Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989), born Israel Isidore Beilin (Baline) in Tyumen, Russia (or possibly Mogilev, now Belarus), was a Jewish American composer and lyricist, known as one of the most prodigious and enduring songwriters in U.S. history.
Escaping a climate of religious persecution, Berlin’s family emigrated to the United States in 1888. Berlin got his start in New York City as a lyricist for other composers, and although he never learned how to read music beyond a rudimentary level, he wrote more than 3,000 songs and produced 17 Hollywood film scores and 21 Broadway scores.
Berlin’s interfaith marriage to the daughter of a prominent Roman Catholic alienated both families and led to his wife’s disinheritance. Yet the marriage lasted for 62 years until her death at 85, and during these years the Russian Jewish refugee penned some of the world’s most beloved Christian songs. “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” are linked to Christian religious holidays yet are festive, not sectarian, and became cherished classics for all Americans. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (1942) ranked as the best-selling recording for more than fifty years. Berlin’s “God Bless America,” composed during World War I and celebrating the freedoms of his adopted country, has become a treasured American anthem, a prayer in song that all faiths in America can sing together.
Berlin’s philanthropic work in support of the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and a host of other groups exemplified his selfless life and devotion to the country that he loved.
Irving Berlin was one of eight children born to Moishe (Moses) Beilin and Liah Lipkin Beilin. In order to escape the Russian pogroms his family emigrated to the United States in 1893, when he was five years old. His father worked as a shochet (one who kills kosher animals as prescribed by Jewish religious laws) and was also the cantor in the synagogue.
At the age of eight, he took to the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City selling newspapers and busking to help support his mother and family after his father died. In the early 1900s he found work as a singing waiter in many restaurants and cafes in the Bowery. It was at this time he was noticed by Harry Von Tilzer and hired to plug Von Tilzer songs at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall, which opened in 1881 and is often credited as the birthplace of vaudeville. One of the many acts that Berlin was assigned to promote was the Three Keatons, one of whom was the great film comedian, Buster Keaton.
During this time Berlin was asked by the proprietor at Pelham’s Cafe in Chinatown to write an original song for the cafe because a rival tavern had had their own song published. In 1907 he wrote Marie from Sunny Italy, which became his first published work. The song was quite popular and when it was published, the writer’s name appeared as I. Berlin. It is not known for certain if he put the name on the music or the printer made an error, but that became the name he used the rest of his life. Although the song only earned him 37 cents, it launched Berlin on his way to fame and fortune.
In 1911 the hit song Alexander’s Ragtime Band launched a musical career that would include over a thousand songs. Richard Corliss, in a Time Magazine profile of Berlin in 2001, wrote:
Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911). It was a march, not a rag, and its savviest musicality comprised quotes from a bugle call and Swanee River. But the tune, which revived the ragtime fervor that Scott Joplin had stoked a decade earlier, made Berlin a songwriting star. On its first release, four versions of the tune charted at #1, #2, #3 and #4. Bessie Smith, in 1927, and Louis Armstrong, in 1937, made the top 20 with their interpretations. In 1938 the song was #1 again, in a duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell; another Crosby duet, this time with Al Jolson, hit the top-20 in 1947. Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945, and Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts (#13) in 1948. Add Ray Charles’ brilliant big-band take in 1959, and “Alexander” had a dozen hit versions in a bit under a half century.
In 1917, during World War I, Berlin was drafted into the United States Army and staged a musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank while at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. The show cast 350 members of the armed forces. The revue was a patriotic tribute to the United States Army, and Berlin composed a song entitled God Bless America for the show, but decided against using it. When it was released 20 years later, (Kate Smith sang the song to celebrate Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War One) God Bless America proved so popular that during the 1930s it was even considered for the National Anthem. The Yaphank revue was later included in the 1943 movie This Is the Army featuring other Berlin songs, including the famous title piece, as well as a full-length rendition of God Bless America by Kate Smith. It remains to this day one of his most successful songs and one of the most widely known in the United States. A particularly memorable rendition occurred after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when members of the United States Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol building and sang Berlin’s tune (see Audio link).
Berlin’s 1926 hit song Blue Skies became another American classic, and was featured in the first talkie (motion picture with sound), Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. In 1946, a Berlin musical with the same title revived the song’s popularity, and it reached #8 with Count Basie and #9 with Benny Goodman.
Berlin’s first marriage ended in tragedy. His wife, singer Dorothy Goetz, sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz, contracted pneumonia and typhoid fever on their honeymoon to Cuba, and died five months after their wedding in 1912 at the age of twenty. Her death inspired Berlin’s song When I Lost You.
His second wife was Ellin Mackay, a devout Irish-American Catholic and heiress to the Comstock Lode mining fortune, as well as an avant-garde writer who had been published in The New Yorker. They were married in 1926, against the wishes of both his family, who objected to religious intermarriage, and her father, Clarence MacKay, a prominent Roman Catholic layman, who disinherited her. (In a poignant irony of the times Ellin was dropped from the social registry for marrying a Jew while her sister, who dated a Nazi diplomat in New York and was known for wearing a diamond swastika, remained a member of the family in good standing.) Without a dispensation from the Church, the two were joined in a civil ceremony on January 4, 1926, and were immediately snubbed by society: Ellin was immediately disinvited from the wedding of her friend Consuelo Vanderbilt, although Vanderbilt was not a Catholic. Finances were not a problem, however: Berlin assigned her the rights to his song Always which yielded her a substantial and steady income.
The couple had three daughters—Mary Ellin, Linda, and Elizabeth, all of whom were raised Protestant—and a son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died before his first birthday, on Christmas Day.
They remained together for 62 years until her death at age 85, in 1988. Berlin himself died a short time later of a heart attack in New York City on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
He became a virtual recluse in his last years not even attending his own 100th birthday party. However, he did attend the centennial celebrations for the Statue of Liberty in 1986.
Berlin was responsible for many Hollywood film scores including Top Hat (1935) and Holiday Inn (1942), which included White Christmas, one of the most-recorded tunes in American history.
The song was first sung by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn and sold over 30 million copies when released as a record. The song was re-used as the title theme of the 1954 musical film, White Christmas, which starred Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
Crosby’s single of “White Christmas” was recognized as the best-selling single in any music category for more than 50 years until 1998 when Elton John’s tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, Candle In the Wind, 1997, overtook it in a matter of months. However, Crosby’s recording of White Christmas has sold additional millions of copies as part of numerous albums, including his best-selling album Merry Christmas, which was first released as an LP in 1949.
The most familiar version of “White Christmas” is not the one Crosby originally recorded for Holiday Inn. Crosby was called back to the Decca studios on March 19, 1947, to re-record White Christmas as a result of damage to the 1942 master due to its frequent use. Every effort was made to reproduce the original Decca recording session, once again including the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. The resulting re-issue is the one that has become most familiar to the public. Berlin was equally prolific on Broadway, where he is perhaps best known for the musical Annie Get Your Gun (1946), produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Loosely based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the music and lyrics were written by Berlin, with a book by Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields. Berlin had taken on the job after the original choice, Jerome Kern, died suddenly. At first he refused to take on the job, claiming that he knew nothing about “hillbilly music.” But the show became his Broadway climax, running for 1,147 performances. It is said that the showstopper song, There’s No Business Like Show Business, was almost left out of the show altogether because Berlin wrongly got the impression that his sponsors, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, did not like it. Annie Get Your Gun is considered to be Berlin’s best musical theater score not only because of the number of hits it contains, but because its songs successfully combine character and plot development. His friend and fellow songwriter Jule Styne said of him, “It’s easy to be clever. But the really clever thing is to be simple.”
Berlin stopped writing after the failure of Mr. President, which starred Nanette Fabray and Robert Ryan on Broadway in 1962. In 1963, he won a Special Tony Award “for his distinguished contribution to the musical theatre for these many years.”
An intuitive business man, Irving Berlin was a co-founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), founder of his own music publishing company, and with producer Sam Harris, builder of his own Broadway theatre, The Music Box. Through several of his foundations, including The God Bless America Fund, he donated millions of dollars in royalties to Army Emergency Relief, the Boy and Girl Scouts and other organizations.
He was awarded the Army’s Medal of Merit from President Truman in 1945; a Congressional Gold Medal for “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs from President Eisenhower in 1954; and the Freedom Medal from President Ford in 1977. In 2002, the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, named the Army Entertainment Division (AED) World Headquarters “The Irving Berlin Center” in his honor. Also that year he was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.
Irving Berlin’s centennial in 1988 was celebrated worldwide, culminating in an all-star tribute at Carnegie Hall benefiting the Hall and ASCAP, subsequently an Emmy Award winning special on CBS, and featuring such varied luminaries of the musical world as Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Natalie Cole and Willie Nelson.