The fact that Irving Berlin discouraged all publication of personal information during the last years of his life brings more than usual interest to this biography, which was four years in the making. Laurence Bergreen earned a strong reputation for this kind of work with the publication of James Agee (1984), and here examines the life of America’s best-known popular composer in a thorough and fair study.
As in all good biographies, the world of the subject is described in such rich detail that the work is transformed into a history of Berlin’s time. The Tin Pan Alley music business, for example, is clearly described—not only the facts, but also the mood of the place and the way it worked. Bergreen demonstrates how talent and sharp business sense combine to promote a song to success: the plugs, the careful selection of singers, the perfect timing to introduce a song, the cautious marketing to ensure royalties and benefits for many years. Sadly but inevitably, Bergreen also chronicles the decline of an artist who gradually became out of step with his time.
The biography divides Berlin’s life into four periods. The first section covers the period from the early struggles of the immigrant child Israel Baline to the astounding success of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”; the next section, in which he establishes himself as a songwriter and publisher, continues the portrait into financial success. Among Berlin’s early acquaintances were the Shuberts (they had a lifelong quarrel), Florenze Ziegfeld, and Ted Snyder, his collaborator in the early years. The years just before World War I, when Berlin was working as a hack writer for a publishing company, are described in some detail, particularly the organic, disorganized nature of the music business.
From his World War I army career (during which “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” was written) through the establishment of the Music Box Theatre, Berlin built a reputation as a reliable and prolific songwriting virtuoso. He became friends with Alexander Woollcott (author of The Story of Berlin ) and the whole Round Table group (a group of writers and artists who met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel during this period), though he remained on the periphery.
Bergreen devotes a chapter to Berlin’s courtship of and marriage to Ellin Mackay. She was the very eligible daughter of one of the richest men of the time, Clarence Hungerford Mackay, who disapproved of the marriage of his Catholic daughter to a Jewish immigrant with no “station.” Bergreen discusses in great detail the background of the Mackay fortune. This expanded version is not digression, for much of Berlin’s later life was based on his awareness that he was not of that class.
With Ellin and the wealth of her family, Berlin began a new phase of his career and put aside his humble beginnings. Berlin had to struggle after the 1929 Stock Market Crash. His difficulties were not monetary, however; instead, Berlin was trying to break through a dry period in his output of major hits. He had had a few hit songs, but they were nothing special, and the world of music seemed to be passing him by. His first encounter with the motion picture business was unsuccessful; on Broadway, a new kind of musical entertainment, heralded by George Gershwin’s Showboat, seemed to render his revue style obsolete. With As Thousands Cheer(1933), Berlin reached a turning point, when he began writing lyrics and music with more meaning, taking some chances, and avoiding ethnic stereotypes. It was the musical that featured the hit song “Easter Parade.”
His musical judgment was sound when, as a music publisher; he evaluated the work of others, but he was less sure about the quality of his own songs. He needed the public to tell him when a song was a hit. He knew the “rules” of Tin Pan Alley, but he often tucked away some of his best songs without realizing their worth. For example, one of his favorites was a song, originally written for a friend’s girl, that began, “I’ll be loving you, Mona.” When he retrieved it from his “trunk,” it became the hit “Always.” Even “God Bless America” spent some years in obscurity before Kate Smith and the imminence of World War II brought it into the light.
Berlin’s first Hollywood experiences were not uniformly pleasant, despite Al Jolson’s rendition of “Blue Skies” in The Jazz Singer (1927). Berlin needed to have more control over his material, and Hollywood divided the...
(The entire section is 1852 words.)