Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Irving Berlin: Made in America

 Great Artists

Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life.
Irving Berlin 

The toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in this business. You've got to keep on working that talent. Someday I`ll reach for it and it won`t be there. 
Irving Berlin 

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know
Irving Berlin, White Christmas

Irving Berlin [1888-1989]: "Our attitudes control our lives. Attitudes are a secret power working twenty-four hours a day, for good or bad. It is of paramount importance that we know how to harness and control this great force."
Photo Credit: Irving Berlin's Show business,1941
Source: Wikipedia
There are a number of things that can be said about Irving Berlin. But the two that come to mind are that Berlin was a Made in America success story and an old-fashioned patriot. An immigrant from Russia, who came to America at the tail end of the nineteenth century, Berlin's compositions became America's songs that were played, sung and danced to for most of the 20th century.

Although he could not read or write music, and could only play piano in the key of F-sharp major, Berlin wrote 1,500 songs, including perennial favorites like Easter Parade (1933), White Christmas (1942),  Happy Holiday (1942), and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). His most famous song is considered America`s second unofficial national anthem, God Bless America (1938), a patriotic song that he first wrote in 1918 and revised in 1938.

That alone would be enough to make Berlin an American icon. But Berlin was both a hard and prolific worker. During a long career, spanning fifty-five years, Berlin also wrote scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. He received eight Academy Award nominations for his music, winning an Oscar in 1943 for Best Song, White Christmas, for the 1942 film, Holiday Inn.

Berlin had the ability, or gift, many would say, of taking in the pulse of the public sentiment, and turning it into music everyone could enjoy. As the New York Times obituary said of him: ''Irving Berlin has no place in American music,'' Jerome Kern once said. ''He is American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world —simplified, clarified and glorified.'' 

His life became the true rags-to-riches story, and Berlin became a legend by the time he turned 30. He received the highest compliment possible when George Gershwin, a composer of high reputation, said that Berlin "was the greatest songwriter that ever lived." As Gershwin said:
I want to say at once that I frankly believe that Irving Berlin is the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.... His songs are exquisite cameos of perfection, and each one of them is as beautiful as its neighbor. Irving Berlin remains, I think, America's Schubert. But apart from his genuine talent for song-writing, Irving Berlin has had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. It was Irving Berlin who was the very first to have created a real, inherent American music.... Irving Berlin was the first to free the American song from the nauseating sentimentality which had previously characterized it, and by introducing and perfecting ragtime he had actually given us the first germ of an American musical idiom; he had sowed the first seeds of an American music.[2]:117
It all started on the other side of the Atlantic, in a world far removed from America. It was a land where many talented musicians, artists and painters were born: Czarist Russia.

From Russia to Lower East Side NYC

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline to Moses and Leah Baline (nee Lipkin) in Tyumen, Russia, on May 11, 1888. He was the youngest of eight children. His father, a cantor, gave him singing lessons, and was the first to expose Israel to music. 

The family fled the persecutions and pogroms all too commonly directed against the Jews in Russia. The turning point was in 1883, when during one of the pogroms, the Cossacks burned down their house, Ian Whitcomb, a biographer of Berlin, said:
But, suddenly one day, the Cossacks rampaged in on a pogrom... they simply burned it to the ground. Israel and his family watched from a distant road. Israel was wrapped in a warm feather quilt. Then they made a hasty exit. Knowing that they were breaking the law by leaving without a passport ( Russia at that time was the only country requiring passports), the Balines smuggled themselves creepingly from town to town, from satellite to satellite, from sea to shining sea, until finally they reached their star: the Statue of Liberty
That was September 13,1893, when Berlin was five. Moses, the father, was forty-six when he made the journey to America with his family. The Balines, eight in all, had arrived at Die Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, America in General and New York City in particular, after a eleven-day voyage on the S.S. Rhynland from Antwerp, Belgium.

After passing inspection at Ellis Island, made more difficult and awkward since the family spoke Yiddish, it's not surprising that the customs clerk spelled their name as Beilin. The family was released the next day on September 14. With the help of relatives, the Balines initially moved to a three-room basement in a suffocating tenement on Monroe St in the heart of the Lower East Side. After a few weeks getting adjusted, they settled in a Civil War-vintage brownstone at 330 Cherry Street, separated into apartments, in another part of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It was a small improvement. The eight Balines, plus a boarder they took in to help pay expenses, all lived in a three-room apartment on the third floor. This was home. His father couldn't find comparable work as a cantor and took a job working at a kosher butcher and giving Hebrew lessons on the side. His mother, Lena, sometimes worked as a midwife, his sisters worked wrapping cigars at a factory, and his older brother in a garment factory making shirts. Needless to say, the first years in America were very difficult.

Things took a turn for the worse when Moses Baline, the family patriarch, died in 1896, when Israel was eight. That marked the end of young Israel`s formal education, totaling two years. Izzy, as he was then called, sold newspapers on the streets of the Bowery, a tough working-class area. He found that if he sung while hawking papers, people would toss him a few extra coins. That is when he confessed his ambition to his mother one evening after work: to become a singing waiter in a saloon.

The First Songs

That;s precisely what he did. At age fourteen Izzy left home and began making money by singing in bars and on the streets of New York.  In 1906 when he was eighteen, He worked as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, a tough gig where tough people congregated. A year later, he published his first song, Marie from Sunny Italy (1907), which he co-wrote with  Mike Nicholson, the resident pianist. Then, he changed his name to Irving Berlin.

Two years later, in 1908, at age twenty, Berlin took a new job at a saloon in the Union Square neighborhood. By moving a little uptown, he also threw off what for him were the shackles of Judaism, linked to personal restrictions, lack of freedom to explore and create outside proscribed boundaries, and to a life of abject poverty.

There, he was able to collaborate with other young songwriters, such as Edgar Leslie, Ted Snyder, Al Piantadosi, and George A. Whiting, and in 1909, the year of the premiere of Israel Zangwill's The Melting Pot, he got his big break as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company.  It wasn`t long before Berlin had his first hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911). It was the first real American musical work, giving ragtime new life and establishing a dance craze.

In 1912, he married Dorothy Goetz, the sister of the songwriter E. Ray Goetz. She died six months later of typhoid fever, which she contracted during their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. The song he wrote to express his grief, "When I Lost You," was his first ballad.

When The United States entered the First World War in April 1917, Berlin was drafted. He served at Camp Upton in New York, where he mainly wrote patriotic songs, including an all-soldier musical revue titled Yip Yip Yaphan—a tribute to the US Army. Berlin wrote a song that he didn't put into the show, tucking it away for twenty years: God Bless America.

After the war, in 1921, Berlin created a partnership with Sam Harris to build the Music Box Theater, at  239 West 45th S, which he maintained throughout his life. It was a Broadway house built purposely to accommodate all the works of a songwriter. Berlin was a theatre owner, producer and composer. It was Berlin`s baby.
Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay were married for sixty-two years. The two were joined in a civil ceremony on January 4, 1926, against the wishes of both families. Ellen Mackay was raised Irish Catholic; Irving Berlin as an Orthodox Jew. This photo was taken in the late 1920s after they were married.
Photo Credit: Bain News Service
Source: US Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

The Marriage That Endured

In the 1920s, Berlin fell in love with Ellin Mackay. The two were joined in a civil ceremony on January 4, 1926, against the wishes of both families. Ellin Mackay, 22, was raised Irish Catholic; Irving Berlin, 37, an Orthodox Jew, although by this time he was no longer observant.

Their marriage lasted sixty-two years, and produced four children: Mary Ellin (born November 25, 1926), Linda Louise (February 21, 1932), Elizabeth Irving (June 16, 1936), and a son, Irving Berlin, Jr. (December 1-December 25, 1928), who died of typhoid fever a few weeks after birth.

Their differing faiths did not enter Berlin's calculations, since Berlin was not religious in any way, recounts his eldest daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett in Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir (1994)
My mother has broached the subject of being married by a priest. She herself, though she goes to mass, keeps up appearances, doesn't believe in all that anymore, she assures him. She has had such a strange religious upbringing: a Protestant like her mother till the divorce, a Catholic since. But a priest might help soften her father. Irving, however, the cantor's son, doesn't see himself being married by a priest. Though he is not a religious person, doesn't even keep up appearances of being an observant Jew, he does not forget who his people are.
Yet, Berlin did not forget his Jewish heritage and lineage. By all accounts, Berlin was a secular humanist whose beliefs and values centred on patriotism. He remained in every sense of the word a cultural Jew and donated to Jewish causes.

Ellin Mackay was a novelist. When she died on July 29,1988, aged 85, The New York Times reported the following about her:
Ellin Berlin, the novelist wife of the songwriter Irving Berlin, died early yesterday at Doctors Hospital, to which she had been taken from her Beekman Place town house after the last of a series of strokes. She was 85 years old.

Mrs. Berlin, the last of whose four novels, ''The Best of Families,'' was published in 1970, was also a prolific short-story writer and contributed several articles to The New Yorker before her marriage to Mr. Berlin on Jan. 4, 1926. Mr. Berlin observed his 100th birthday last May 11.

Their marriage was one of the most sensational social events of the 1920's, for it united the famous songwriter, an Orthodox Jew, with the former Ellin Mackay, a Roman Catholic debutante who spurned her multimillionaire father's fortune for love.

The Municipal Court wedding came after several events that made it clear that Ellin Mackay, one of the great beauties of her time, was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill society heiress.

She had all but turned her back on the exclusive so-called 400, which ruled her mother's day, choosing the new ''cafe society.'' She said she preferred the ''dizzy twenties'' to the ''dull old days'' when she was one of New York's most celebrated debutantes.
By all accounts, the marriage was stable and comfortable for both, where each influenced the other artistically.

In the Service of His Country: Irving Berlin aboard the USS Arkansas, July 25, 1944 in a Second World War performance for the troops, for This Is the Army, a three-year performing stint. Berlin defended his patriotism: “There is a cynicism about flag-waving and patriotism until something happens. ‘God Bless America,’ for instance. It is simple, honest-a patriotic statement. It’s an emotion, not just words and music. A patriotic song IS an emotion, and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they’ll hate your guts. It has to be right, and the time for it has to be right.”
Photo Credit: US Government, 1944.
Source: Wikipedia

White Christmas & God Bless America

For the 1942 film Holiday Inn, Berlin wrote White Christmas, one of the most recorded songs in history. It became synonymous with Bing Crosby, who first sung it in the film. It sold over 30 million copies and was number one on the pop and R&B charts for 10 weeks. Crosby's single was the best-selling single in any music category for more than fifty yearsFor Berlin, the song was another holiday song, Christmas stripped of its religious significance.

A few years earlier, Berlin published his most famous song. Doubtless, there is some irony in describing how a Jew from czarist Russia penned what has been described as the United States' second national anthem, a paean to American patriotism, with a decidedly American Christian undertone: "God Bless America." When Kate Smith sang Berlin’s "God Bless America" on November 11, 1938, the country gained a second unofficial national anthem. Berlin donated the song's copyright and royalties to the Girl Scouts of America and the Boy Scouts of America.

The song is full of significance, heavily laden with history and symbolism of America being the land of the free. For Berlin and many millions of others like him escaping persecution from foreign lands, America was such a place. There's no argument there.

What is surprising is that such words were written by a man who was reportedly agnostic. I am not sure if it's an invocation to up high to bless America, or a plea for his assistance. The song is full of strong statements, or sentiments built on hopeful patriotism, much like America once considered itself. For Berlin it was, as he said, a "simple, honest-a patriotic statement. It's an emotion, not just words and music."

Such was the plain outcome of a man who did what he had to do to blend into American culture, and shape it from within. That included forgetting the past cultural and community affiliations, however slim they might have been after the death of his father as a young boy of eight. Such tragedies, and I call them tragedies, though not in the literary sense, mark a young mind for life. The loss of a parent, an influential figure in the family life, notably of newly arrived immigrants, cannot easily be dismissed.

Given such history, and the struggle to find a place, it is easier to understand what America and its open opportunity and its yet-undefined culture meant to someone like Berlin. That he was a proud American, who felt blessed in the United States, is not surprising. Berlin was a Made in America success story. For Berlin, like many of his generation and circumstances, his past, including his religious upbringing as a Jew, was parked forever at Ellis Island.

In doing so, Berlin not only blended in to the great melting pot of America, he also helped develop its tastes in music. Irving Berlin once said about his successes: “The toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success.” No one can deny his success in life, as a husband, father, patriot and composer of America's songbook. Nor his work ethic, which was honest and admirable. As for guarding his privacy later in life, who could blame him?

In 1962, at the age of 74, after an unsuccessful retirement, Berlin returned to Broadway with Mr. President. Although it ran for eight months, with the premiere attended by President John F. Kennedy, it was not a successful show.  Berlin retired and spent the rest of his time in New York City, becoming more reclusive as he became older.

Irving Berlin received many honors, including a special  Congressional Gold Medal (1954) from President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the song, God Bless America; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1970); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977) from President Gerald Ford; and a one hundredth birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall (1988).

Irving Berlin died in his sleep in his townhouse in Beekman Place in Manhattan, New York City, on September 22, 1989. It was not far from where he grew up. He was 101. Berlin was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. He was survived by three daughters: Mary Ellin Barrett and Elizabeth Irving Peters of New York, and Linda Louise Emmet, who lives in Paris. He was also survived by nine grandchildren. 

1 comment:

  1. Beekman Place, Irving Berlin's last home, is about 2 1/2 miles north of Cherry Street, where he lived as a child. In terms of distance, the difference is not great. On the other hand, the Lower East Side used to be the poorest neighborhood in New York City, and Beekman Place is as expensive and elegant as one can get.


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