Musical gifts of a steppe son

Irving Berlin's life was packed with incident

Christopher Bray

On February 9 1944, in the Garden Room at 10 Downing Street, Winston Churchill sat down to luncheon with the day’s guests. Among the invitees was the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, then working for the Foreign Office in Washington. “What is the likelihood,” Churchill asked, “of the President being re-elected for a fourth term?” Berlin looked befuddled, but eventually allowed that Roosevelt’s good name ought to ensure him victory. If, though, Roosevelt decided not to stand, then Berlin wouldn’t be voting for anyone.

Now it was Churchill’s turn to look stupefied: “You think you’ll have a vote?” Berlin was sure he would—though it was pretty much all that he was sure of. Churchill’s questions about the state of arms production flummoxed him, and when he was asked how long he thought the war would last, he simply beamed with pride: “Mr Prime Minister, I shall tell my grandchildren that Winston Churchill asked ME that question.” The confusion lifted only when Churchill asked Berlin what was the most important thing he’d been working on and he replied “White Christmas, I guess”.

No, James Kaplan doesn’t believe it either—though given the numerous other tales he tells during his marvellous Irving Berlin: New York Genius, you have to wonder why. The story reads like a Victorian melodrama. Cole Porter fell off his horse, Lorenz Hart fell off the wagon, but otherwise the average songwriter, like the average writer, lives a life of agonised tedium: pushing words or notes around until they’re in the right order. Not so Berlin. His life was packed with incident.

He was born Israel Baline, the youngest child of eight, in western Siberia in 1888. Not long after, the family moved to what is now Belarus. His earliest memory was of their home being burned down during a Czarist pogrom. They fled, at first on foot, then by train, then across the Atlantic in steerage. At Ellis Island the Balines became the Berlins. They settled in a tenement on the Lower East Side, where dad, a cantor, never found work. Three years later, aged eight, young Izzy started earning, hawking newspapers around the beer halls of the Bowery. 

A quick study with a good ear, he memorised the songs of the singing waiters and took to carolling them himself out on the streets. By 15 he was earning seven bucks a week plus tips, at “Nigger Mike’s” café  in Chinatown. The dirtier Izzy’s improvised words to the hits of the day, the bigger the tips. Soon he was writing lyrics from scratch, then melodies too.

Berlin had no musical training. “I studied for two days,” he said years later, “but gave it up when I realised I could have written two songs and made some money”. But he found that if he fooled around with the black keys on the piano (essentially, playing in the key of F sharp) he could pick out a tune. And while he couldn’t pick out the chords to go with it, he knew how they should sound. What he needed was a pianist proper to work their way through the sharpened sevenths and diminished ninths until they hit the chord already in his mind’s ear. Enter the young George Gershwin, whom Berlin admonished for accepting such humble work—though only after the humble work was done.

With the earnings from his first major hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, Berlin bought a Bronx apartment for the family and a piano for himself. This last had a special lever that allowed him to change key while still hitting only those black notes. He called it “the Buick” and on it he wrote songs that George M Cohan once described as “music you don’t have to dress up to listen to”.

Listened to they were—and anyone who could sing wanted to sing them. Rumour has it that Berlin met his first wife after she and another songstress scrapped in his office over who got to perform his latest. Kaplan doesn’t mention that story, but he does remind us how short-lived the marriage was. Within weeks of meeting Dorothy Goetz, Berlin was honeymooning with her in Havana. Alas, unbeknownst to them, typhoid was rife. Days after returning to Manhattan, Dorothy turned feverish. Five months later she was dead.

It was 12 years before Berlin fell in love again, this time with Ellin McKay, an Irish Catholic whose wealthy father disapproved of her consorting with a Jew and disowned her when they eloped. Berlin made it up to her by making her wedding present the royalties of “Always”, the multi-million selling love song she inspired. Their love match endured the rest of their lives (Ellin died in 1988, a year before Berlin), but drama would not leave him be. Their first child, Irving Jr, was just three weeks old when he died in his cot on Christmas Day 1928. The next year, Berlin lost his $5m fortune (around $70m today) in the crash.

Thank heaven for the movies, which were just becoming the talkies. What would come to be called the Hollywood musical was crying out for talent. Berlin wrote Top Hat, the frothiest Fred and Ginger picture, and Follow the Fleet, in which the majestically sombre “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” made its debut. With minor chord succeeding minor chord, no song in the Berlin canon sounds more like the work of a son of the steppe.

But then, as Philip Roth once said, Berlin was “Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments”. Take Easter Parade, Roth argues, or White Christmas:

The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity . . . [Berlin] de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ. Down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet!

Peace on earth, and mercy mild. Maybe Churchill was talking to the right guy after all.

Irving Berlin: New York Genius
By James Kaplan
Yale, 413pp, £16.99

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