- Historic Sites
A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
But even in 1938 this sweet little song generated hostility from critics left, right, and center. Liberal commentators attacked it as jingoistic, flag-waving, and sentimental. On the right, according to a 1940 Time magazine story, the song “brought on a wave of snide anti-Semitism directed at composer Berlin. Frequent are the letters to Collins [Kate Smith’s manager] berating him as an Irishman for swelling Jewish coffers.” Even the simple and innocent title phrase sparked controversy on both sides. Leftists decried the song’s lack of respect for the separation of church and state; right-wingers expressed rage that a non-Christian not even born in this country should presume he had the right to tell God to bless it.
Berlin must have been deeply injured by the uproar over his modest and heartfelt song. As his daughter points out, “He wrote ‘land that I love,’ not ‘land that we love.’” When I sang the last few bars of the song in the show, I asked my audiences (and reminded myself) to forget any past associations and listen to it with new ears, as the love song of a grateful immigrant to the country that had saved his life and enabled him to make a fortune.
The Bergreen book is rife with examples of the multimillionaire Berlin’s miserliness to long-time employees and acquaintances, and even the highly favorable article George Frazier published in Life fifty years earlier states: “… it has been Berlin’s peculiar fate to be regarded primarily as a penny-pinching manipulator rather than a man of unbounded generosity.” It is certain that he was capable of extreme acts of parsimony, but a knowledge of his early years of desperate poverty makes them understandable. As an eight-year-old he barely escaped drowning in the East River; rescued just in time, he was coughing up water but still clutching the pennies he’d earned selling newspapers that day. It’s not surprising that a boy who had slept under tenement steps should be haunted by the specter of poverty no matter how much money he had. He agonized over every development in the music business—such as phonograph records, which killed his sheet-music sales—until he was sure he would benefit financially from it. He was understandably outraged when his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” went into public domain after fifty years. Undeniably a tightwad at times, he was also capable of astonishing acts of generosity, including one even greater than giving up all royalties from “God Bless America.”
Shortly after America’s entry into World War II, he decided to write a show to raise funds for the government. This Is the Army opened on Broadway on the Fourth of July, 1942, and was an immediate success. Berlin performed in it for the duration of its New York run, toured all over the country with it, and then went to Hollywood to make the film adaptation. During the world tour of U.S. Army posts, he worked under physical conditions ranging from uncomfortable to perilous. The show kept him away from his family for three and a half years. He took neither salary nor expenses for his work and turned over the show’s entire profit, nearly ten million dollars, to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
He returned home an exhausted and depleted man desperately in need of a long rest, but he was never good at resting. He was persuaded to step in and write the score for Annie Get Your Gun when the original composer, Jerome Kern, his friend since 1912, died suddenly. Worried he wasn’t capable of writing songs for a folkloric book musical, a kind of show he’d never done before, he tested himself by holing up with his transposing piano in a hotel room for the weekend to see what he came up with. He returned to New York with “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” has been one of the most important songs in my life ever since I discovered the “secret” song hidden away in the more reflective extra lyrics of the old sheet-music edition: “The costumes, the scen’ry, the make-up, the props / The audience that lifts you when you’re down / The head-aches, the heartaches, the back-aches, the flops / The sheriff who escorts you out of town / The opening when your heart beats like a drum / The closing, when the customers won’t come,” and “You get word before the show has started / that your fav’rite Uncle died at dawn / Top of that, your Pa and Ma have parted / You’re broken-hearted, but you go on.” I gave it the place of prominence in my own show, the last serious song before a short, upbeat closing number. It meant more to me than ever, now that I knew that he wrote it after a grueling world tour, years of separation from his family, and a weekend of floor pacing and self-doubt in a New Jersey hotel room.
Annie Get Your Gun was a hit, but his next show, Miss Liberty , was his first flop in forty years of Broadway success. After his sixtieth birthday he spent his life battling depression. Even the success of his show Call Me Madam (1950) lifted his spirits only fleetingly.