Irving Berlin led an incredible life, one that lasted over a hundred years and took him from a poor Russian shtetl to seeing his name in lights on Broadway and movie palaces throughout America. His songs earned him many millions of dollars and became standards: “Always,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and, of course, his tribute to the country he loved: “God Bless America.”
To his critics, Berlin
was a reactionary: My country right or wrong might have been his
personal credo. Others accused him of being a Jew who had forgotten his
roots. When he was criticized by some coreligionists for celebrating
Christmas, Berlin responded that he regarded it as an American holiday.
Indeed, in contrasting the warm California winter with the snowy New
York of his youth, Berlin was inspired to write one of his enduring
tunes, “White Christmas.”
Early on, he wrote pseudo-Dixieland, in the style of the day, favored by white musicians. “When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam'” was one such tune. For years, rumors circulated that Berlin’s songs were ghosted by a stable of black musicians, anonymous toilers that he paid in the dark. Berlin was stung by these rumors. Even in old age, he would sheepishly ask some friend: Did he ever hear the story of the Negro boy? The little boy who they say wrote those great songs?
Berlin never engaged in self-pity or romanticized the poverty of his youth. Later, in speaking of his Bowery days, the songwriter said his main interest was “to get the hell out of there.”
After a few years of bouncing around, Izzy landed a job as a singing waiter at The Pelham Café, whose proprietor, Mike Salter, was a well-known local character. Upstairs was a whorehouse run by a madam known as “Chinatown Gertie.”
Running a clip joint was a tough business. When Mike Salter learned that a bouncer in a rival establishment had co-authored a popular song, his competitive instinct was aroused. Mike pressed his 18 year old waiter to do better, and young Izzy obliged. “Once you start singing, you start thinking of writing songs,” he later said. In a few days, the waiter and a pal turned out a tune, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” that caught on among the large local immigrant population. Mike had his hit, and the waiter a new name: Irving Berlin.
The new songwriter moved to an uptown nightclub, Jimmy Kelly’s, where he worked as a singer and entertainer. The owner was an ex-prize fighter named De Salvo who fought under an Irish name, as was then the custom. His place was a show business hangout, and soon Berlin was writing and selling songs which he dashed off, inspired by some current craze or ethnic theme. When Fanny Brice sang one of his tunes—“Good-bye, Becky Cohen”—in the popular Ziegfeld Follies, Irving was on his way.
Irving experimented with ragtime, first working on an instrumental, then adding lyrics. Finally, Berlin borrowed a phrase from Stephen Foster—his favorite composer—put a whiteface on Scott Joplin’s style, and came up with a lively tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
The fictitious bandleader of the title was supposed to be black, but when Hollywood bought the rights to the song in the 1930s and asked Berlin to come up with a treatment, the bandleader was transformed into Berlin himself who was played by Tyrone Power, a handsome matinee idol.
In any event, when published in 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” created a sensation. The song sold over a million copies of sheet music in that pre-radio and pre-recording era. On both sides of the Atlantic, Irving Berlin was hailed as “The Ragtime King,” the ruler of Tin Pan Alley.
Berlin fell into a comfortable routine, writing for Ziegfeld’s annual Follies and occasionally Broadway. For the first time, he saw his name in lights.
Berlin’s work consumed him. There was no time for show girls or parties. Usually, he worked through the night, then slept till noon. He seldom relaxed: Irving was always counting the house, they used to say.
Unlike Ziegfeld and others, Berlin’s name was untouched by scandal. With his first flush of royalties in 1913, the songwriter bought his mother a home in the Bronx which was then considered the country.
The world is a far bigger stage than Broadway, filled with characters and plots that can affect everyone. In 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated sending tremors throughout Europe, and soon America was drawn into those faraway events. It was Woodrow Wilson, the New Freedom, then War, and Irving Berlin, like so many others, was drafted—a doughboy, assigned to Camp Upton, in the far reaches of Yaphank, Long Island.
Almost overnight, Berlin exchanged his cook for KP duty and his well-appointed Riverside Drive apartment for a wooden barracks. Although he took his turn around the drill field, on at least one occasion the songwriter snuck his valet into the barracks to spruce up his quarters.
Rising at 5:00 a.m. rankled Irving the most, since that was the time he usually went to bed. “There were a lot of things about army life I didn’t like,” Berlin’s biographer quotes him as saying, “and the thing I didn’t like most of all was reveille.”
Just when it seemed Private Berlin would spend the war peeling potatoes, an enterprising superior officer suggested the songwriter work up a camp show to raise money for a guesthouse for soldiers’ families.
Drawing on his fellow soldiers, some of whom had show business backgrounds, Berlin came up with a spoof on the Army called, Yip! Yip!Yaphank. With his many contacts, and the blessing of the Army, Irving took the show to Broadway for a limited run where it was a smash.
Berlin’s song on the misery of reveille, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” became a standard Army lament.
Following his discharge from the service, Sergeant Berlin—he had been promoted at the war’s end—found himself more famous than ever. Everywhere he went, he was recognized. It seemed anything Irving touched turned to gold. He started his own publishing firm, Irving Berlin, Inc., just in time to catch the flow of royalties from the sale of records that the public was gobbling up in place of sheet music. In 1919, his last season with Ziegfeld, Berlin had another hit, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”
twenties roared in, Berlin built his own theater to put on annual revues. He
called it The Music Box. The shows had chorus girls and funny skits that might
have stepped off the stage of the great Ziegfeld who, in turn, had taken old
vaudeville routines and put them in gorgeous settings for his own Follies.
Another Berlin song from the twenties, “Blue Skies,” became a popular favorite. It was this song that twenty years later a hitchhiker named Kerouac sang to himself one balmy California day and which he wrote about in On the Road.
When Prohibition came in, Jimmy Kelly closed his uptown place and opened a speakeasy in Greenwich Village where the cops and politicians were friendlier. Irving occasionally hung out there.
One night a vivacious 20 year old named Ellin Mackay introduced herself to the songwriter. Ellin was no ordinary female dying to meet Irving Berlin. She was the daughter of Clarence Mackay whose father had laid the first cable across the Atlantic, and she had grown up on a baronial Long Island estate. The family were Irish Catholics but had been accepted into New York society (or what passed for society).
Irving was very smitten with the blonde young heiress, and Ellin soon found herself in love with the self-made millionaire. Her father was openly opposed to the idea of his daughter marrying a Tin Pan Alley songwriter (and a Jew to boot). Ellin would wed Berlin “over my dead body,” Clarence Mackay was quoted as saying. This rich girl-Lower East Side boy angle was played up in the press, and the tabloid headlines followed the romance’s progress.
Ellin’s father sent her on an extended European tour hoping she’d forget the composer, but when she returned, the romance resumed. A Berlin composition of the day was called, “My Baby’s Come Back to Me.”
Shortly after New Year’s 1926, Ellin and Berlin eloped and were married in a civil ceremony at City Hall. They sailed on the Leviathan for a honeymoon in Paris and London where Berlin’s musical secretary later joined them so Irving could work on his new show.
Ellin was dropped from the Social Register and disinherited by her father, but the marriage was a happy one and lasted until her death in 1988. As a wedding present, Berlin gave her the copyright of the song he had written for her: “Always.”
If Florenz Ziegfeld held any resentment toward his Music Box rival, his revenge came in a roundabout way. Over the years, the impresario had had his ups and downs—sometimes spectacular—and by the late 1920s interest in his Follies was fading.
Ziegfeld was approached by two young collaborators, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, about producing a musical based on a popular Edna Ferber novel, Showboat, about a steamboat that plied the Mississippi in the post-Civil War era bringing entertainment to levee towns.
According the Laurence Bergreen, the show’s rich, almost operatic score and realistic treatment of race relations marked a radical departure from the light comedies and minstrel shows favored by Berlin and his contemporaries.
When Ziegfeld’s Showboat opened, it ushered in a new musical era and paved the way for younger composers—Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers—who were sophisticated and well-educated. Suddenly, at 40, Irving Berlin was “old fashioned”—the kiss of death on Broadway.
The 1920s left behind a legion of forgotten composers—no one remembers the name of the fellow who wrote “That’s My Desire.” Irving Berlin might have been among them, had it not been for the advent of talkies which drove Hollywood to import well-established composers who could turn out a film score in short order.
Berlin’s first real foray into movies was the film adaptation of The Cocoanuts, the play he had done with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind about the Florida landboom and the hucksters and fortune hunters it attracted. The stage and film version starred the Marx Brothers whose ad-libbing of his lyrics drove the meticulous Berlin crazy.
Following the release of The Cocoanuts, Berlin came up with a story treatment based on his romance with Ellin. He took the idea to Joe Schenck, a friend from his days as a singing waiter, who arranged studio financing.
Originally, the film, Reaching for the Moon, contained a full Berlin score, but the hardheaded Irving repeatedly clashed with the hardheaded director, Edmund Goulding, and the final version had only one Berlin song: “How Deep Is the Ocean?” which became a hit in 1933 despite the film’s failure.
The Great Depression hit Tin Pan Alley and Broadway hard, finally sinking the durable Ziegfeld and sending other theater owners, like the Shuberts, into bankruptcy. Berlin’s publishing company with its trove of copyrights provided a shelter to weather the storm.
Others whom Berlin knew were not as fortunate. Irving’s father-in-law suffered severe reversals and wound up living in the guesthouse on his former estate. Berlin supposedly gave him a million dollars to live on, but the old man was unmoved. Laurence Bergreen noted: “Despite the songwriter’s generosity, his father-in-law still despised him. No matter what Berlin did, what gestures he made, Clarence would always consider him a Jewish songwriter from the Lower East Side…”
Anxious to get back on Broadway, Berlin teamed up with a 28 year old writer named Moss Hart who later went on to a distinguished theater career. They concocted a play set in an automat about down-and-out socialites who had been knocked off their perches by the stock market crash. The play lost money but received enough favorable reviews to encourage Berlin to try again.
This time Irving and his young collaborator looked to the days’ headlines for inspiration and put together a satirical revue about the foibles of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and her marriages, Ghandi—the Mahatma was always good for a laugh or two—and other celebrities and politicians.
The show was called As Thousands Cheer—and the title was an apt one. Audiences shaken by the Depression enjoyed seeing fun poked at the rich and idle. The first-rate cast included Clifton Webb as the playboy Prince of Wales and Ethel Waters who sang “Heat Wave.” Another tune, “Easter Parade,” became a holiday standard. Irving Berlin was back—on top: a winner.
Top Hat was a romantic comedy, light on plot. In the movie, Rogers falls in love with Astaire, then mistakenly believes he has concealed from her that he is married to her best friend.
Astaire was a perfectionist; he assiduously worked on his intricate dance routines. Berlin greatly admired him, leading some to wonder whether Astaire’s public personality was everything Berlin inwardly wanted to be: debonair, upper-class, gentile.
Berlin liked to say that his best songs were conversation set to music. From the opening bars of “Cheek to Cheek”—“Heaven, I’m in heaven”—Astaire’s casual delivery was perfect. “Oh, that’s great,” Berlin said of the performance. “I love it.”
Rogers and Astaire were an unlikely romantic couple: She was youthful, wholesome; he was older, slightly jaded. But the magic of Berlin’s songs, and the elegant Art Deco sets evoking Europe in the twenties, helped the public suspend their disbelief. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall, one of the country’s premier movie palaces, and played to packed houses.
The old movie moguls used to say, Why make a movie once, if you can make it twice? Irving Berlin’s film career fulfilled that adage. Six months after Top Hat opened, RKO released Follow the Fleet, another Rogers-Astaire comedy with a similar plot and a Berlin score.
Irving was easy prey for the Hollywood sausage factory. He was trapped by his artistic limitations and the money that came from recycling his hits. After George Gershwin, who had once applied to Berlin for a job, created a stir with his folk opera, Porgy and Bess, Irving decided to formally study music. As it turned out, Berlin soon abandoned these plans. He was too busy to learn to read music, Irving told a friend.
In 1938 Darryl F. Zanuck lured Berlin to 20th Century-Fox to make Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The semi-autobiographical movie featured an array of hits, including the eponymous title song, “Easter Parade,” and “When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam'” which had been the big Berlin number of 1914.
Over the decades “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas” (sung by Bing Crosby) had films constructed around them. Louis B. Mayer paid a half million dollars for the rights to “Easter Parade,” a princely sum in the 1940s. The film starred Fred Astaire and a young Judy Garland in place of Ginger Rogers.
James Agee, the erudite and always polite film critic, wrote of Easter Parade that the cast “…and several of Irving Berlin’s old songs ought to add up to something better than this, but much of it is painless and some of it—chiefly Astaire—is pretty good.” (James Agee, Agee on Film, New York, McDowell, Obolensky, 1958)
Irving Berlin was 53 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Congress declared war. Too old for the draft, Berlin could have sat out the conflict, a poolside patriot in Beverly Hills. Instead, he decided to help the war effort by putting on a show to raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund which assisted soldiers’ families. “Songs make history, and history makes songs,” Berlin’s biographer Bergreen quotes him as saying.
The Pentagon jumped at the idea of an all-servicemen show to help boost morale. Word went out from the Army brass to “give Irving Berlin anything he needs,” recalls Alan Anderson, then a young sergeant who served as the show’s stage manager.
Berlin was allowed to recruit personnel from other Army units and was assigned rehearsal facilities at Camp Upton where he had been stationed during the Great War. According to Anderson, Berlin liked to walk around the camp and mingle with the men to find out “how they talked and how they felt.” “This is the Army, Mister Jones, no private rooms or telephones” went one of the songs Berlin came up with for the show.
Berlin selected only enlisted men for the company; officers might “pull rank” and interfere with artistic judgment. Irving remained a civilian but was given a correspondent’s uniform. Still, there was no doubt about his status: “He was the boss,” recalls Sergeant Anderson, whose father, playwright Maxwell Anderson, was a friend of Berlin.
As stage director for the show which was to be called This Is the Army, Berlin chose a 24 year old noncom named Ezra Stone. Before joining the Army, Stone had starred in a weekly radio program, The Adventurers of Henry Aldrich. He played the title role, a hapless teenager who was always in hot water.
In selecting Stone, Berlin passed over a more experienced director, Lt. Garson Kanin, later a successful playwright, believing young Ezra would be easier to handle. This proved not to be the case, as the energetic corporal rubbed Irving the wrong way throughout the production.
An early sign of trouble occurred one day when Stone inadvertently (or maybe not inadvertently) praised a George Gershwin tune, “Mine,” that came over the radio. Stone told Berlin that he admired Gershwin’s use of counterpoint.
The words were no sooner out of Stone’s mouth than he felt the “chill” in the air, as Berlin dismissed Gershwin’s technique as an “old trick” that he had used himself on several occasions.
Not long after, Stone committed a more serious transgression. He was rehearsing a song, “The Army’s Made a Man of Me,” that Berlin had trouble finishing and took the liberty of completing the last two lines. When Berlin wandered into the rehearsal and realized what happened, he dashed to the piano and tore up the sheet music. “It has and always will be,” he reminded Stone, “words and music by Irving Berlin.”
Berlin could be
self-centered and domineering, but the Army put him in charge. After a few more
run-ins with Stone, Irving had had it. He made the right call or two and—like
that—in the best Henry Aldrich fashion, Ezra was shipped out to Timbucktu.
According to Alan Anderson’s lively book on the production, Stone survived the
war and later became a successful New York stage director. (Alan Anderson,
The Songwriter Goes to War, New York, Limelight Editions, 2004)
In the summer of 1942, the country was reeling from setbacks in the Pacific, and the War Department decided to send Berlin and the show on tour to lift the public’s mood. Although Berlin was not paid for his work on the production, there were gripes from some soldiers that he grabbed all the publicity. After five months on the road, the company headed for Hollywood where Warner Brothers had purchased the movie rights.
Hollywood was not
what most soldiers expected. They lived on the Burbank studio lot in tents that
had been made by the prop department and which doubled as a backdrop in the
In making the
movie, Warner Brothers decided against filming the show exactly as it had been
done on stage. As Alan Anderson put it, a “phony baloney” love angle was added,
and actress Joan Leslie was cast as stage manager Ronald Reagan’s romantic
however, wanted to use girls on the dubious grounds that the film’s distribution
would be harmed in Latin America where female impersonators (supposedly) were
unknown. Berlin balked at the change, and the boys stayed in the show.
Shortly before the
end of the war, Irving returned to Hollywood to supervise Blue Skies,
another picture strung together with old Berlin tunes. The picture starred Bing
Crosby who had appeared in Holiday Inn, a 1942 film in which he
introduced “White Christmas.” Berlin had worked on Holiday Inn while
writing This Is the Army.
In 1943 while
Berlin was touring, Rodgers and Hammerstein scored a triumph on Broadway with
Oklahoma! The musical celebrated the vitality of the American West and
of the country itself even during the dark days of the Second World War.
For decades Berlin
verged on going out of style, only to magically bounce back. He survived the
jazz craze in the twenties and outlasted the big bands, and swing, which swept
the country in the thirties.
bombed on Broadway, though not as badly as its detractors expected. Even so,
there were no hit tunes, no Hollywood sale. The calendar page had finally
turned; at 62 Irving Berlin’s reign was over.
Though he lived until 1989, Berlin had his last hit in 1954, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” The upbeat ballad was introduced at a gala banquet by Eddie Fisher, a singer who had made a career of being a nice Jewish boy. Berlin insisted Fisher dedicate the song to “our greatest blessing”—President Eisenhower.
As he approached 70, Irving was well-heeled financially. He owned the Music Box Theatre in partnership with the Shuberts, his former rivals, and controlled his copyrights through his publishing house. Berlin’s catalogue numbered about 1,000 songs, and he guarded his rights zealously, if not always prudently.
For years, Irving
refused to license his songs for a television special and even blocked a tribute
to his music on Ed Sullivan’s popular variety hour.
The suit dragged
on for several years, then went against Irving. The composer was strongly
rebuked from the bench on the importance of parody and satire in social affairs
by Judge Irving R. Kaufman, the dour jurist who had sent the Rosenbergs to the
As the fifties
exploded into the sixties, Berlin fell further into obscurity. Irving Berlin: Is
he still alive? People would wonder. Not that it mattered. Few people could be
more irrelevant to the sixties, and the angry decade that followed, than the man
who wrote “God Bless America.”
Ron Martinetti for AL. The author would like to thank Alan Anderson for providing several interviews about Irving Berlin and This Is the Army. Irving Berlin photos courtesy of Jenna Young and Limelight Editions.