- Historic Sites
A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
I talked to other song buffs about him and was relieved to discover I wasn’t the only one who’d been slow to appreciate him. Sam Kaplan, a sociologist, told me: “I went though a period of disdaining him in a Philip Roth way—too much patriotism, too much sentimentality, too much Christianity … but then I got over it.… I admire his skill and verve and humor and bounteousness.” Dan Okrent, a magazine editor and music writer, said, “I wrote him off at first. I used to think he wrote only two songs, one in a minor key, say, ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz,’ and one in a major key that was nothing more than a hook, like ‘Always.’ It wasn’t till I started really listening to a lot of records of his songs that I realized how different they are.”
Even his peers disagreed on him. When Alexander Woollcott, writing a biography of Berlin in the mid-1920s, asked the great composer Jerome Kern about his subject’s place in American song, Kern replied: “Irving Berlin has no place in American song. He is American song.” But the lyricist Yip Harburg, a political and social activist whose convictions permeate his work, complained that Berlin “wrote only to write hits.” Alec Wilder, an esteemed composer in his own right, sounded both admiring and perplexed when he wrote in his book: “Whatever idealism some of his songs revealed, the core of his work has been eminently practical: his has been truly a body of work … his approach to songwriting is that of a craftsman rather than a composer. … I have been searching assiduously for stylistic characteristics in Berlin, but I can’t find any. I find great songs, good songs, average songs, and commercial songs. But I find no clue to a single, or even duple, point of view in the music.”
I recorded a CD of Irving Berlin songs and began writing an intimate little show about the man and his music to perform at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. The 1925 Woollcott book—a charming but unreliable mixture of fact and myth that Berlin seems to have encouraged all his life—was the only biography he allowed to be published while he was alive. In 1990 As Thousands Cheer , a comprehensive study by Laurence Bergreen, appeared and caused a sensation when it depicted the author of hundreds of upbeat songs as a miserly, perpetually depressed recluse. “It casts a backward shadow over my father’s whole life,” his eldest daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, told me. In 1994 Barrett, a professional writer who has done extensive research on her father’s life, published Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir . She found her father a loving, if workaholic, family man who was “basically an upbeat person, with down periods,” until his last decades, when, she admits, he retreated from public life and became unreasonable about the use of his music.
Was Berlin the Uncle Scrooge of American popular song or a regular guy who suffered from occasional bouts of the blues? I turned for advice to Robert Kimball, the musicologist widely considered the leading authority on American popular song. He worked with Berlin and is now compiling The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin with the assistance of Berlin’s second daughter, Linda. Kimball recommended Mary Ellin Barrett as the best source of both factual and personal information about her father. I asked him if the music world’s general perception of Berlin as a terrible old man was true. Absolutely not, he said. When I told him I thought it crucial in a show written to make Berlin relevant to my generation to address the darker (and more interesting) side of his character, Kimball tried gently to dissuade me. Like all the people I spoke to who were close to Berlin, he is obviously very fond of him, and very protective. Whatever his public reputation, in his private life Berlin was a much loved man.
With a list of the songs I would sing in the show as my road map, I ventured into what I soon realized was an extraordinary life.
He was born Israel Baline in 1888 in western Siberia, but his only memory of his native country was of himself lying huddled in a blanket, watching from the outskirts of town as Cossacks set fire to his Jewish neighborhood. His family (except for two older brothers) fled Russia and landed at Ellis Island in 1893. Settled in a Lower East Side tenement, the whole family went to work. Berlin sold newspapers in the streets and first became fascinated by popular songs when he stationed himself outside the busy taverns of the Bowery and Chinatown to catch the music pouring through the doors. According to his daughter, his father, a cantor, died when he was twelve; the boy was forced to end his education in grade school and go to work full-time. He began to sing for pennies in the streets of the Lower East Side in a high, thin, quavering voice that must have carried well.