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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 706

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This is the grave of Irving Berlin.

Born in 1888 in what is today Belarus (or possibly Siberia, there is some dispute on this), Israel Berlin immigrated in 1893 with his family to the United States, part of the massive Jewish migration out of Russia during these years escaping the period’s pogroms. He grew up poor on the Lower East Side, squeezed into a tenement. His father was a cantor but could not find work doing that in the city, so he worked in a kosher butcher shop. His wife worked as a midwife, his sisters did piece work wrapping cigars in the tenement. “Izzy,” as he was known as a kid, ended up as a newsboy, that bottom of the socioeconomic scale where newsies bought newspapers in bulk from the papers themselves and then sold what they could on the streets. By the time he was 14, he left home and lived in the Bowery with the other myriad marginalized people barely out of homelessness. There was nothing about this young boy that suggested future wealth and success.

Like a lot of young people with even marginal singing skills, Berlin found work in impromptu bands entertaining people at the bars for pennies. He proved unusually good at this and started getting jobs as a singing waiter. He was particularly good at taking contemporary hits and changing the lyrics to increase their bawdiness, much to the entertainment of customers. After the restaurant closed, he sat down at the piano and basically taught himself to play without ever taking a lesson. He started writing songs. In this pre-radio era, the money was in the publishing rights and so songwriters could make a living if their songs sold enough. Again he proved quite good at this and started rising in that world, getting steady work.

In 1911, Berlin had his first huge hit when the singer Emma Carus performed his “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” By this time, he was already a well-known figure in Tin Pan Alley. Oscar Hammerstein then hired him to play at his vaudeville house, he was a huge hit, and became of the biggest stars in New York. He had gone a long ways over the past decade. His first hit rejuvenating ragtime as a popular music after it had faded once its initial novelty had worn off in the early 1900s. By 1914, Berlin wrote Watch Your Step, a ragtime revue for the famous performers Vernon and Irene Castle. This was another huge hit. That Russia itself became a huge buyer of ragtime scores was an irony not lost on Berlin.

Berlin realized pretty quickly that ragtime was not going to be a permanent craze. He started writing love songs and also provided scores for the foxtrot and other dance crazes of the time. When Berlin was drafted by the Army in World War I, it made national headlines, but the Army had no interest in Berlin holding a gun. They wanted him to write patriotic songs. He was already doing this, so it was a smooth transition. One of the songs he wrote at this time, “God Bless America,” he chose not to use. It would later….well, you know the story.

Through the 20s and 30s, Berlin’s string of huge hits continued, as radio and recorded music changed the musical landscapes. Everyone from Al Jolson to Count Basie to Willie Nelson had huge success with “Blue Skies.” With “Always,” it was Sammy Turner and Patsy Cline and Leonard Cohen. For “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” it was Fred Astaire and the 80’s early techo artist Taco and Mel Brooks using it in Young Frankenstein. And then of course there was Kate Smith using Berlin’s old song “God Bless America” when she needed a big hit in 1938. I personally dislike this song as the personification of cheap, meaningless patriotism and boring displays of ‘Merica! at Yankees games, but for Berlin, it was a love song to a nation where he was the literal rags to riches story. In World War II, he was back in on the patriotic front, writing “Any Bonds Today?” to support the war bond effort. He wrote a stage show called “This is the Army” that toured through the war. And then right after the war, when Jerome Kern died, Rogers and Hammerstein convinced Berlin to write the score for Annie Get Your Gun.

Berlin also, in a point of great irony that many have noticed, wrote some of the iconic Christmas songs of the nation, a Jewish immigrant providing the soundtrack for the whitest WASPiest holiday traditions in the country. I especially mean “White Christmas,” recording more times than one can count. It has sold a mere 50 million copies through its history. This was made for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, which won Berlin his Oscar. Hilariously, Berlin was presenting the award!!! This caused such an awkward situation that the Academy changed its rules the next year so that nominees could not present the awards they were nominated for.

Berlin married young and they honeymooned in Cuba. But his wife caught typhoid in Havana and died. Whoops. His second marriage, to Ellin Mackay, a rich Irish Catholic heiress, made huge headlines, because it was cross-religious, because Berlin was the ultimate rags-to-riches story now marrying even richer, and because her anti-Semitic father was so outraged that he disowned her for marrying him. But what did he care? He had so much money now himself that disowning was outrageous, but certainly not financially ruinous. They remained married for a mere 63 years.

By all accounts, Berlin also always saw himself as a child of the ghetto and the Bowery. He frequently returned to those neighborhoods to hang out. He had moderate politics, writing a campaign song for Eisenhower, but they were real patriotic politics. In other words, unlike scumbags like Donald Trump, he enjoyed paying taxes. Literally. When his accountant tried to get him to use some tax shelters, Berlin replied, “I want to pay taxes. I love this country.” Speaking of scumbags, J. Edgar Hoover had a file on Berlin for years because the songwriter also supported the civil rights movement. He also donated the royalties to “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Berlin could have kept going for a long time, even with changing musical styles. But he chose to retire after a 1962 play did not do that well. Of course, he was 74 years old at this time. But what makes that seem early is that he lived until 1989, when he died at the age of 101. As for his legacy, Gary Giddins may have put it best when he wrote, “No other songwriter has written as many anthems…. No one else has written as many pop songs, period… [H]is gift for economy, directness, and slang, presents Berlin as an obsessive, often despairing commentator on the passing scene.”

Irving Berlin is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Tin Pan Alley set, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jerome Kern is in Hartsdale, New York and Cole Porter is in Peru, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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