- Historic Sites
A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
By the mid-1950s, his daughter writes, “… his ragged nerves, lack of sleep, and general dilapidation—all those problems triggered or aggravated by his wartime exertions —had culminated in a severe depression, far graver than the walking depression of the ‘dry spell’; a nervous breakdown that would last several years, involve periods of hospitalization (at New York Hospital and at Silver Hill in Connecticut) and cause him to say he was retired.” He pulled himself out of his depression to write Mr. President in 1962, but the show failed.
The man who had worked since he was five was now truly retired from show business. In the early 1970s he still enjoyed going out with his New York friends. With his theatrical lawyer Abe Berman and his close friend the composer Harold Arlen he saw the controversial film Last Tango in Paris , which he summed up as “very long, very dirty, Brando brilliant.” His favorite television show was “All in the Family.”
Barrett expresses great sadness at his final decades. “The Irving Berlin I knew when I was growing up didn’t suddenly disappear, to be replaced by some sort of reclusive misanthrope,” she writes. “Little by little, as the world knows, my father became a recluse, seeing only his immediate family (and not all that often). … With the rest of the world, my hidden-away father kept in touch by phone … with what old friends or relatives remained [and with] younger telephone friends. … But friends were only a part of a vast network of callers, for my father continued to run his business from home. The character he presented in his eighties and nineties depended to some extent on who was at the other end of the phone. To strangers, or acquaintances who wanted something he didn’t want to give, he was a disagreeable, out-of-touch old man who said no and guarded the use of his songs, of everything to do with him, beyond reason.” Robert Kimball told me: “You have to remember that thirty or forty years after most people retire, he was still running his own business. His body had given out, but his mind was still clear, so he felt a responsibility to himself and to his work to stay in charge as long as he could.” He adds, “It was easier to say no, so he said no.”
He refused to use tax shelters, saying: “I want to pay taxes. I love this country.”
He spent much of his time in his study, always his favorite room anyway. Even in his ninety-ninth year he painted, worked on songs, and kept in touch with family and friends with dozens of short phone calls. Kimball recalls that Berlin “always wanted to know all about what you were doing. He never wanted to talk about himself.”
By his hundredth birthday he was badly incapacitated and nearly blind. His wife died two months later, and several months after that he had a stroke that left him in a coma from which he was not expected to emerge. A week later he opened his eyes and complained he was cold. He lived another nine months until September 22, 1989, when he died at the age of one hundred and one.
To read and write about him was one thing; to perform a seventy-five-minute show about him five times a week was quite another. Because people came expecting to hear mostly music, I tried to keep my narrative to a minimum.
It was hard. There was so much about him that I wanted to say. By now I had become so steeped in his life and his songs and so determined to get my audiences as excited about him as I was that he was on my mind all the time. I could see him: five feet six, 130 pounds, nattily dressed, bright, intelligent, suspicious, a gum-chewing bundle of nerves. The Life magazine writer George Frazier described his face as “seamed … not unlike a prune with brooding eyes” and his manner as “intensely nervous. He has such habits as tapping his listener with his index finger to emphasize a point, continually pressing his hair down in back, and picking up any stray crumbs left on a table after a meal. While listening, he leans forward tensely, with his hands clasped below his knees like a prizefighter waiting in his corner for the bell.” I felt I knew him: a survivor, a worker, driven, jumpy, tired, determined, in his daughter’s words: “A man always … with his back against the wall, writing, composing, negotiating his way out of a corner.”