A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
Like most baby boomers, I grew up hearing his songs and taking them for granted. I never gave a thought to who Irving Berlin was or how he had come to write the music that flowed through our lives. In the 1970s I saw a newspaper photograph of him singing “God Bless America” in the Nixon White House during Watergate and immediately consigned both him and the song to the “wrong” side.
When I became a singer specializing in American popular song, I still resisted his appeal—this time not because of his politics but because of his success. By now I knew he had more hits than any of the other songwriters, and although in my performances I’d throw in a couple of songs from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, cute rhythm numbers like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Cheek to Cheek,” I gravitated to writers I didn’t think were as famous as they deserved to be, like Harry Warren and Yip Harburg and Leo Robin.
I’d seen pictures of Irving Berlin on sheet-music covers. A small man with slicked-back dark hair and heavy brows that gave him a stern look, he was always peering out from behind a piano. Nothing in his appearance or his lyrics made me curious to know more about him. I’d noticed that of the top five songwriters, only he and Cole Porter wrote both words and music. I adored Cole Porter for his instantly recognizable style—witty, sophisticated, dirty—but wrote off Irving Berlin as some old guy who had written a lot of songs and got lucky. Then, in reading about Porter—a wealthy, Yale-educated Midwesterner who hobnobbed with royalty in the nightclubs of Paris—I discovered that as a songwriter he was considered a laughingstock and an amateur until he was into his late thirties. The one music professional to encourage him was Irving Berlin; he got Porter the show that launched his career. Berlin, who grew up in a Lower East Side tenement, had engineered a major career break for a potential competitor who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I started to like this guy.
Twenty years had passed since I’d first begun singing professionally. A whole new generation was coming to appreciate the great standards of the 1930s and 1940s. I’d had some experiences in life and love and felt ready to add some of Berlin’s torch songs to my repertoire: “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Better Luck Next Time,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “How About Me?” I found their complex melodies and evocative lyrics so different from his swing songs that they might have been by another writer. Browsing through a friend’s sheet-music collection, I discovered in an original copy of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” some extra verses and choruses that made that brassy warhorse a whole new song for me, a somber hymn to survival, a torch song about life. I started doing a slow version of it, and every time I sang a sad line, I felt closer to him. I decided to give at last what I had begrudged him all the years I had been performing his songs: my full attention.
In the two decades before his death in 1989, Irving Berlin was said to be a crotchety old man who kept people from performing his work. Beverly Sills was refused the rights to Call Me Madam . Steven Spielberg didn’t get to use the 1925 song “Always” in his movie of that name. Berlin was the only songwriter who refused to have even a single bar of his music reprinted in Alec Wilder’s definitive book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 . In his biography of Berlin, As Thousands Cheer , Laurence Bergreen writes that when Wilder’s collaborator, James Maher, told Berlin that Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers were allowing use of their music, Berlin responded: “You know, you guys are lying to me. I goddamn well don’t believe for one minute that they let you use their music. That’s bullshit!”
Once he was gone, his publishing company reversed his policy, and Irving Berlin shows and tributes popped up everywhere. Along with other singers of standards I was sent, unsolicited, a handsome six-volume set of his work: Ragtime and Early Songs, Novelty Songs, Ballads, Broadway Songs, Movie Songs , and Patriotic Songs .
As I read through every song, I began to see his versatility as a gift rather than as cause for suspicion. His lyrics, which I’d always found well crafted but plain, now struck me as purposely simple and direct. And if he didn’t give much of himself in his songs, I now saw it as a conscious choice rather than an artistic shortcoming. In scope, quantity, and quality his work was amazing.
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.
At fourteen he was legally old enough to be employed as a singing waiter, and he left home to prove he could fend for himself. It seems likely that he was also eager to put the language and customs of the old country behind him and begin living as a real American, speaking English and trading quips in the new slang with other struggling young immigrants excited to have the opportunity to invent new identities for themselves. Waiting on tables until six or seven in the morning, he soaked up the sounds that later emerged in his own hugely varied body of work: barroom ballads, ethnic songs, folksongs, novelty songs, ragtime, the blues, and jazz. He slept under tenement steps, ate scraps, and wore secondhand clothes. He later described those years as hard but good. “Every man should have a Lower East Side in his life,” he said.
He broke into Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, but performing wasn’t enough for him. As he later told an interviewer, “Once you start singing, you start thinking of writing your own songs.” Still working as a waiter, he and the house piano player at Mike Salter’s café accepted their boss’s challenge to come up with a hit song to generate business for the restaurant. They wrote “Marie From Sunny Italy” and earned seventy-five cents in royalties. At first Berlin confined himself to writing lyrics, since he couldn’t read or write music or play any instrument. He became his own composer when he showed up at a publishing house with a novelty lyric and was offered a quick sale for the complete song. He made up a tune on the spot and sang it to a pianist in the office who wrote it out. For the rest of his life Berlin dictated his tunes to a musical secretary. His annotators and arrangers over the years included songwriters who later had considerable success of their own: Harry Akst, Arthur Johnston, Harry Ruby, Dave Dreyer. When George Gershwin auditioned for the job, Berlin turned him away, telling him, “You’ve got more talent than an arranger needs.”
An energetic and enterprising young man, Berlin ventured farther uptown, persuading name artists to sing his songs and placing some of his work in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911. That same year, at the age of only twenty-three, he had his first international hit with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” A few years later he was the richest and most famous songwriter in the world.
He soon revealed himself to be as gifted in business as he was in music. In 1914 he became a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), founded to protect songwriters’ rights and collect royalties for their work. Cautious with his considerable fortune, he moved to protect his work and make good investments for the future. His first step was to buy up the rights to all the songs he had ever written and go into business as Irving Berlin, Inc. He then turned to real estate. In 1921 the man who had spent his childhood in an airless tenement apartment with an outside toilet bought himself the top two floors of a West Forty-sixth Street brownstone with grilled windows, skylights, and a sumptuous bathroom. That same year, he and his partner, Sam Harris, built their own theater to house—and make more money from—their shows. The Music Box Theater still stands today at 239 West Forty-fifth Street.
Bright and witty, a self-made man of enormous and widely acknowledged accomplishment, Berlin must have loved being a leading cultural player in midtown Manhattan. He began turning up at the Algonquin Round Table in 1922 and soon found himself conducting the show No Sirree , with Robert Sherwood singing a Dorothy Parker song, Tallulah Bankhead dancing in the chorus line, and Robert Benchley delivering a comic monologue. At the painter Neysa McMein’s parties he often spent the evening sitting at the piano in the corner, composing a new tune. He was an insomniac who preferred to work at night anyway.
In his singing-waiter days he had taught himself to plink out a melody in F sharp, which uses all five black keys. In 1910 his mentor George M. Cohan gave him a transposing piano. A lever under the keyboard enabled a pianist to change keys without changing fingering. Berlin used a transposing piano all his life to hear his melodies in different keys; the instrument, which he referred to as “Buick,” accompanied him on all his travels. His writing method was to come up first with an idea and a title, then the main musical theme, and finally to work out the words and music simultaneously. “Writing both words and music,” he explained, “I can compose them together and make them fit. I sacrifice one for the other. If I have a melody I want to use, I plug away at the lyrics until I make them fit the best parts of my music and vice versa.”
It was during his Algonquin days that the Round Table member Alexander Woollcott wrote the one book about Berlin that he allowed to appear in his lifetime. The more I read about his personal life, the easier it is to understand why he didn’t want it revealed. A Daughter’s Memoir chronicles the emotional and professional blows he absorbed and somehow survived. He seldom spoke of any of them, even with his own family.
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.
Any show about Irving Berlin had to include at least a few bars from two of his best-known songs, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” To hear the original version of “White Christmas” I rented the video of Holiday Inn and was delighted to discover all the holiday songs he wrote for it that didn’t become hits. With my pianist, I put together a medley called “A Calendar Year of the Holidays According to Irving Berlin.” The Lincoln’s Birthday song, “Abraham,” is both fervent and funny, featuring lines like “The country’s going to the dogs / They shouted loud and strong / Then from a cabin made of logs / The right man came along.” The Washington’s Birthday song, “I Can’t Tell a Lie,” strikes me as one of Berlin’s most contrived and worst executed ever both lyrically and melodically, but its very awkwardness endeared him to me. I could imagine him struggling to come up with a song idea for a holiday nobody needs a song for—and Bing Crosby trying to keep a straight face as he performed it in a powdered pigtail wig and period costume. I love the hot-jazz Fourth of July song, “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers.” “Plenty to Be Thankful For,” the Thanksgiving song, is heard only as a brief instrumental in the film, but the sheet music reveals a lilting melody and graceful lyrics—a real find. I ended with “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” another good number. The Valentine’s Day song, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” was expected to be the big song of the movie, but it was “White Christmas” that swept the country. It quickly became the number one hit in Europe too, as GIs stationed abroad during World War II responded to one of the great homesick songs of all time. When he wrote it, Berlin was homesick himself, stuck out West writing a film score and missing his wife and daughters in New York, which may be the reason for the little-known but very appealing verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green / the orange and palm trees sway / There’s never been such a day / in Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it’s December the twenty-fourth / And I’m longing to be up north.”
Jazz musicians and the sociologist-song buff Sam Kaplan are not the first people I’ve ever heard criticize the Jewish Berlin for writing songs for Christian holidays, but I don’t believe, as they do, that he did it out of crass commercialism. His holiday songs are so evocative both to hear and to sing, I felt sure he really enjoyed special occasions. His daughter told me he and his wife liked to celebrate every single holiday, religious and secular, major and minor, with their children. “They seemed to understand the importance, particularly in childhood, of the special day, the same every year, the special stories, foods, and decorations and that special sense of well-being that accompanies a holiday. … We had a double set, Jewish and Christian, along with all the national and folk days. …”
Barrett describes her father as a religious agnostic. “He was consumed by patriotism,” she told me. It does seem that patriotism rather than religion was the driving moral force in his life. He often said, “I owe all my success to my adopted country,” and once rejected his lawyers’ advice to put his money into tax shelters, insisting, “I want to pay taxes. I love this country.” His passionate faith in the American way inspired dozens of his songs and transformed him from an Al Smith Democrat and ardent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt into a pro-war Republican during the Vietnam years. One of his proudest achievements was the public’s spontaneous acceptance of his patriotic song “God Bless America,” which immediately became a populist national anthem as well known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”
I couldn’t conceive of leaving out so famous a Berlin song as “God Bless America,” so I sneaked it into the holiday medley on the pretext that it had been introduced on Armistice Day. Berlin originally wrote it for a World War I military revue, then decided it was wrong for that show. When the singer Kate Smith asked him for a new song for her Armistice Day broadcast in 1938, he dug it out from his files, wrote a new verse, and made a few changes in the chorus. The day after she sang it, people swarmed music stores, clamoring for sheet music and the record. Thrilled, Berlin immediately acted to distance “God Bless America” from his commercial songs by donating all royalties in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.
In the 1960s and 1970s the song became a rallying theme of the American right. It was during these years that many of us who opposed the war in Vietnam groaned at its very sound and wrote off Irving Berlin as an old reprobate.
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.
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 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.”
All the treasured details that I couldn’t fit into the show ran through my mind as I deliberately spent the daylight hours of my month-long engagement in solitude. I visualized him working all night in his study, pacing, worrying, suffering from indigestion, insomnia, and self-doubt. I thought of the drowning boy who held on tight to his handful of pennies and grew up into a man who made, lost, and gave away millions. I memorized the text of his 1933 letter to Cole Porter: “Dear Cole: I am mad about NIGHT AND DAY , and I think it is your high spot. You probably know it is being played all over, and all the orchestra leaders think it is the best tune of the year—and I agree with them. Really, Cole, it is great and I could not resist the temptation of writing you about it.” I pictured him in Hollywood, haggling over contracts and playing cards with Fred Astaire. I savored his daughter’s description of him at her parties, listening intently to the latest hit songs and plying her friends with questions about their music. I was touched by the willingness of an anxious and insecure man to recognize and praise the young songwriters he thought talented when their careers waxed as his waned: Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein. I was saddened by his description to Kimball at the end of his career: “It was as if I owned a store and people no longer wanted to buy what I had to sell.”
I sang to relaxed, happy audiences songs he hammered out in isolation, in dogged determination, and even in despair: “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Love and the Weather,” “Heat Wave,” “How Deep Is the Ocean.” The holiday-songs medley was especially rewarding. I loved hearing audiences chime in on “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” I recounted briefly the storm of criticism generated by “God Bless America” in 1938 and then sang just the last half of it quietly and reflectively, often seeing and hearing people cry, sometimes having to fight back tears myself when I thought of why he had written it, all he had gone through over it, and how much (and how unfairly) I had once despised it. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “This Year’s Kisses,” “I’d Rather, Lead a Band,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And finally, “The Song Is Ended.”
The more I talked about him and thought about him, the more moved I was by his life and his spirit of survival. I forgave him everything. I was grateful for his very existence. I understand why people close to him are so defensive about the paranoia and negativity of his last years. I am that way myself now. It’s important to remember him for the eighty years he gave away everything rather than for the twenty years when, depressed and disabled, he couldn’t find it in himself to give any more. The old man, sensing himself sinking into infirmity and oblivion, clutched the songs that were the fruit of a lifetime of unrelenting labor as tightly as that drowning child clutched the pennies that were his day’s earnings. He was a remarkable man, a great man, and his is a great story.
The engagement ended, and I had to turn my attention to other projects, but Irving Berlin remains a strong presence in my life. I am always glad to revive my show about him in other cities and tell new audiences what it took me so long to discover: what a gifted and special human being this tough, determined man was.
Barrett writes that her father “was convinced that he would be forgotten, that it was a laugh to think people would sing his songs in the next century.” But as we inch toward the millennium, his songs still accompany our daily lives, piped into supermarkets and elevators and dentists’ offices, creating the mood for romantic scenes in new movies, recorded not just by singers of standards—but by rock and country and opera singers too. Recent television ads have pitched children’s clothing to the strains of “Easter Parade,” a hay fever remedy to “Blue Skies,” a car to “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” A New York revival of his 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer had a sold-out run this past spring.
Last year I started giving workshops in American popular song to kids at Lincoln Center. To prepare for the class, I made a list of ten classic pop songs I thought would best capture young ears and imaginations. Half of them turned out to be by Irving Berlin. I begin the hour by reassuring the kids that I’m not trying to talk them out of liking their own music, I just want them to know that down the road there’s a big bunch of old songs with beautiful melodies and good words that they should know about, not just because this music is loved all over the world but because as you get older, they are such good company when you’re thinking about love and life. I tell them I’m going to sing a song about how wonderful it is to dance close with somebody you like a lot and promise them that if they haven’t experienced the sensation yet, they soon will. Then I sing them “Cheek to Cheek.” I tell them about the man who wrote it, a five-year-old child whose family was driven out of Russia after soldiers burned his house down, a boy who had to quit school in the sixth grade when his father died, a teenager who might easily have done nothing with his life but instead did everything. I sing them the hit song he wrote when he was only twenty-three, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and they often start clapping along spontaneously to its irresistible beat. Then I ask, “Has anyone here ever heard of Irving Berlin?” No hands go up. “You may not know his name, but you know three of his songs,” I tell them. They shake their heads skeptically. “I’m going to start humming. Call out the name of the song the second you guess what it is,” I say. It never takes more than eight notes before I hear the heartening sound of a hundred young voices shouting out: “‘Easter Parade’!” “‘White Christmas’!” and “‘God Bless America’!”