‘God Bless America,’ ‘White Christmas’ Among Classics : Enduring Songwriter Irving Berlin Dies
Irving Berlin, who made the word “songwriter” synonymous with his name, died Friday evening in his sleep at his Manhattan home, said Alton Peters, his son-in-law. He was 101.
Berlin died of natural causes at his luxury Beekman Place home about 5:30 p.m., according to Peters. “He died very, very peacefully,” said Peters, the secretary of the Metropolitan Opera Assn.
Berlin, who marked his 101st birthday May 11, died 14 months after his wife Ellin, whom he married in 1926. He is survived by three daughters, but no family member was at his home when he died, his son-in-law said.
On his 101st birthday, Berlin continued his practice of avoiding the public eye. A year earlier, he had declined to attend a gala on his centennial that included tributes from celebrities like Frank Sinatra.
He was the most prolific and enduring popular composer of the century.
Berlin’s life works included such American classics as “God Bless America,” and “White Christmas,” and such lasting tunes as “Easter Parade,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” He outlived the copyright on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” 75 years after he wrote it.
“This is a great loss,” composer Burt Bacharach said late Friday. “Irving Berlin has left us with the greatest legacy through his music. His contributions to American popular music are immeasurable. The music will live on and on and on.”
Singer Paul Anka commented: “Throughout my career as a writer of song I’ve always idolized Irving Berlin as the consummate master of words and music. His unique talent appealed to the masses. Mr. Berlin’s longevity of talent is unparalleled. He wrote ‘God Bless America.’ May God bless Irving Berlin.”
Among his many popular hits from musicals were “Cheek to Cheek,” “Marie,” and “Blue Skies.” His wrote the scores for the 1925 Marx Brothers show, “The Coconuts,” and the Broadway hit “Annie Get Your Gun.” His last Broadway show was “Mr. President” in 1962.
In Hollywood, Berlin did the scores of “Top Hat,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and “Holiday Inn” with Astaire and Bing Crosby.
“Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music,” the late composer Jerome Kern once said.
When death finally came it was as a curtain-call for a life that had been one of America’s greatest long-running musical dramas.
It had everything: a rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags story line, a poor-boy-marries-rich-girl subplot, and a score of more than 1,000 songs. The critics loved it.
And the star himself seemed to have a good time.
But he may secretly have considered himself miscast. For the man known as Irving Berlin and called “The Ford and General Motors of the songwriting industry” was also a conglomerate of contradictions.
He was a composer who couldn’t read music.
A pianist who could play in only one key.
A holder of three university doctorates who never finished second grade.
An immigrant called “the nearest thing to a native folk singer since Stephen Foster.”
And a success who lived a life haunted by the specter of failure.
He was the embodiment of Tin Pan Alley; the most prolific songsmith in the United States, wrote scores for 16 Broadway musicals plus 18 films, and was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
His red-white-and-blue sentiments spawned the hit soldier shows of World War I "(Yip Yip Yaphank)” and World War II (“This Is The Army),” while “God Bless America” perennially threatens to dislodge “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of his adopted homeland.
But the red, white and blue of his earliest memory had little to do with America.
They were the white of a Siberian snowscape, the blue of a night sky--and the red terror-tint of flames consuming the house and village where he was born.
That was the Jewish community of Temun in Siberian Russia, where Israel Baline entered the world on May 11, 1888. It was a cold, precarious world. And it very nearly became his graveyard as well on the night in 1892 when Cossacks rode in with murder on their minds.
Israel’s father, Moses Baline, was cantor of the Temun synagogue. Because they lived on the outskirts of town, he was able to get his wife, Leah, and their eight children away into the frozen fields where they hid under a white blanket.
Most of their neighbors died, as did the town itself. And so, in the fourth year of his life, Israel found himself en route with his family across the Pale of Settlement to Latvia, Lithuania--and finally on board a ship bound for a city called New York.
“Like everybody,” Berlin said later, “my parents knew New York had streets paved with gold. But when we got there, this turned out to be an exaggeration. The streets seemed paved with manure . . . and the deepest part of it was in Monroe Street, on the East Side, where we went to live. . . .”
No cantors were needed, it seemed, in the synagogues of New York, so Moses Baline got a job as shomer (supervisor of ritual preparation) in a kosher slaughterhouse.
Moses Baline died in 1896, less than four years after his arrival in New York, and Leah Baline and her four eldest children went to work.
It was a worrisome time for young Izzy.
“I was 8 years old,” he said, “and until then I was just another street kid . . . like all the others except for two things: I was Jewish and they were mostly Catholic, and that could have got me knocked around a lot except for the other thing, which was that I looked tough.”
One day, when the other Baline children lined up to drop their day’s earnings into their mother’s apron, Izzy contributed four pennies, earned in a day of selling newspapers.
“Of course, mama was furious,” Berlin said. “Not because I wanted to help, but because I’d had to drop out of school to sell the papers. Still, I wouldn’t go back. And after a day or two she seemed to accept it.
“What happened next, though-- that, she didn’t like at all.”
Izzy found out some people got paid for singing.
He had wandered into Chinatown, where he saw patrons throw coins onto the trays of singing waiters. Enthusiastically, he told his mother about it. But Leah Baline would have none of it; Izzy would sing in synagogue or not at all.
Izzy promised to forget the whole thing. And ran away that night.
But nobody seemed to want a half-grown boy as a waiter and Izzy spent two nights sleeping in doorways before he finally found a paying situation--acting as guide and coin collector for a sightless street singer known as Blind Sol.
The first day he earned 25 cents. The next night was even better, and before long he was joining Blind Sol in harmony, and earning a princely 50 cents a day.
Within a month or two he was able to “graduate” to a series of one-night jobs as a singing waiter.
Impresario Harry von Tilzer heard him and he became a $5-per-week song plugger, working from the balcony of Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and providing musical “coverage” for such acts as “The Three Keatons,” a knockabout group composed of two adults and their sad-faced little boy, Buster.
Izzy kept his hand in, though, as a singing waiter and one night, when the piano player was having a beer, he made a discovery:
If he pushed down on the black keys, he could manage a kind of piano accompaniment to his singing.
“That’s what I was doing--picking out a tune--when mama found me.”
“You’ll come home, now,” Leah Baline said.
And Izzy did. But not to return to school and not to sing in synagogue. He had a steady job carrying trays and singing at Mike Seltzer’s Pelham Cafe, in the heart of Chinatown.
Prince Louis von Battenberg (father of Earl Mountbatten of Burma) stopped at the Pelham during his tour of the United States.
Izzy sang for the prince’s party and when, on leaving, his highness offered a $5 tip, Izzy politely declined: “No, indeed, sir. It was my honor to sing!”
The gesture impressed a newspaper reporter who was with the party (a youngster named Herbert Bayard Swope, who would one day edit the New York World) and he churned out a story about it.
That was Izzy Baline’s first press notice. And his last--at least under the name he was given at birth.
Al Piantadosi, pianist for a nearby saloon called Callahans, had written an Italian song that became a theme for Callahans’ clientele.
Mike Seltzer decided the Pelham needed a theme song too and assigned the job to his pianist, Nick Nichols. Nick came up with a tune and Izzy, scribbled out a lyric on his celluloid cuff.
They had to get a violinist to write it down for them because neither could read music, and the song, “Marie From Sunny Italy” was a flop that earned exactly 75 cents in royalties.
But it had two far-reaching consequences:
Izzy Baline had earned his first money as a songwriter.
And he had stopped being Izzy Baline. It was the music printer’s fault; he had misunderstood the lyricist’s name, and the sheet music identified him as “I. Berlin.”
Izzy decided he liked the name. Trouble was, he decided “Israel” didn’t sound quite right. He finally settled on “Irving.”
Four songs later Berlin clicked and this time both words and music were by Irving Berlin.
An Italian waiter named Dorando had almost won the 1908 Olympic marathon but was disqualified by a fluke. Berlin wrote a comic lyric based on the incident and took it to Ted Snyder’s publishing house.
Asked if he had music to go with the words Berlin said “of course, but I have to have someone else write it down.”
Berlin was taken into an adjacent room where “I hummed the first thing that came into my head” to a pianist.
Snyder published the result and it earned $4,000 in royalties (a fortune in the hard-currency world of 1908). Snyder put him on the payroll as a $25-per-week staff composer.
During the next year, “Dorando” was followed by several hits. “Sadie Salome, Go Home,” a novelty number with music by Edgar Leslie, sold 100,000 copies of the sheet music; “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune,” a parody of Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, sold 50,000.
On May 11, 1909--his 21st birthday--Irving Berlin moved into his own uptown apartment (he had long since moved the rest of his family into a similar place nearby).
In his custom-tailored suit, stiff collar, smart waistcoat and spats over brightly polished shoes, he was becoming a well-known figure in fashionable New York.
Berlin was having those shoes shined (for the third time that day) in a barbershop just off Tin Pan Alley when a friend, George Whiting, suggested they go to the theater that night. He was free, he explained, because his wife had gone to the country.
“Hoorah!” cried Berlin, and leaped from the stool.
He rushed back to Snyder’s to write “My Wife’s Gone To The Country--Hoorah! Hoorah!”
It sold 300,000 copies; his biggest hit yet.
Still greater success was to come: That year, Berlin returned to the stage as one of the stars in a show called “Up and Down Broadway,” singing his own compositions and received a contract to sing them for the Columbia Record Co.
The record deal was a bust. But churning out new songs for the Broadway show, he had discovered a true bonanza. It was called “ragtime.”
His first published ragtime hit was “That Beautiful Rag,” and its success was followed within weeks by “That Opera Rag” and another, “Alexander and His Clarinet,” for musician Jack Alexander.
The first two were hits, but “Alexander” died.
Berlin decided he could handle ragtime composition better if he could change keys a bit. He considered taking some music lessons, discarded the idea because “it would take too long,” and then discovered a mechanical solution:
The Weser Musical Instrument Co. made an upright piano that had a key-changing lever hidden under the keyboard.
He had one delivered to his office (it is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum) and sat down to rewrite “Alexander.”
In less than a day, Snyder’s arranger (Berlin still couldn’t read music) was writing down a brand-new tune called “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
At first, the tune had no words. Berlin didn’t think it needed them. But Snyder declined to publish the song, and the composer put the piece aside once more.
In 1911, Berlin joined Snyder and Henry Waterson in founding a publishing firm. He also added lyrics to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Just three weeks after its Chicago debut, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” had sold a million copies.
Berlin’s earnings from royalties had reached $100,000. He redecorated his apartment; knocked down a wall and incorporated the flat next door. For his mother, he bought a big new house in the Bronx . . . with servants.
One of Berlin’s occasional collaborators was E. Ray Goetz. Goetz had a sister named Dorothy, a stage singer. Berlin asked her for a date, she said yes, and they were married in 1912.
They went to Cuba on their honeymoon, and it was a mistake Berlin regretted for the rest of his life.
They arrived in Havana amid a typhoid epidemic. The honeymooners fled back to New York but it was too late; Dorothy contracted the disease and five months later was dead.
And so, for a time, was her husband.
His key-changing piano stood silent behind an unopened door at the publishing company. He was at home, staring for hours--first at a picture of his wife; and then for longer periods out the window at the river.
Then Ray Goetz suggested his brother-in-law try to exploit his misery; give it an outlet.
Berlin’s next published song was “When I Lost You,” and it was another million-seller. That was Irving Berlin’s first true ballad.
His depression finally beginning to dissipate, he turned out another hit, “When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam,” and followed it with “The International Rag,” which was composed on a ship bound for London, where he starred at the Hippodrome.
By 1914, Florenz Ziegfeld and other producers were ordering music from Irving Berlin as though they were ordering groceries.
Sometimes, Berlin told a 1930 interviewer, he got “inspirations” while shaving (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” had come that way) and sometimes, he began to hear the tunes in his head while bathing or walking. But he still had to use a music “secretary” to write the things down.
One young man who applied for the job played a couple of his own compositions as “samples” of his work. Berlin said he was hired--but added a cautionary note:
“Kid,” he said, “You got too much talent of your own to be working for me; in a while, you’d be imitating me--and that’d be the death of you as a composer. Think it over, huh.?”
The applicant-- whose name was George Gershvine--(George Gershwin) took the advice instead of the job.
In 1916, Berlin collaborated with a boyhood idol of his, Victor Herbert, on a new Ziegfeld extravaganza called “The Century Girl,” and began work on extra songs for a George M. Cohan show called “Dance And Grow Thin.”
But he missed the opening.
The year was 1917 . . . and Irving Berlin was caught in the draft.
Send to Camp Yaphank, on Long Island, Pvt. Berlin learned to march, learned to work in an Army kitchen, learned to shoot a rifle--and learned to hate the hours.
“For a guy who was used to going to bed about 5 a.m.,” he explained, “the Army’s habit of getting up at that hour was a real problem. I had a feeling there ought to be a song in there, somewhere. But I sure wasn’t getting any time to work on it.”
But the Army post needed a new community center and Berlin found himself promoted to sergeant and assigned to write a show to raise the money.
In June, 1918, he tooked “Yip Yip Yaphank” into the Century Theater on Broadway for a single benefit performance.
Two of the songs, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In the Morning,” and “Mandy” were real show-stoppers and the expected one-night-stand became 32 performances.
The show raised $83,000 for the community center and might well have run forever. But it had to be closed because the War Department had other plans for the cast.
On the last night, the finale, “We’re On Our Way to France,’ was the literal truth--Sgt. Berlin led his troops down the aisle, out of the theater and onto a ship bound for the war.
Within a month after the fighting had ended, Berlin was in civilian clothes and working on a song called, “I’ve Got My Captain Working For Me Now.”
By 1921 he was looking for new worlds to conquer. And he found them; He and Sam H. Harris sank every cent they had in a new theater called The Music Box . . . and almost wound up on the bread line.
Halfway through the construction, they realized they were going to run short.
But Joseph Schenck, who was to found Twentieth Century-Fox, put up half the extra money and become a partner. The first Music Box Revue opened Sept. 22, 1921, to rave reviews.
Became a Tradition
Essayist Robert Benchley made his first stage appearance in the 1923 Music Box Revue--and the annual openings became a kind of tradition.
Berlin, meanwhile, had become a socialite of sorts. Famous and prominent people had always fascinated the former Chinatown waiter, and it was a high point for him when he was invited to a party at the Long Island home of communications tycoon Clarence Mackay, where he was introduced to the Prince of Wales (later to become, briefly, King Edward VIII).
The prince’s first dancing partner of the evening was Ellin Mackay, daughter of the host.
Her second partner was Irving Berlin, 15 years her senior.
And, in a sense, that dance ended only with her death in July, 1988.
They had met before. Ellin, a Roman Catholic debutante had driven the Jewish immigrant Berlin home in her roadster from a party in Greenwich Village.
Thereafter, they had been together as often as they could. But when Ellin’s father finally found out, the composer had received his last invitation.
Mackay was filthy rich, fervently Catholic, toweringly snobbish--and openly anti-Semitic. He took his 20-year-old daughter abroad.
Berlin, told inquisitive reporters that any hint of an attachment between Miss Mackay and himself was “ridiculous.” But no one was surprised when songs like “All Alone,” “Remember?” and “What’ll I Do?” began to flow from the old key-changing piano.
Ellin was back in the United States after just seven months. She was 21 now, and knew her own mind.
So did her father. “The day you marry my daughter,” he roared at the songwriter, “I’ll disinherit her!”
“The day I marry your daughter,” Berlin shouted back, “I’ll settle $2 million on her!”
And that’s just what happened.
On Jan. 4, 1926, several stories vied for space on the front pages of America’s newspapers: “Beau James” Walker moved into City Hall as mayor of New York, the Queen of Italy died, and the Prince of Wales caught a runaway horse at considerable personal hazard.
But they all took second place to the banner story:
“MISS MACKAY MARRIES IRVING BERLIN”
The happy couple waited around for five days, hoping for her father’s blessing. But it never came.
True to this word, Berlin settled the exact amount he had promised on his bride--plus all royalties to a new song “Always.”
The Berlins were to spend the next 62 years humming love songs to each other (and to daughters Mary Ellin, Linda and Elizabeth and nine grandchildren.)
But there were some dark years in between.
They began in 1928. “Blue Skies” and “The Song Is Ended” were Berlin’s hits that year--but the music stopped when his second child, a son, died after only a few weeks of life.
The second deep depression of his lifetime settled on the grieving father and when, the following year, the market crash wiped him out (even the Music Box went to satisfy creditors) the wreckage seemed complete.
But he again bounced back and scored a new Moss Hart Show, “Face the Music,” and two songs (“Soft Lights and Sweet Music” and “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”) became standards.
The following year, “Smile and Show Your Dimple” came out of retirement, was renamed “Easter Parade” and entered the ranks of superhits in the show “Face the Music.”
The Berlin train was back on the rails.
And so was his relationship with his father-in-law. The elder Mackay had lost his vast fortune and had reconciled with his daughter.
A year later, Berlin made the onetime tycoon a loan-gift of $1 million.
And the rejuvenated composer went to Hollywood in 1935 to score his first film, “Top Hat,” in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers introduced “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” and “Cheek to Cheek.”
It was followed by “Follow the Fleet,” “On The Avenue,” “Carefree” and “Second Fiddle.”
In 1939, another shelved song was taken out for an airing.
“God Bless America” had been written in 1918, as a possible finale number for “Yip Yip Yaphank,” but was not used. Now, with war clouds gathering once more, Berlin decided it deserved at least a trial run.
On Armistice Day, Kate Smith introduced the song--to immediate response. Berlin signed the royalties over to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts--a gift now totaling well over $1 million.
Another Broadway show, “Louisiana Purchase” was already in rehearsal when he went to work on what some consider his greatest film musical, “Holiday Inn.”
It premiered in 1942 . . . but by then Irving Berlin was back at Camp Yaphank.
The United States was at war once more, and he was gathering talent from the services for another all-military show.
“This Is The Army” opened at the Broadway Theater on July 4, 1942, played almost every major city in the country, then toured American military bases around the world.
Dressed in his World War I uniform, Berlin was in the cast, singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning.”
At war’s end, Berlin returned to Broadway with “Annie Get Your Gun” starring Ethel Merman. He followed it in 1949 with “Miss Liberty, (a very modest success) and in 1950 with “Call Me Madam,” which did quite a bit better. Both “Annie” and “Madam” were also turned into highly successful films.
In 1954, Berlin made note of an incident that had previously escaped his notice--he was 66, a year older than the retirement age for most men.
“I decided to try it,” he said.
He fidgeted with golfing, fishing, painting and visiting the children--and finally concluded it wasn’t really for him.
In 1962, when a new show called “Mr. President” opened on Broadway, he was hailed as one of the oldest composers ever to write a musical comedy, and the pre-sale of tickets came to $2.5 million.
But the show was neither a critical nor a commercial success.
Nonetheless, Irving Berlin songs like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” and “Blue Skies” continued to pop up in new films and new records, and he never really retired again. He also rarely appeared in public again preferring private dinners with his wife, dabbling in oil paintings and talking on the phone with old friends.
He was nearly smothered with honors: a gold medal from the President for his patriotic songs, another from the Army for his two service shows, a special Tony award for his contributions to the stage, the French Legion of Honor. In 1987 Berlin was the only recipient of the annual Kennedy Center honors not to attend the ceremony.
Berlin’s wealth was beyond estimation, even by Forbes magazine, which was unable to come up with the figures that might have put him in its list of 400 wealthiest Americans.
In 1988, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, 25 stars, 32 dancers and a 31-piece orchestra saluted him in a televised celebration at Carnegie Hall. But Berlin, who a biographer declared “next to Greta Garbo the most famous recluse in show business,” stayed at his Beekman Place townhouse with his beloved Ellin. Earlier that May day about 50 well-wishers had serenaded them outside with “Always.”
In one of his last in-person interviews, more than 20 years before his death, he said his life had been “a great time.” “And I’m glad about most things. Especially since I made some money doing it; rich or poor, rich is better, right?
“Still--a guy who can’t play an instrument or read music--what business does he have being a composer?
“I don’t know; if I had it to do over, maybe I’d try something else.
“Something easier. It might not be as much fun. But it might be interesting. Take it again, from the top.?”
It was to be the last of the hundreds of memorable Irving Berlin curtain lines.