One Life, Two Berlins; Pogrom to Hit Parade

Irving Berlin: American Troubadour , by Edward Jablonski. Henry Holt, 406 pages, $35.

While packing to go to Key West for a few days, I tossed two books on the bed between a bathing suit and my makeup case, planning to take one of them along, either Isaiah Berlin , by Michael Ignatieff, or Irving Berlin , by Edward Jablonski. Irving won, because although I was in the middle of Isaiah and eager to go on with it and him, this review was due.

According to legend, Lady Churchill, hearing that I. Berlin was in London, sat the great songwriter next to her husband at dinner, confusing him with the great philosopher. I am sure the Prime Minister had a fine time conversing with the man who might have led off with, “And then I wrote,” rather than, “And then I thought.” They might have discussed their shared passion for painting: Both Winston and Irving were avid and accomplished amateurs. Or the songwriter might have explained that a “bridge” is not only something you cross or blow up in battle, but also the middle section of a song.

In the course of his informative, carefully written biography Mr. Jablonski analyzes the structure of quite a few of the thousands of Berlin songs. I found all that fun to read, but then I am a lyricist. Part of what’s so remarkable about Berlin is the apparent simplicity of much of his work. But it’s not simple.… It’s just satisfyingly right, almost as if it had always been there.

I want to creep in the deep tangled wildwood,

Counting sheep in my sleep as a child would

With a great big valise full

Of books to read where it’s peaceful

While I’m killing time being lazy.

Actually, that song is somewhat more complex than, let us say,

I’ll be loving you always,

With a love that’s true, always.

Mr. Jablonski tells us that George S. Kaufman, who by his own admission didn’t like music and found songs an intrusion in the book of a musical, thought the sentiment of this song too extreme and suggested instead, “I’ll be loving you, Thursday.”

I remember Helen Hayes telling of the deep effect this song had on her life. She was going with the playwright Charles McArthur, a known drinker and man about town, and although she loved him, her friends had warned her against him and she was thinking it over. Helen was starring in a play in a theater across from Berlin’s office on West 46th Street; often, after her show, she and Charlie would drop by. One night, an excited Berlin told them he had just finished a song for his beloved wife Ellin, and played it for them. It was “Always.” Helen agreed to marry Charlie right away, and she did.

Back to the beginning. Back to Mr. Jablonski’s colorful, convincing picture of what Irving Berlin’s early life was like in crowded noisy rooms in the family’s tenement apartment on the Lower East Side (I am trying to avoid the word “teeming”): the poverty, the going hungry; Irving hanging out in

the saloons where he would sing songs in his high thin tenor for a few pennies. There is disagreement about how and why he left home, but soon he was living by himself in vermin-infested hotels, making the rounds at night singing, plugging songs and getting to know the saloonkeepers who could give him work. Then he was seeking out the song publishers’ offices a few blocks uptown, trying his hand at making up songs himself with various partners, getting singers to perform them. Before long Israel Baline was Irving Berlin, songwriter and song publisher, rich and successful and astonishing.

He bought the Music Box Theater with Sam H. Harris to house a series of his successful Music Box Revues. When radio took over, he had several songs each week on the Hit Parade . He conquered Hollywood with dazzling musicals for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, spilling over with glorious song hits. With Moss Hart he wrote two of the most successful revues for the stage: As Thousands Cheer (“Heat Wave,” “Supper Time,” “Easter Parade”) and Face the Music (“Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” “Soft Lights and Sweet Music”).

He married quite young, but his lovely bride died within a year of untreated, unrecognized typhoid fever. Inconsolable, he did not marry again for 23 years. And then it was the storybook romance of all time. He fell in love with Ellin Mackay, society daughter of the massively wealthy, anti-Semitic head of the Postal Telegraph Company, Clarence Mackay, who forbade his daughter to marry the enormously rich and popular Jewish songwriter. Ellin Mackay was made of strong, brave stuff and defied her father to marry the man she loved, and they stayed in love, always.

Frightening dry spells, loss of confidence and depression followed Berlin’s incredibly fertile periods.

After one of those discouraging fallow times, when he seemed finished and out-of-date, came Annie Get Your Gun , one of the most successful shows in history. Uneasy about doing it, partly because it was started by his friend Jerome Kern, who had died, and partly because he thought the subject matter was not for him, Berlin was finally talked into trying out a few songs for his friends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who were producing the show. The story I heard was that after a few days, for a small assembled group, he played seven or eight spectacular numbers, flabbergasting them all. He was asked if he would play them again for a few more people, and he did–but left out one of them. Oscar asked him, where is that other song, you know, the one you didn’t play tonight? Irving said, oh, you didn’t applaud as much for that one, so I thought it was a bust and I don’t know where it is anymore. The song was “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Mr. Jablonski doesn’t tell us much about Berlin’s later years, his depressions and reclusiveness. I wish he had been able to explain and explore what was going on inside this enormously complicated man who had been shaped and twisted by terrifying childhood experiences, early struggles and hardships. His first memory was of seeing his house burned to the ground in Russia during a pogrom. What followed was a harrowing 11-day passage in steerage to the goldene medine (golden land)–which turned out to be a slum.

It’s time I admit that the first thing I did when I was alone with Mr. Jablonski’s book was to turn to the index and look up my name. That may be a sad confession of overweening ego, but my partner Adolph Green and I were involved with Irving Berlin on a project, a movie called Say It With Music (never made), and I wanted to see what Mr. Jablonski had to say about it. He got it right. (I’ve heard about an author who wrote a book in which he mentioned many people he knew; he sent out a copy to each, and wrote in the index, next to that person’s name … “Hi!”)

Say It With Music was to be a catalogue movie, a film containing as many songs as the studio had contracted for, with a story conceived to encompass those songs, using them to tell a story wherever possible, and always for entertainment. Adolph and I had written two such pictures by then, Singin’ in the Rain , with the catalogue of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and The Bandwagon, with the songs of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. But Berlin’s career spanned many, many years. We were writing in 1965, and his first big hit, “Marie From Sunny Italy” (lyrics only), was in 1907. There was the history of a whole civilization to cover, and some hundreds of songs to consider. To begin our work, we first had to step over the bodies of several discarded screen writers. Finally we hit upon the idea of three stories each taking place in a different period: 1911 (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”); the 1920′s (Music Box Revues–but the picture was in no way biographical); and the present. We weaved them together into a thrilling, fantastic heart-stopping finish. When Berlin read it, he called us up and raved to us over the phone, telling us how great it was. He loved it, and listening to him we felt we had just won the Pulitzer Prize. Our script was the one ! So the studio dropped it and moved on to other writers and the picture was never made.

We had seen Berlin out on the Coast many times and, though not truly close, we were friends–and, of course, ardent and awed admirers of his work. We also knew him from around New York. We had watched him once walk into the Colony Music Store on Broadway, examine the sheet music racks and flick a printed song of his with his fingernail. We learned that if dust flew off it, Berlin would know the song wasn’t selling as it should; he would complain to the owner and ask to have it more prominently displayed.

Irving Berlin! So successful but still full of anxiety, still competing, maybe because of those anxious formative years, the grindingly hard days of being an immigrant. To me, every immigrant is a hero. Of course, not everyone can turn out to be Irving Berlin. It’s hard to believe anyone could turn out to be Irving Berlin.

In her charming memoir, Mary Ellin Barrett, eldest of Berlin’s three daughters, remembered her mother scolding the girls for putting their elbows on the table. One of them complained, “But Daddy puts his elbows on the table.” Her mother brought the argument to a close. “Daddy is a genius,” she said.

It’s true. He wrote so beautifully in “Change Partners”:

Must you dance quite so close,

With your lips touching his face?

Can’t you see I’m longing to be in his place?

Won’t you change partners and dance with me?

and with a sense of foreboding in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”:

Before the fiddlers have fled

Before they ask us to pay the bill

And while we still have the chance

Let’s face the music and dance!

And the music that embraces these words is so absolutely perfect.

Irving Berlin! A phenomenon, a once-in-a-millennium miracle, a natural.

Mr. Jablonski tells the story of a small bright-eyed Jewish boy who grew up to write the songs that celebrate the two great Christian holidays, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” He wrote his nation’s unofficial anthem, “God Bless America,” and married an American princess. His story, to quote one of his songs, is “wonderful … wonderful!” not “so they say,” but truly ” wonderful … in every way.”