Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life.
|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
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.By all accounts, the marriage was stable and comfortable for both, where each influenced the other artistically.
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.
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.
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 years. For 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.