Throughout this painstaking, professional and ultimately satisfying biography, author Laurence Bergreen displays a mastery of the apt anecdote and on-the-nail quote. Cole Porter, arch-sophisticate, dearly loved Irving Berlin, that simple-hearted minstrel-patriot who claimed he only followed the crowd. Bergreen quotes a letter from Porter to his pal, the "Little Gray Mouse": "If I had my way he would have been given the Congressional Medal because . . . he is the greatest songwriter of all time--and I don't mean Stephen Foster."
The Mouse eventually gets the Medal--from President Harry Truman himself. And this was "the sweetest moment in Berlin's entire career," writes Bergreen. Yes, indeed! Honor from the Commander-in-Chief, recognition by high authority, class at last, after the long struggle to wash away every trace of his Russian-Jewish ghetto background and to take on the cologne of a country-clubbed Regular American.
But what's really nice is that the picture of Stephen Foster, his doomed mentor and the pioneer of the song models that Berlin streamlined, remained on the wall of the boss's office at Irving Berlin, Inc. Foster died broke; Berlin died a multimillionaire. But the real value of both artists is the legacy of song that they left us. They were makers of magical musical boxes which, once opened, could shoot you to heaven for a few precious moments. Berlin's dreaming was rewarded with the American Dream: monetary success.
But Berlin was one-tracked, obsessive. In about 600 fact-packed pages, Bergreen proves Berlin's madness: He was song-struck. He had no interest in anything else--not golf, not gambling, not other women. Just songs. Of course, these songs had to be commercial, but fortunately, Berlin's heart and belly were as steadfast and true as your average Jack and Jill, and so for about 40 years he kept his title as the Nation's Songwriter. "HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC," capitalized Jerome Kern as early as 1925. But "the mob," as Berlin termed his public, could turn frigid, so you had to keep wooing. Bergreen writes that when Cole Porter confessed that he'd always hated his own hit song "Rosalie," there came the Berlin order: "Never hate a song that has sold half a million copies."
Songs. He ate and drank them, usually his own. Sometimes he'd show a polite interest in other people's work. "What's your latest?" he demanded of Noel Gay ("Me and My Girl") at a London reception on the eve of World War II. "I Took My Harp to a Party," replied the Britisher. "Jesus!" piped the Gray Mouse. "What an idea! You take your heart and it gets broken or given away or who the hell knows!" Gay hadn't the heart to correct the veteran hit-maker or to explain that his song, far from being the sort of lugubrious lamentation of a disappointed lover that Berlin reveled in, was in fact special material for the comedienne Gracie Fields.
This is one telling story that isn't in the Bergreen book. It would have been in my Berlin biography--except that I stopped the story in 1919. I couldn't face plodding dutifully through those comfy decades of show-biz success after his early triumph as the Ragtime King. For me, the icon Berlin of Broadway, Hollywood, "White Christmas" and finally the White House isn't gripping and colorful. But Izzy Baline (Berlin's real name), the singing waiter specializing in blue pop parodies down at the Chinatown saloon/brother/gang hangout, is all that and more. Bergreen, with thoroughness and fairness, tells the whole story from the 1888 birth in Mohilev, Russia (not Temun, Siberia, as Berlin liked grandly to pretend) to his undignified final years as a misanthrope--the "gargoyle of Beekman Place" (his ritzy New York home), the Howard Hughes of Pop, making obscene phone calls to those who dared write about him, painting hideous daubs, chasing away children who crossed his path on the daily constitutional. When the barber sang as he snipped, the man who wrote "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" snapped "Shut up!"
Berlin's song was ended because the market for his handmade product was gone, replaced by the technology of electronics. Also, rock featured the singer, not the song. Indeed, the singer became the song: Elvis Presley is "Teddy Bear." Berlin was best as a Tin Pan Alleyman, crafting one-off songs for the world and his wife to use in many ways: dancing, dreaming, singing in the shower. But woe-betide performers who mucked about with his carefully constructed musical money boxes! When Benny Goodman cut a swing version of "Blue Skies," the songwriter told the jazzman: "That was the most incredible playing I've ever heard." Pause. "Never do that again!" When Elvis Presley cut "White Christmas," the Berlin staff was ordered to advise radio stations not to play the monstrosity. As for folk-rock protest songs, they were anathema to the author of "God Bless America," the alternate national anthem.
Ironically, in the 1910s, a feisty, sassy and unassimilated Irving had helped create a pop scene as electric and iconoclastic as early rock 'n' roll. Hot kid Jews, mostly East European immigrants, sent popular song skidding into the 20th Century by injecting syncopation and city back chat into the hacked-out song models established as gay and hearty decades earlier by minstrels such as Stephen Foster. Irving happened to be the smartest kid on the block, and after the clarion call of his "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), he was soon seen by the world as the American songwriter supreme. In the 1920s, he kept up with the heat of the Jazz Age and also showed his understanding of the heart in his waltz ballads such as "Always." By the 1930s, he was Establishment and no longer on the cutting edge. The Broadway and Hollywood musical, always the castrater of randy pop (whether jazz, rock or country) took up too much of Berlin's attention, in my opinion.
What's fascinating (and new to me) in Bergreen's book is the crazy portrait that emerges during the 1940s when his subject was broiling with his All-Soldier war effort revue, "This Is the Army." Segregation was the rule in the armed forces, but Berlin insisted on having blacks in his unit. This would seem a heroic act except that Bergreen shows that the songwriter's reasons were based on show-biz savvy: "Blacks had long been stars, popular with both black and white audiences." In fact, Berlin went on to shock the revue's director by demanding a re-creation of a minstrel show, 110 soldiers in a semi-circle, all in blackface. Next he announced that there were "too many Jews in the show"--this from a cantor's son. But, as Bergreen shows, Izzy Baline preferred the company of WASPs, hence his closeness to Cole Porter. (For his other Broadway contemporaries he had no social time.) To lunch with Winston Churchill was a thrill--even though the bulldog confused him with the Oxford don, Isaiah Berlin. Soon the Alleyman had o'er-leaped the WASPs by obtaining an audience with Pope Pius XII. Was this simply love of high authority, or was there something bugging his conscience?
Years later, Berlin made a confession to his nurse while recovering from a nervous breakdown: "He expressed remorse over having bought tunes over the years from little-known songwriters for small change, published the songs and never having given these relatively anonymous craftsmen the recognition and recompense they deserved." Does this mean Berlin wasn't always the sole creator of Berlin hits? Ever since the ragtime years, rumor had persisted about a syncopating black boy kept captive in the Berlin closet.
I'm convinced that, though Berlin sponged in the sounds around him, he also pressed something of his inner being into even the most universal and commercial material. "When I Lost You," "All Alone," "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and even "God Bless America"--all contain quirks revealing the hand and heart of an individual, a working genius.
Despite a few errors (some wrong dates, song omissions and the misstatement that Berlin forged the standard 32-bar song structure), this biography is highly recommended, and I hope it will lead to a wider appreciation of lesser-known Alley songsmiths whose work continues to lighten our load.