- Historic Sites
A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
His first wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba in 1912 and died just months after their return. When he finally remarried in 1926, his bride’s father, a Long Island multimillionaire businessman, so opposed the match that he stopped speaking to her and cut her off without a cent. The newspapers pounced on the story of the Lower East Side street kid and the disinherited heiress. Photographers followed them everywhere, ruining their European honeymoon and engendering in Berlin a lifelong hatred of publicity about his private life. The couple’s second child, their only son, died at the age of three weeks on Christmas Day in 1928. Berlin lost five million dollars overnight in the stock market crash of 1929. His sister Sarah committed suicide, and he himself suffered from periods of depression all his life.
As a young man he wrote off as “dry spells” the periods when he disliked everything he wrote and worried that he would never again come up with another hit. (“The trouble with success is that you have to keep being successful,” he said.) All through the late 1920s and early 1930s he had a “dry spell.” Thirty years later, when he suffered a prolonged, severe depression, he told his family: “I should have gone to someone years ago. It’s too late now.” But in the 1920s he and his wife had made fun of psycho-analysis. He worked his own way out of his “spells” by secluding himself in his study, toiling away on songs and shows no matter how bad he felt. He expected his collaborators to work as relentlessly as he did. Moss Hart said after he lived with Berlin for four months while writing the book for Face the Music (1932), “You not only write a show with Irving Berlin, you live it, breathe it, eat it, and were it not for the fact that he allows you to sleep not at all, I should also say you sleep it.”
As Berlin plunged into writing a new revue based on newspaper headlines of the day, As Thousands Cheer , he heard Ethel Waters singing his friend Harold Arlen’s song “Stormy Weather” in the Cotton Club in Harlem and immediately signed her for the show. Impressed by her unique talent—she was the first singer to combine jazz and blues timing and feeling with the diction and dramatic instinct of a first-rate actress—he gave her equal billing with the show’s three white stars. (They balked at taking bows with a black person but quickly capitulated when he offered them the option of taking no bows at all.) He wrote three great songs especially for her: “Supper Time,” “Harlem on My Mind,” and “Heat Wave.”
“Supper Time,” one of Berlin’s most beautiful and dramatic compositions and one of the few to reveal his social conscience, was so controversial that he had to fight to keep it in his own show. The usually glamorous Waters, wearing a plain housedress and head kerchief, stood in front of a blown-up headline: UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB . The lyric is the internal monologue of the victim’s widow as she ponders how to break the news to their children. Because he avoided any reference to race, death, or lynching in the lyrics—only the staging and the headline linked the song to a specific situation—I believe that Berlin hoped “Supper Time” might strike a universal chord and have life beyond the show. As a white woman in the 1990s, I feel it and sing it as the song of any woman whose husband has died, or been killed, or abandoned his family. It is the strongest and saddest song I sing, and to perform it is always a powerful and transforming experience for me.
When Berlin was lured to Hollywood to write the score for the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat , he soon became known as a brilliant negotiator. The producer Pandro Berman called him “the toughest trader I’ve ever met in the film business, the hardest-headed businessman I’ve ever known.” Berlin invented the now-common practice of accepting less money in advance in exchange for 10 percent of the gross profits. He made sure the second person in Hollywood to have such a contract was a tap dancer who was one of his favorite singers, Fred Astaire. The two men loved to play gin rummy together, and they quickly became good friends. Both were perfectionists about their work and their elegant wardrobes, and both doted on their wives, who were themselves close friends.
My favorite Fred and Ginger musical is Follow the Fleet (1936), the film that first made me aware of Berlin’s ability to write entirely different kinds of songs. I chose three of them for my CD: the swinging minor-key dance-hall number “Let Yourself Go,” the exuberant “I’d Rather Lead a Band,” and the somber and sensual “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” one of the great dramatic dance numbers in the history of musicals and one of his loveliest melodies.