Irv­ing Berlin: New York Genius

  • Review
By – February 10, 2020

Israel Baline began his career as a news­boy busk­ing on the streets of the Low­er East Side for pen­nies, some­times slip­ping into a saloon and ad lib­bing salty lyrics to the sen­ti­men­tal bal­lads of the day. But with the pub­li­ca­tion of the ground­break­ing Alexander’s Rag­time Band,” Izzy Baline — now Irv­ing Berlin — was, at twen­ty-three, an inter­na­tion­al celebri­ty. In his brisk and thor­ough­ly enjoy­able biog­ra­phy of Berlin, James Kaplan charts this remark­able rise and Berlin’s cen­tu­ry-long life.

The youngest of eight chil­dren of an immi­grant fam­i­ly, Berlin dropped out of school when he was thir­teen and left home to make a liv­ing. With his sweet voice and steely deter­mi­na­tion, he ulti­mate­ly land­ed a job as a singing wait­er and offi­cial­ly became a song­writer at twen­ty-one, when he was hired as a staff lyri­cist at Water­son and Sny­der. His first song for the pub­lish­er earned him $3,000. With the smash­ing suc­cess of Alexander’s Rag­time Band,” the pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny became Waterson-Berlin-Snyder.

The genius of Berlin’s song­writ­ing was his uncan­ny abil­i­ty to cre­ate melodies that per­fect­ly matched his lyrics. He stressed sim­plic­i­ty of words and music, and it was some­times said that he cre­at­ed songs almost on the spot, but with the excep­tion of Alexander’s Rag­time Band” — reput­ed­ly writ­ten in eigh­teen min­utes — Kaplan, a not­ed jour­nal­ist, biog­ra­ph­er, and nov­el­ist, con­firms that the songs were the result of hours of ago­niz­ing work. Kaplan’s sharp analy­sis of Berlin’s lyrics reveals their decep­tive sim­plic­i­ty, under­ly­ing sophis­ti­ca­tion and Berlin’s ear for the right word or melody in the right place.

When draft­ed dur­ing World War I, Berlin turned his dis­taste for army life into Oh How IHate to Get Up in the Morn­ing” and ulti­mate­ly Yip! Yip! Yaphank, a revue cre­at­ed as a fundrais­er for the army. Short­ly after Pearl Har­bor, Berlin wrote to Gen­er­al George Mar­shall sug­gest­ing an updat­ed ver­sion. This Is the Army drew packed hous­es for three months and then went on a cross-coun­try tour, earn­ing mil­lions for the army. Berlin then took the show on the road, first to the British Isles and then, for the next two and a half years, to the front in North Africa, Italy, and the Pacif­ic. A notable fea­ture of the show was that it includ­ed, at Berlin’s insis­tence, two dozen black sol­diers, mak­ing it the only inte­grat­ed unit in the U.S. Army.

A not­ed celebri­ty and immense­ly suc­cess­ful both pro­fes­sion­al­ly and finan­cial­ly, Berlin nev­er­the­less suf­fered from bouts of self-doubt and peri­ods of depres­sion. A bun­dle of ner­vous ener­gy, he was a com­pul­sive work­er, an insom­ni­ac who often worked through the night. His life was unex­pect­ed­ly over­turned when his wife died five months after their mar­riage, leav­ing Berlin a wid­ow­er at twen­ty-three. He remar­ried fif­teen years lat­er, an improb­a­ble but deeply lov­ing match with a Catholic heiress fif­teen years his junior that last­ed more than six­ty years.

One of the plea­sures of Irv­ing Berlin is Kaplan’s live­ly and affec­tion­ate overview of the New York musi­cal scene in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Kaplan takes the read­er on an inside tour of Tin Pan Alley and the Broad­way stage, with, like Berlin him­self, dash­es to Hol­ly­wood. One of the mas­ters of the Amer­i­can Song­book, Berlin wrote more than fif­teen hun­dred tunes, and as Kaplan cites one after anoth­er of his hits, the great flour­ish­ing of the Amer­i­can musi­cal stage from 1920 to 1950 comes alive.

Per­haps the most telling mark of Irv­ing Berlin’s genius was his abil­i­ty, in his words, to embod[y] the feel­ings of the mob.” A Jew­ish immi­grant from Belarus, he caught the heart of Chris­t­ian Amer­i­ca in White Christ­mas,” East­er Parade,” and, most notably, God Bless Amer­i­ca,” a sin­cere expres­sion of Berlin’s patri­o­tism and love of the coun­try. That these songs — along with so many more — are stan­dards is a trib­ute to Berlin’s achieve­ment and last­ing impact on Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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