Book Review: A Documentary Biography of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin fans will be pleased to see such items as the complete Jerome Kern letter (written in 1925!) in which Kern writes, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC.”

The Irving Berlin Reader. Edited by Benjamin Sears. Oxford University Press, 219 pages, $35.

By Michael Ullman

“There is, of course, some kind of a tale behind every song,” wrote Irving Berlin in a letter to the editor of Variety in 1942, “but mostly songs are written because one is a songwriter.” “Writing songs,” he added, “is his business.” It’s a typically matter-of-fact statement from a man whose first rule of song writing was “keep it simple” and whose advice to other songwriters was to work, as he did, almost ceaselessly. It may have been simple, but it wasn’t easy. Berlin, who was born Israel Baline in Russia on May 11, 1888, left his overcrowded, fatherless home on the Lower East Side when he was 14. Later he told his first biographer, Alexander Woolcott, that he was disturbed that he was contributing less to his large family than the least of his sisters. So, “he went on the bum.” He lived in flophouses for the next two years, barely supporting himself by singing popular ballads in front of saloons in the Bowery. His father had taught him to sing “in the choir.” Now he learned the songs of the people, and their language, in the streets.

In 1902 he found a job in the chorus of a musical called The Show Girl but was soon fired. Self-educated, a two-handed piano player who could only play in the key of F#, he was nonetheless smitten with music, which for much of his career he could neither read or write. Music, he decided in his early teens, would be his ticket out of a slum where, as he says in the first article collected in the Reader, “the bums and the riffraff stayed and died off.”

His emergence from this nether world now seems almost miraculous and miraculously fast, as well as complete. Still named Izzy Baline, he wrote his first song, “Marie of Sunny Italy,” while working as a singing waiter at a place called, rudely by our standards, Nigger Mike’s. (Mike was a dark-skinned, Jewish man.) Berlin’s hero then was George M. Cohan, whose songs about show business (“Give My Regards to Broadway”) and eventually of patriotism (“Over There”) would set an example to the boy who would write the lyrics and music to hits like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “God Bless America.” Almost immediately, Berlin’s songs would be published: they would number around 1,500 by the time of his death at 101, and they would include iconic American songs including “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “Easter Parade” as well as still vibrant tunes for which he wrote both music and lyrics such as “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “All Alone,” and “How Deep is the Ocean.”

Without pretending to be a biography, The Irving Berlin Reader follows the path of Berlin’s long career from its beginnings to the forties in original documents and essays older and more recent. The arrangement makes sense. Some of the more recent academic essays treat Berlin’s early career: they are placed where they best tell Berlin’s story. Berlin fans will be pleased to see such items as the complete Jerome Kern letter (written in 1925!) in which Kern says, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC.” An impressive statement that of course ignores the emerging world of jazz. What Kern most admires is the way Berlin “honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people.”

Irving Berlin — a Russian emigrant. He put his ear to the ground and heard in the accents and expressions of American speech the rhythms, phrases, and subjects of a new music.

The book begins with “A Trip to Chinatown with Irving Berlin,” a 1947 article by Ward Morehouse. Having dinner with the 58-year-old, immensely wealthy Berlin, Morehouse was startled when the composer decided to drive him to the “tangle of the lower East Side” streets where Berlin got his start. The collection continues with a 1913 article called “The Boy Who Revived Ragtime.” This of course celebrates Berlin’s first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” At that point, Berlin was working as a lyricist for the Ted Snyder Company. (The article claims that . . . in 1913 . . . dozens of Berlin hits were known to all!) “Alexander” sold a million copies of sheet music in its first year.

Berlin would soon go out on his own and would write both lyrics and music for his hits. He was uniquely successful at song writing of course. Entering an entertainment world whose ideals were found in operetta, Berlin, the Russian emigrant, put his ear to the ground and heard in the accents and expressions of American speech the rhythms, phrases, and subjects of a new music. (He did so at a time when poets such as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens were doing something similar.) Many of Berlin’s songs begin with a colloquial expression repeated: he often attributed the success of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to its inviting opening line, “Come on and hear.” Berlin liked to call himself commercial. He was often self-deprecating, often, in fact, depressed. Yet in 1914, he said, “I can truthfully say that I have accomplished a number of things which were thought impossible. I have established the syncopated ballad and I have proven that the metre can be ‘chopped up’ to fit the words.”

He went on to write a series of revues, then musical comedies and movies, that established the composer as a star at a time when songwriters were seen as secondary at best to the performers. It was “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.” He had his own publishing company; he even created his own theater, the Music Box. He was eclectic: Alec Wilder complained that every Berlin song was different, that there was no Berlin style. The composer repeatedly described himself, however, as a self-plagiarist with just a half dozen tunes that he adapted over and over.

No one worked harder. My favorite tribute to the man comes from a letter by Robert Benchley, who worked with Berlin on the Fourth Music Box Revue. In the early rehearsals, all was confusion. “Then a little man in a tight-fitting suit, with his hands in his pockets, walks on from the wings…You expect to have him thrown out, he seems so casual and like an observer. They don’t throw him out, however, because he is Mr. Berlin. You are suddenly overcome with a feeling of tremendous futility.” To Benchley, Berlin’s efforts to create something out of chaos were miraculous: “For four months he has been working day and night, writing music, devising numbers, engaging principals and chorus, and having a terrible time with his digestion. And yet in all that time no one has heard him raise his voice. And in all that time no one has been hurt by him.” No one was hurt. A hard-nosed businessman, endlessly creative, Berlin was also, according to George S. Kaufman, “an incurable romanticist.” (Kaufman wanted to change Berlin’s lyric to the song “Always,” which Berlin had offered to his wife as a wedding present, from “I’ll be loving you,/Always” to “I’ll be loving you,/Thursdays.”

Robert Benchley — to him, Berlin’s efforts to create something out of chaos were miraculous.

Born in the nineteenth century when minstrelsy was current, Berlin didn’t always move with the times, though he certainly meant to. In 1942 he wrote the songs for the movie Holiday Inn, tunes that included “White Christmas” and the ballad “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” which Frank Sinatra would go on to sing gorgeously. In the midst of the movie, though, there was a blackface scene in which Bing Crosby sang “Abraham,” which celebrates Lincoln’s emancipation of the “darkies.” The Richmond Afro-American newspaper called Berlin on the carpet for the word. Berlin’s reaction? He not only ordered the word changed in the publication; he went to the AFRO’s offices to apologize. In 1933, one notes, he had written “Suppertime,” the lament of a woman whose husband was lynched.

Above all he was a man of the theater who demanded an audience. Though Top Hat and Follow the Fleet helped sustain his career, he was frustrated with movies because everything was done in advance and he couldn’t change the parts that didn’t work for audiences. His way of demonstrating a song was disconcerting. Numerous victims would describe him banging away at the piano and shouting his newest song virtually in the listener’s face. If the reaction wasn’t sufficiently animated, Berlin would junk the song, even if it turned out to be a masterpiece.

Berlin was a patriot as well as a master showman. During the First World War, drafted, he put on a show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, featuring soldiers including himself singing “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning!” He had a climax in mind. In the last scene, the soldiers were to march out of the theater and into waiting trucks as if they were headed off immediately to France. He had a song already written for this bit of business, but he decided it wouldn’t work. He held onto “God Bless America” until 1939, when an even more threatening new war made the sentimental ballad seem appropriate.

The Irving Berlin Reader avoids talking about the embittered, and most silent, last decades of Berlin’s long life. Its last section is a collection of letters, mostly by Berlin. There’s one whose simplicity catches the eye and the heart: in 1946, having starred in the late theatrical masterpiece Annie Get Your Gun, with songs like “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” and “They Say It’s Wonderful,” Ethel Merman wrote Berlin a one word letter: “Thanks.”

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

1 Comment

  1. Evelyn Rosenthal on July 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Nice review! My favorite detail–“he could only play in the key of F sharp”! He wrote so many amazing songs, including “Suppertime,” the one about a lynching, which you mentioned. There’s a great version of that on Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the Irving Berlin Songbook, which is a wonderful compilation of some of his best songs, sung by one of our best singers.

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