In some ways, Irving Berlin’s life epitomized what America is all about. His story was literally, a “rags to riches” saga. To describe Berlin as a songwriter would be akin to describing Babe Ruth as a “baseball player” or Michael Jordan as a “basketball player.” Technically true, but it doesn’t do him justice. In the words of Walter Cronkite (“Uncle Walter”) Berlin “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.” Strong words, but read on and see if you don’t agree.
Israel Bellin was born on May 23,1888 somewhere in Russia. He was one of eight children. His father was a cantor in a local synagogue. (His precise birthplace is not known for sure. It could have been in a small, nondescript village in present-day Belarus, or, perhaps, somewhere in Siberia.) According to Berlin’s biographer, Laurence Bergreen, Berlin, himself, didn’t know. By his own admission, the only memory he had of the first five years of his life was of “lying on a blanket on the side of the road watching his house burn to the ground,” presumably as the result of one of the many pogroms that were all too frequent at that time throughout eastern Europe.
When Israel was five his father brought the Bellin family to America. They settled in NYC on the Lower Eastside. At some point, Bellin became Berlin, and Israel became Irving.
As was typical for immigrant families of that era, everyone worked to provide for the family. For example, his father, unable to find employment as a cantor, worked in a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons; his mother became a midwife; his sisters worked in a cigar factory, wrapping cigars; and one of his brothers worked in a shirt factory. Beginning at the age of eight, Irving “hawked” newspapers. Everyone, turned over all of their earnings to the mother, who would ceremoniously collect the coins in her apron. Sadly, Irving’s father died when Irving was only 13, which greatly exacerbated the family’s financial woes.
One of the areas in which Berlin sold his newspapers was the Bowery. At that time, the Bowery was a rather unsavory section of lower Manhattan known for its many saloons and restaurants. Berlin would often hear music and songs emanating from these establishments, and he began to sing these songs while working. Sometimes, listeners would toss him a coin or two, which he used to supplement his oncome. His big ambition was to become a singing waiter in one those establishments.
At the age of 14 Berlin decided to leave home and strike out on his own. He lived in the Bowery in quarters he later described as “Dickensian in their meanness, filth and insensitivity to ordinary human beings.” At age 18 Berlin did, in fact, land a job as a singing waiter at a café in Chinatown. In his spare time, he wrote songs and taught himself to play the piano. During this time, one of his friends was another struggling, up and comer, named George M. Cohan, who eventually became a famous songwriter and performer in Vaudeville and on Broadway (“Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Over There”). Cohan would refer to him as “Irvie.”
For you trivia buffs, the first song Berlin sold was “Marie from Sunny Italy” for which he earned a whopping 33 cents in royalties. His first big success was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911). It became an international hit and ushered in a dance craze. After that, the hits came with regularity – one after the other.
During his long career, Berlin wrote some 1,500 songs, many of which have become household tunes. When I name some of them, even casual music fans will think “Oh yeah, I know that one. He wrote it?”
Perhaps, the best known and most enduring ones include “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” “God Bless America” has become a virtual second national anthem. Berlin wrote it in 1938 to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, as the end of WW1 was then called. The most famous version was performed by Kate Smith and became the unofficial “good luck” anthem at Philadelphia Flyers’ hockey games. Berlin’s daughter has disclosed that the song was “very personal” for Berlin. He had written it as a tribute to America for taking in a penniless immigrant and “allowing” him to become a successful songwriter.
Berlin won the Academy Award for “White Christmas,” and the Bing Crosby version has sold in excess of 50 million copies, the most of any record. At the ceremony, Berlin was the presenter for his own Oscar, the only time that has ever occurred.
He also wrote the score for some 20 Broadway shows, among them “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Top Hat,” and “This is the Army.” Film scores include such as “Top Hat,” featuring Fred Astaire (a then little-known performer) and Ginger Rogers, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” ASCAP’s records reveal that 25 of Berlin’s songs reached the “top of the charts.” Some of the famous singers that have recorded and re-recorded his works are Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and Doris Day.
Berlin’s personal life was a mixed bag. His first wife, Dorothy Goetz, died on their honeymoon from typhoid fever. His second marriage to the former Ellin Mackay, however, lasted some 60 years and produced four children. They had to elope, since Ellin’s father, who was one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, strongly disapproved of Berlin (disparaging him as merely a singing waiter) and actually disowned his daughter over the marriage. Incidentally, it did not end well for the elder Mackay. He lost most of his money in the Great Depression.
Berlin got the last laugh on his father-in-law. He went on to become arguably the most famous, successful and influential songwriter of the 20th Century. For example:
1. Composer George Gershwin characterized him as “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”
2. Composer Jerome Kern went even further stating Berlin has no place in American music. [H]e is American music.”
3. In his obituary “The New York Times” played him the ultimate tribute, writing “Irving Berlin set the tone and tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century.”
4. In addition to the one aforementioned Oscar, Berlin was nominated for seven others. He also won a “Tony,” a “Grammy,” and many other awards.
5. He has a “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Berlin died on September 22, 1989 at the age of 101. The little boy who did not even know where he was born, whose only childhood memory was of watching helplessly while his family’s home burned to the ground, who came to America with nothing but his wits, his talent, and his ambition, had become an enduring icon. He is gone, but his work will last forever.
PS: For those of you who may be interested in learning more about Irving Berlin I recommend the one-man show about his life currently playing at the 59th Street theatre starring Hershey Felder. You will enjoy it, and you will leave humming one of Berlin’s tunes.