Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin 1888-1989), another of our invaluable immigrants, arrived at Ellis Island from Russia, age five. The family settled on the Lower East Side. At eight, the boy started to help supporting his family (selling newspapers). At 14, he left both school and home in hopes of removing at least one burden. Berlin was surrounded by the music of émigrés. He had an ear for tune, an appealing voice (aspiring to be a singing waiter), and a sense of simple truth.
Busking, song plugging, and singing in saloons – often writing/performing risqué versions of popular lyrics – kept him from the Dickensian gutter. A few minor successes in songwriting carried the burgeoning talent to his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” about which George Gershwin wrote, “Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.”
The songwriter was 23 and married (then a widower at 23 due to Typhoid Fever). He taught himself piano, eventually purchasing a six-octave Weser Brothers, transposing instrument to compensate for lack of formal education. (Berlin learned to read and write music in the 1920s.)
We learn all this and considerably more in the early part of James Kaplan’s dense, illuminating biography. The author paints time and place, peppers with comment, and quotes opinion. In the era of schmaltzy, formulaic songs, Berlin’s swing, octave changes (a part of his Jewish heritage) and sexual innuendo stood out. Unfussy lyrics followed the dictum, “The mob is always right.”
Berlin was a founding member of ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), wrote the first ragtime/syncopated musical for Vernon and Irene Castle, and was part owner of The Music Box Theater. During that period, he gave us “I Love a Piano,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning!” and “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Written 20 years earlier, “God Bless America” was released in 1938 to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I.
There’s a glimpse (alas just a glimpse) of Berlin’s moral compass and sentimental side, beginning with the fact that he didn’t go wild with first big earnings, but rather saw to his family. Kaplan uses inspired songs rather than behavior to indicate sensitivity to love and loss. His subject wrote “When I Lost You” upon the death of his first wife, and gifted all rights of “Always” to his new bride Ellin McKay: I’ll be loving you always/With a love that’s true always…
The continuance of success, he often noted, couldn’t be counted on. Even after fame and prosperity, Berlin overtly reacted to someone’s facial expression when feeling they didn’t seem to love a song.
Kaplan takes us through transitioning genres – sheet music, theater, film – the successes and failures. Berlin’s particular friendship with Fred Astaire is well drawn. “Each had a mocking sense of humor, a total devotion to his wife, and a keen sense of sartorial style; both were out-and-out perfectionists when it came to work.”
“How could a man who was constantly in motion, who habitually chewed gum, smoked cigarettes, and paced the floor, not have feared he might rust,” the author ably writes of Berlin’s later life, including the shows Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Mr. President. Say It with Music was filmed in 1969.
Becoming a near recluse towards the end, Berlin lived with Ellin at Beekman Place. He did, however, take constitutionals. In this way the songwriter met young neighbor, John Wallowich, who began the tradition of caroling at Berlin’s door every year in thanks for, among countless songs, “White Christmas.”
The icon fell asleep and passed in 1989 having been extensively feted. During his 60-year career Berlin wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original films. Irving Berlin had the pulse of the people like no one else. Jerome Kern said, “He understood the people’s vernacular.”
The book is copiously researched, highly detailed. A few more words from the master himself would’ve added. One can only mourn the lack of photos. Enter only if willing to become immersed.
Irving Berlin-New York Genius by James Kaplan
Author’s Photo by Errin Hartmann
Published by Yale – Jewish Lives Series