Irving Berlin: The Ultimate Jewish Immigrant

Based on the first of four lectures by historian Charles Troy under the aegis of The York Theater.

 “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” Jerome Kern.

Israel Beilin (1888-1989) was born in a small shetetl on the edge of Siberia, the youngest of eight children. When the family watched Cossacks burn the house down, six of them (older ones were independent) fled across central Europe, eventually sailing for America. At Ellis Island, where their last name was misspelled as Baline, Irving’s 46 year-old father told authorities he was a butcher (not a Cantor), feeling the profession was more employable. (He was employed by a Kosher meat market and taught Hebrew. Mrs. Baline became a midwife.)

The eight of them took up residence at Russian Jewish “Central” on the Lower East Side. Other families arriving in that wave included those of the Gershwins, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, and Louis B. Mayer (MGM). Unlike his older siblings, Israel/Izzy adapted to America speaking English without a Yiddish accent. He started selling newspapers at eight in order to help support them, but at 14 when his father died, the boy left school and home in hopes of working full time. “The next five years were spent in Dickensian shelters for the homeless,” Troy tells us.

Without education or training, Izzy turned to singing. He busked on the Bowery, got a job at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall plugging songs, then became a performing waiter at The Pelham Café. The boy had a flair for devising off color lyrics to popular tunes. Troy exemplifies this with “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune” based on a theme from Felix Mendelssohn’s.

Left: Irving Berlin 1906
Right: That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune Sheet Music

Next he wrote “Marie From Sunny Italy” (with Nick Nicolson) which earned $1.20 in royalties and $.33 for publishing rights. The newly monikered Irving Berlin saw clear trajectory as a songwriter. His new name was meant “not to conceal my identity, but to enlarge on it,” he explained. Growing up in a melting pot of stereotypes, he was comfortable depicting a wide variety of local denizens.

The song “Sadie Salome” (with Edgar Leslie) was sold to vaudeville and debuted by newly minted thespian, Fanny Bryce. Throughout the lecture, we’re treated to original audio and new contemporary recordings (with lyrics to follow along), video, and evocative photographs.

“Berlin taught himself to play on the easiest key signature, e-flat major… This poor ghetto boy made himself into an independent songwriter. Izzy bought a transposing piano that supplied what he needed to supplement limited skills. When he changed keys, it was like operating a gear shift of a car. He never learned to write in any other key or even to write music. A musical secretary took care of it.” (Troy)

Press photo for the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band 1938– Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

In 1911, at 21 years old, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” propelled Berlin to the top of his profession. Troy points out that the song is not actually a rag (critic Richard Corliss calls it a march), but bears the infectious, syncopated energy of one. We hear the Max Morath version. George Gershwin called it “the first real American musical work.”

Not everyone was a supporter: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ is a public menace… Hysteria is the form of insanity that an abnormal love for ragtime seems to produce. It is as much a mental disease as acute mania…” (Dr. Ludwig GruenerGerman newspaper story.) In fact, Alexander didn’t emerge a success until its second theatrical outing.

The artist became a partner in Snyder Publishing and sponsored by friend George M. Cohan, joined The Friars’ Club. “The thing I like about Irvie is that although he has moved up-town and made lots of money, it hasn’t turned his head. He hasn’t forgotten his friends…” Cohan said. At this point the songwriter had everything but love. He fell hard for vocalist Dorothy Goetz whom he swept off her feet. While honeymooning in Cuba, an epidemic of Typhoid Fever broke out. The newlyweds returned home, but Dorothy died from the disease. They’d been married only five months.

Irving Berlin and his first wife Dorothy Goetz (Unnamed photographer for Bain News Service)

“Inconsolable, Berlin poured all his pain into one of his first ballads. “When I Lost You” was the last serious love song he’d write for some time,” Troy notes. Its simplicity captured hearts. Success made things possible. Berlin moved his mother to a house in the Bronx and got her a maid. She still spoke and understood only Yiddish. Her son’s profession mystified her.

“When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam” joined the trend for songs idealizing the south. In 1914, the young man became a publisher and wrote his first full (more sophisticated) show, Watch Your Step which starred Vernon and Irene Castle. Berlin went on to author a series of dance craze songs for the popular partners including the grizzly bear, chicken walk, and foxtrot. Watch Your Step featured the first of his counterpoint duets, “Simple Melody.”

Irving Berlin and Al Jolson 1927 (Unknown photographer credited as courtesy of ASCAP)

The next crowd-pleasing show Stop! Look! And Listen! gave us the jaunty “I Love a Piano.” Troy remarks jealous peers were spreading gossip that Berlin’s songs were written with an anonymous Black man in Harlem. How else could he get the tone so right? “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars” begins with an old man’s deathbed words to his son. A litany of those in debt to the firm follows. When they pay up, the singer decides that when debtors start to pay..That’s no time for a businessman to die. It’s a gem of understated humor.

“Berlin’s songs seem effortless but the opposite was true.” Troy remarks. “I sweat blood between 3 and 6 a.m. many mornings. When the drops that fall off my forehead hit the page, they’re notes.” (Irving Berlin) At 29, having become a citizen, he was inducted into the army. “Army Takes Berlin!” headlines read. Crowded quarters were bad enough but 5 a.m. reveille was impossible for this habitual late-nighter. After the navy put on a musical to raise money, Berlin talked the army into doing the same with him as its writer/producer. Protesting he did his best work at night, the private got himself excused from reveille.

Irving Berlin aboard the USS Arkansas 1944 (US Govt. Press Photo)

Twenty new songs were written for Yip, Yip Yaphank, named for the town in which he was stationed. One of these was “Reveille” which would later be featured in the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band. We watch a morose Jack Haley sing it in movie barracks. Written in gratitude to his adopted country, the proposed finale “God Bless America” was thought to be too much for the show’s frothy nature and filed away for two more years.

After his service, Flo Ziegfeld, glorifier of the American girl, approached Berlin. His first bespoke song was “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” The song became a Ziegfeld Follies signature, ending every show. Eddie Cantor introduced “Mandy” and “You’d Be Surprised.”

Cohan’s former partner Sam Harris joined with Berlin to build The Music Box Theater. As owner, producer and composer, the latter looked after every detail of his shows. He also bought a building on west 46th Street, occupying a penthouse to be close to all consuming work. “Now his songs were beginning to show self pity,” Troy observes citing “All By Myself” as a prime example.

Loneliness propelled him to become more social. He occasionally attended The Algonquin Round Table (a midday gathering of New York’s famous wits) and tried vacationing in Florida where he couldn’t relax but wrote “Lazy”, a song about doing just that. At a dinner party in 1924, Berlin met 20 year old socialite Ellin Mackay and fell head over heels. Her Anti-Semitic tycoon father was dead set against the marriage and promptly sent the debutante on a world tour. The newspapers had a field day.

Ellin MacKay and Irving Berlin (Unknown photographer Bain News Service)

Lovely ballads poured out of Berlin: “What’ll I Do? and the equally poignant “All Alone.” Berlin began to grow bitter over his beloved’s lack of will,” Troy comments. “Remember” came next where Berlin laments a love that forgets to remember.

After nine months, Ellen returned home resolved. They married spontaneously one day at City Hall. The songwriter was so anxious, he forgot this wallet and had to borrow $2.00 from their commandeered witness. Irving Berlin then wrote “Always.” The couple would be married 62 years and have three children.

End of Part I

Charles Troy- Photo Courtesy of The York Theater

Charles Troy (Photo Courtesy of The York Theater)

Charles Troy is both illuminating and entertaining. Visuals and songs are well chosen.  Recommended.

Opening Art Courtesy of The York Theater

NEXT: Irving Berlin Beats the Depression (1926-1934)                                               Monday, November 29, 5:30PM
Berlin assimilated by marrying a society girl. He lost his self-confidence and a fortune in the Crash, and then snapped out of it by writing two hit Broadway shows, Face the Music and As Thousands Cheer.

All photos of Irving Berlin are in the Public Domain

The York Theater Streaming

About Alix Cohen (1208 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.