ADDRESSES: Office—15 E. 10th St., New York, NY 10003. Agent—Wylie, Aitken and Stone, 250 W. 57th St., Ste. 2106, New York, NY 10107.

CAREER: Museum of Broadcasting, New York, NY, assistant to president, 1977–78; New School for Social Research, New York, NY, faculty member, 1981–82; writer. Consultant on television documentaries, including Prohibition, BBC-TV, 1997.


Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1980.

James Agee: A Life, Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.

As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.

Capone: The Man and the Era, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.

Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life beyond Earth, Riverhead Books (New York), 2000.

Also contributor to Academic American Encyclopedia. Contributor to magazines, including American Film, Newsweek, Quest, Television Quarterly, and TV Guide.

SIDELIGHTS: Laurence R. Bergreen once told CA: "When writing my first book [Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting], a history of the American broadcasting industry, I found myself becoming more imaginatively engaged in the story of the rise of a business venture than I would have guessed possible at the outset. After a while it struck me that the networks served as a huge metaphor for the craggy face of American enterprise. It was a microcosm of society—at least as it looks to me here in New York—a fascinating, discordant combination of remarkable elements and people." Look Now, Pay Later represents a kind of collective biography, containing sketches of major journalists and broadcasting executives, including Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Edwin Armstrong, and Fred Silverman. Writing for the Washington Journalism Review, E. William Henry praised Bergreen for both his "highly readable, perceptive study of the broadcasting industry" and his "compelling portraits of the broadcast pioneers and their successors." Blaik Kirby of the Toronto Globe and Mail recommended Look Now, Pay Later for "anyone interested in broadcasting," and declared, "It is often an exciting tale and it is so thorough that I have complete faith in its accuracy and fairness."

Bergreen continued to explore the lives of twentieth-century Americans in James Agee: A Life. Here, the biographer chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's varied career and tumultuous personal life. Melvin Maddocks pointed out in Time that Bergreen "spent three years in research and interviews amassing the minute data of Agee's life," and the reviewer asserted that the book is a "solid, unassuming biography." Jonathan Yardley stated in the Washington Post Book World, "It is a terribly familiar story, and a terribly sad one, and it is told exceptionally well by Laurence Bergreen in what is, rather surprisingly, the first full Agee biography." Yardley also praised Bergreen for not "succumb[ing] to the literary biographer's temptation to overrate his subject's work."

Bergreen's next biography, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, traces the life of the songwriter known for such classics as "God Bless America," "White Christmas," "There's No Business Like Show Business," and "Puttin' on the Ritz." As Alex Witchel pointed out in the New York Times, the fact that his subject was still alive did not make this biography any easier for Bergreen, for Berlin and his three daughters "refused to cooperate with Mr. Bergreen, who began his research when the songwriter was 97." Witchel added, however, that Bergreen "did not feel that the family's lack of cooperation hurt his work." Gene Lees stressed in the New York Times Book Review, "In view of how hard Berlin tried to keep anyone from writing about him, Mr. Bergreen's vivid portrait is impressive indeed." In a Chicago Tribune Books review, Gerald Bordman called the work "a complete, carefully researched biography" and a "major accomplishment. It will probably stand as the definitive biography of a man whose fathomless well of unforgettable melody and rare gift for simple, homey, touching lyrics made his songs among the best that Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood had to offer." Witchel noted, nonetheless, that Bergreen has revealed "a darker side of Mr. Berlin's character," and Lees found in As Thousands Cheer a Berlin who was "a mystery, and for the last three decades he was a crabby recluse, enveloped in a cocoon of memories, ingratitude, egotism and self-doubt." The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani concluded, "The reader finishes this biography with the feeling that there is often no correlation between genius and sensitivity, talent and temperament. The man who wrote such wonderfully romantic songs as 'Cheek to Cheek,' 'Always,' and 'What'll I Do?' appears to have been an egotist and a boor."

In Capone: The Man and the Era, Bergreen turns his attention to a notorious figure whose story has grown to almost mythical proportions as the battle of good and evil between gangsters and G-men moved from the headlines to the silver screen to popular culture. Yet, as Digby Diehl observed in Playboy, Bergreen "extracts Al Capone from decades of mythology and misinformation to reveal him in the context of his times." As the biographer notes, Capone was born into a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899. He moved to Chicago in 1921. There, he became an entrepreneur and businessman, but one on the wrong side of the law. Within a decade, he had built an empire, selling alcohol in violation of Prohibition and running other very profitable illegal and legal operations. "Capone, as portrayed by Laurence Bergreen," George F. Will observed in National Review, "was a cunning creature more or less sincerely convinced that his enterprises, principally bootlegging but also gambling and prostitution, produced jobs for deserving men and women and satisfied appetites that he did not create and which someone else would satisfy if he did not." But, as his biographer shows, the government thought differently of his dealings. Capone was deposed in 1931 when the Feds convicted him for failure to pay taxes on his earnings. He died in 1947 of syphilis in Alcatraz Prison. Stephen Birmingham, in a review for Insight on the News, faulted Bergreen for speculation on Capone's private thoughts and the gangster's use of cocaine, but a Publishers Weekly reviewer recognized that Bergreen "has done a prodigious amount of research."

Perhaps Bergreen's most pleasant experience as a biographer came in writing Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. As he explained in a Publishers Weekly interview, "This is the first biography I have written in which my opinion of my subject kept improving as I worked." Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans, where he heard all around him the music of the diverse peoples who made their homes in this Mississippi Delta city. In addition to all these other influences, Armstrong was encouraged by a Jewish family named Karnofsky to pursue music himself. He picked up the cornet. He left New Orleans for Chicago in 1922 and joined King Oliver and his band. Over the next thirty years, he travelled the world and became an international star. Armstrong died in 1971. David Ostwald, writing in Commentary, was impressed with the eloquence of Bergreen's "opening chapter—one of the best six-page summaries of Armstrong ever written." Paul de Barros pointed out in Down Beat, "Based on intimate, previously ignored writings by Armstrong himself, mostly about his four wives and various girlfriends, this new biography boasts as vivid and cinematic a description of early New Orleans as you'll read anywhere."

Bergreen is not credited with the definitive biography of this jazz legend, however. Ostwald faulted the biographer for not adequately developing the last twenty-five years of Armstrong's life and argued that the book does contain some factual errors. For Entertainment Weekly contributor David Hajdu, it failed "to illuminate the peculiarly American miracle of [Armstrong's] genius." Yet, in the opinion of de Barros, "Bergreen is a fluid and engaging writer who gets the often complex and contradictory details right." And, concluded David Yaffe in the Nation, "The prose throughout is lucid and stylish, and Bergreen's love for his subject comes through on every page."

Bergreen turned his attention to a very different subject in Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life beyond Earth. In this volume, he maps out the history and findings of the Mars Pathfinder, Global Surveyor, Climate, and Polar Lander missions. While Voyage to Mars is very detailed, it is not a strictly scientific volume. Rather, it is a "wonderful, rambling, personal journey into the world of NASA and extraplanetary exploration," claimed Betty Galbraith in her Library Journal review of the book. Bergreen explores the debates that swirled around funding and other aspects of the missions, and presents the missions' findings. At times, his statements of personal opinion tend toward "axe-grinding" and "overstatement," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who felt that this tendency robbed Voyage to Mars of some credibility. Los Angeles Times reviewer Anthony Day found the book significant, on the other hand. He viewed Bergreen's insight into the politics behind the missions as "a sobering reminder that the process of governing … involves lifting the hearts of a country to set goals that may be as difficult to achieve as they are lofty." According to Day, Bergreen "brings to life the rather abstract scientific and bureaucratic processes that drive NASA's Mars program," in such a way that "the reader gets a sense of the drama, the intense joys and disappointments, of science at the outer edge of knowledge."



Bestsellers, Volume 90, number 4, pp. 13-15.

Booklist, November 15, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life beyond Earth, p. 596; September 15, 2003, Gavin Quinn, review of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, p. 200.

Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1988; July 8, 1990, section 13, pp. 12-13.

Chicago Tribune Book World, July 29, 1984.

Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1997, Roderick Nordell, review of Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, p. 15.

Commentary, November, 1997, p. 68.

Detroit Free Press, July 1, 1990, p. Q7.

Down Beat, December, 1997, p. 96.

Economist, September 6, 1997, p. 18.

Entertainment Weekly, August 8, 1997, p. 74.

Geographical, March, 2004, Jo Sargent, review of Over the Edge of the World, p. 90.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 28, 1980; October 6, 1984; July 28, 1990.

Insight on the News, August 29, 1994, p. 30.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2003, review of Over the Edge of the World, p. 1052.

Library Journal, September 15, 2000, Betty Galbraith, review of Voyage to Mars, p. 110; December, 2003, Dale Farris, review of Over the Edge of the World, p. 135.

Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1988; November 2, 2000, Anthony Day, review of Voyage to Mars, p. E4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 15, 1984, p. 2; July 1, 1990, pp. 6, 8.

Nation, July 14, 1997, p. 30.

National Review, December 31, 1994, p. 55.

Newsweek, July 7, 1997, p. 66.

New York Times, June 30, 1984; June 19, 1990; August 18, 1990.

New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1984, pp. 1, 31; July 1, 1990, pp. 1, 23.

Playboy, September, 1994, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, July 4, 1994, p. 48; June 9, 1997, p. 32; July 14, 1997, p. 59; October 30, 2000, review of Voyage to Mars, p. 63; August 25, 2003, review of Over the Edge of the World, p. 51.

Spectator, February 7, 2004, Raymond Carr, review of Over the Edge of the World, p. 34.

Time, July 2, 1984, p. 85; July 23, 1990, pp. 74-75.

Times (London, England), November 15, 2000, Patrick Moore, review of Voyage to Mars, p. 14.

Times Literary Supplement, August 31, 1990.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 8, 1990, pp. 1, 5.

U.S. News & World Report, February 23, 2004, Samantha Levine, review of Over the Edge of the World, p. 62.

Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1997, Roxane Orgill, review of Louis Armstrong, p. A16.

Washington Journalism Review, July-August, 1980.

Washington Post Book World, June 10, 1984, pp. 3-4; June 24, 1990, p. 3.


Laurence Bergreen Home Page, (September 17, 2004).