Israel Beilin was born on May 11, 1888, in the western Siberian town of Tyumen, Russia. Called Izzy, he was the youngest of eight children of Moses Beilin, an itinerant cantor, and his wife, Leah. It was a dangerous time for Jews in his homeland. The 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, for which Jews had been wrongly blamed, had unleashed ever-increasing violent waves of pogroms that would continue for decades. Beilin and his family came face to face with the horrors of the systematic persecution and slaughter of Jews in Russia when, in 1893, the family home was deliberately burned to the ground. Izzy was only 5. He and his parents were forced to flee the country in the hope of finding a better existence in the United States.
Life in a New York tenement was hard for the Baline family — the new name apparently a misspelling of Beilin on documents prepared by an Ellis Island clerk. Mother, father and seven children (the eldest had remained in Russia) lived in a tiny windowless apartment. While the income Israel’s father made as cantor at the local synagogue provided only a mere subsistence, the family was nevertheless together and safe. Admiring Izzy’s ‘clear, true soprano voice,’ the elder Baline encouraged his son to develop his musical talents at an early age.
When Israel was 8, his father died, apparently of natural causes, putting a strain on an already meager family budget. As soon as he was able to help support his family at age 13, Izzy quit school and worked for pennies as a street singer outside cabarets. During the next few years, he performed as a chorus boy in thea-trical productions, a stooge in vaudeville, a singing waiter and a song plugger who introduced new songs in music stores by singing them. He had little education and could never read or write music with ease. His shining assets were his talent and the strong determination of a hungry young man eager to put food on the table.
As the years passed, Izzy continued his hard work and eventually, at age 19, he wrote his first collaborative song as the lyricist of ‘Marie from Sunny Italy.’ Whether a printer’s error or the writer’s conscious choice, the sheet music for the song attributed the words to I. Berlin, and ‘I’ soon stood for Irving. Exactly when and why Israel Baline became Irving Berlin is unclear. Four years later, in 1911, he published his first big hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ and attracted fans from all over the world. He had absorbed everything around him, concentrating on learning all he could about music and lyrics, and it was beginning to pay off.
In 1912 Berlin fell head over heels in love with the perfect girl. Dorothy Goetz meant the world to him, and he saw nothing but a rosy future when she consented to be his wife. They were married later that year and enjoyed a blissful honeymoon in Cuba. Irving finally seemed to have everything for which he had worked so hard. Then disaster struck: Five months after their return to New York, his beloved Dorothy died, perhaps of typhoid fever she had contracted in Cuba.
Berlin was so devastated that he entered what he called a composing ‘dry spell,’ and went abroad to seek relief. He seemed to be defeated until, encouraged by his brother-in-law and former songwriting partner, Ray Goetz, he decided to write about his grief rather than run from it. The result was a beautiful, bittersweet waltz, ‘When I Lost You.’ Berlin later admitted it was the most personal song he ever wrote. It also marked his return to Tin Pan Alley and the rebirth of his musical career. Success followed success and he soon became a major Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter. Money came rolling in at an annual rate of about $100,000.
Lucrative opportunities opened up on Broadway and elsewhere. Berlin had already written songs for the famous Ziegfeld Follies (and continued to do so until 1927), and by World War I he had produced the scores for two Broadway shows, including Watch Your Step. His songs had generated wide international appeal.
During World War I, while serving as a private in the U.S. Army at Long Island’s Camp Upton, Berlin bolstered military morale by writing the music for a 1918 show titled Yip Yip Yaphank, featuring ‘Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.’ This song spoke to the hatred Berlin, a lifelong insomniac, and thousands of other draftees felt toward Army hours and reveille. ‘God Bless America’ was originally composed for Yip Yip Yaphank. When it didn’t fit with the other songs, however, he set it aside. Some 20 years later, while preparing to write a peace song for Kate Smith in 1938, he remembered it and dusted off the piece. He wrote new lyrics, and the revamped song made that Armistice Day particularly memorable.
His natural talent for business led him into music publishing. In 1919 Berlin split from his publishing partner, Ted Snyder, and established his own publishing house. Its first publication was ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,’ still popular today as a background melody for fashion shows and beauty contests. By 1920 he had obtained great fame and enough money to build his own Broadway theater, the Music Box, which was specifically designed to showcase his works. In the years following, he produced, wrote and presented annual shows referred to as The Music Box Revue, in the manner of other musical revues of the day, such as George White’s Scandals and Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies. He was so prolific that Ziegfeld and other producers picked up many of his songs for their shows.
Fourteen years after his first marriage, Berlin fell in love again, and in 1926 he married Ellin Mackay. They had three daughters, Mary Ellin, Linda Louise and Elizabeth, and one son, Irving Jr., who died in infancy on Christmas Day in 1928.
Berlin’s career lasted for 54 years. He is indisputably regarded as the most successful and prolific popular songwriter of his era. His large body of work includes the scores for 19 Broadway musicals, the best known being the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts (1925), Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950). Meanwhile, when the era of talking pictures began in the late 1920s, Berlin was summoned to Hollywood, where he would write music for 18 movies, including three of 10 films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936) and Carefree (1938) — as well as Holiday Inn (1942) and Easter Parade (1948).
Throughout his career Irving Berlin was rarely a musical leader or innovator, but he always seemed to have his finger on the American pulse. His works were simple, usually easy to sing, and they spoke of universal subjects — love, loyalty and generosity — to which his listeners could easily relate. Especially known for his elegant ballads, he also composed dance numbers, novelty tunes and love songs that followed American popular music styles for much of the 20th century.
He created ragtime songs, songs based on the various dance crazes in the 1920s, optimistic songs during the Depression, big band swing numbers at the end of the 1930s, and musical theater scores like those of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the ’40s and ’50s. Amazingly, many of his songs outlived the eras for which they were created. An example is ‘White Christmas.’ Written in 1942, it is still the best-selling single song in American history. Berlin’s other timeless classics include ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).’ One commentator remarked that Berlin had a ‘chameleon-like ability to adapt to the latest trends and styles in popular music.’ This helped to sustain his popularity for several decades, with more than 1,500 songs to his credit.
The determined composer became respected in the music world despite never having learned how to read music or play the piano properly. During the years when he should have been in school, he was busy surviving on the streets any way he could. Nevertheless, he plunked out tunes on the piano and wrote the lyrics. Then he would engage an assistant to transcribe the musical notation and arrangements into proper form. Berlin only knew how to play the black keys (the key of F#) on his piano; he compensated by using a special transposing piano with a lever that mechanically changed the key signature and, consequently, the vocal range of the song.
Writing songs was never an easy task for him. No matter how many years passed and how much experience he had, he could never shake himself free of the feeling that, as he once commented, ‘My life depends on my accomplishing a song.’ Berlin was always under nervous strain when composing. When he wrote the verse and refrain to ‘God Bless America,’ an associate said he worked very hard, ‘like a woman in labor and about to give birth.’
Berlin was well aware that his songs were not as sophisticated or clever as those of the composers he admired — George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. Even though he had gained millions of loyal fans around the world, throughout his life Berlin had a deep insecurity about the quality of his music. Once, a woman who met Berlin at a party exclaimed, ‘I guess there’s no one who has written as many hits as you have!’ He replied, ‘I know there’s no one who has written so many failures.’ Perhaps his childhood experiences — initially cruel, and then impoverished and challenging — taught him that good times and comfort could be fragile, temporary luxuries.
Irving Berlin became a familiar and honored part of American life and remains beloved today. Just the mention of his name can provoke a warm smile of recognition. Appropriately, he was honored many times for his loyalty to the United States, and for his accomplishments and generosity. In 1945 President Harry Truman awarded him the Army’s Medal of Merit for his patriotism during the two world wars. In 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him the Congressional Gold Medal for ‘God Bless America’ and his many other patriotic contributions to popular music. In 1977 President Gerald Ford awarded him the Medal of Freedom for his contributions during times of national conflict. In addition, through his foundations, Berlin donated millions in royalties to the Army Emergency Relief fund and to the country’s Boy and Girl Scouts.
When he retired in 1974 at 86, Berlin donated his unique transposing piano to the Smithsonian Institution in Washing-ton, D.C., and his World War I Army ‘doughboy’ uniform to the Museum of American Jewish Military History, also in Washington. He lived out his last years in New York City, almost as a recluse, seeing few friends and mainly communicating with the outside world by telephone.
Berlin declined to attend a gala celebrating his 100th birthday on May 11, 1988, though he tacitly approved of the event. The all-star tribute at Carnegie Hall featured such varied stars of the musical world as Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Leonard Bernstein, Nell Carter, Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Horne, Isaac Stern, Natalie Cole and Willie Nelson, as well as notables Walter Cronkite and Garrison Keillor.
Irving Berlin died peacefully in his sleep on September 22, 1989, one year after the death of his wife Ellin, with whom he had shared 62 years of marriage. He was survived by his three daughters, nine grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and his unforgettable place in the annals of American history.
This article was written by Paula Anne Greten and originally published in the August 2006 issue of American History Magazine.
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