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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1852

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.

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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 [1925]) 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 tasks among too many directors, managers, and assistants. His second try at Hollywood, around 1933, was more successful. At RKO Studios, he began working with the new dance/music team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. From this collaboration, he wrote the song “Cheek to Cheek” and the musical Top Hat (1935). His unsteady relationship with Hollywood ended with There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and the almost direct steal of Holiday Inn (1942) entitled White Christmas (1954). Cinema-Scope, Ethel Merman, and Marilyn Monroe all starred, but Berlin did not. Another project, Say It With Music, floundered and was eventually scrapped.

World War II brought plenty of work for Berlin. Most important, he wrote the music for This Is the Army (1942), a specially designed Broadway benefit in which everyone wore a khaki uniform; the show toured the world during the final years of the war. At about the same time, the film Holiday Inn introduced Bing Crosby’s rendition of another new Berlin holiday song, “White Christmas.”

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Berlin’s longevity increased his legendary status but did not bring new insights. As his colleagues all faded away, he stood as a living monument to a musical era revered in history. As the American musical moved away from Berlin’s revue style toward the new styles introduced by George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, and others, Berlin was unable to adapt and faded into obscurity. Only his perennial favorites kept his name alive. One last attempt at Broadway was Mr. President (1962), which was an embarrassing disappointment in its Washington, D.C., opening and a critical and financial failure on Broadway despite its large advance sales. Berlin retreated into surly isolation.

In telling Berlin’s story, Bergreen takes a tone that is neither admiring nor cynical, reminding the reader on several occasions of Berlin’s humanity (he donated all proceeds from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts), and his reluctance to indulge in the privileges of his fame. In this portrait, Berlin is a thin, almost reclusive dweller in an apartment where he worked all night, essentially alone despite his wide circle of friends. Pressing himself to accomplish more and more, he simultaneously feared competition and began a self-imposed exile from adventurous enterprises, risk, and daring. Throughout, Bergreen emphasizes that Berlin, while living in the frantic world of music publishing, did not partake of its vices. His shyness, claims Bergreen, as well as his fastidious devotion to success, prevented his succumbing to these temporary charms.

Bergreen succeeds in describing Berlin as a private personality whose inner thoughts were rarely expressed spontaneously or emotionally. The one major exception was anger, which was usually caused by a perceived slight. Berlin could be described as calculating; he certainly practiced considerable self-control whenever his humble beginnings needed to be separated from his later fame and success. “Control separated the beggar, the busker, the refuse of history from the unique phenomenon he had become,” says Bergreen. Berlin’s most spontaneous moments occurred in the middle of the night, when he had completed a song and would call up his arranger, Helmy Kresa, and sing it over the telephone.

From Bergreen’s descriptions of Berlin’s involvement in the army, one gets the impression that he would have made a good general, for he was adept at enforcing strict rules of discipline, making large groups do anything he wanted, and instilling fear in his colleagues. Bergreen also discusses the composer’s volatile and paranoic reaction to criticism. As Berlin became increasingly tyrannical, his inability to handle perceived criticism destroyed a number of working relationships. His temper tantrums and his long memory damaged as many potential friendships as he initiated because of his longing for acceptance. He would not tolerate any abridgment or alteration of his lyrics; he even sued Mad Magazine for a parody of some of his songs. In 1987, one of his last formal decisions was to refuse to give Steven Spielberg the rights to “Always” for the film of that name. In this respect he was as guilty of pride as was his father-in-law, who refused to acknowledge Berlin’s marriage to Ellin.

In part, Berlin’s coldness was his protection against a lionizing press and the demands of fans; when he needed approbation and praise, however, he did not hesitate to assume the air of the common man humbly seeking the public’s approval. The final impression Bergreen leaves is that Berlin had a frail ego. Berlin was an outsider with only one talent, who worked very hard, succeeded, and then measured himself against everything he was not: a well-trained musician, a pianist, and an American composer of dignity and stature. Despite his many successes, he always remained a songwriter, a busker, and a Tin Pan Alley hack. His inadequacies when compared to George Gershwin, Eric Satie, Stephen Foster, and other musicians always outweighed his own talents in his mind, and, he suspected, in the annals of history. Even in his moments of glory, when the whole world wanted to sing his praises, he knew what he could never be, and it took the edge off his success.

Berlin’s old age was not pretty. For a full thirty years he was a cranky recluse, shielding himself from the world that wanted to give him adulation by his own obstinacy, small- mindedness, and egotistical anxiety. He often telephoned friends and strangers and ranted about the latest insult. After receiving such a call, James T. Maher remarked, “There was no music in that voice … only the sour malevolence of a mean spirit.” A group of singers who yearly serenaded his apartment building with his own songs were met with silence. He even forbade his nephew, Irving Berlin Kahn, from using his middle name. At his 100th birthday, his friends threw a gala party at Carnegie Hall in his honor and even offered to televise it by closed circuit into his home, but he refused to acknowledge the event. It was as though the demons of reputation had devoured him until nothing of the creative songwriter remained, leaving only the shell of the man. Perhaps it is best to remember the songs and forget the man who wrote them.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, May 1, 1990, p.1667.

Chicago Tribune. July 8, 1990, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXV, June 1, 1990, p.130.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 1, 1990, p.1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, July 1, 1990, p.1.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, June 1, 1990, p.51.

Time. CXXXVI, July 23, 1990, p.74.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 31, 1990, p.918.

Variety. CCCXL, August 8, 1990, p.64.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, June 24, 1990, p.3.

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