“Irving Berlin: New York Genius” by James Kaplan. New Have, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019. 335 pages. $26.
When Irving Berlin’s three daughters were young, their mother Ellin Mackay Berlin was trying to teach them not to put their arms on the dinner table.
“Daddy puts his elbow on the table,” one of their daughters said. “Your father is a genius,” mom replied.
I’m not sure if his super-sized talents gave him the right to flout social convention, but his musical gift is unquestionable, as author James Kaplan amply demonstrates in this well-written, meticulously researched biography.
Among his creations are four immortals, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America” — songs that will be heard as long as there are jazz enthusiasts, American Christians and America, respectively.
But the range of his genius and his immense contribution to the American songbook only can be gauged, if at all, when looking at the next tier of his magnificent but perhaps not timeless compositions.
A small sample includes “There’s No Business Like Show Business”; “Always” (“Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always”); “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” (WWI); “This is the Army, Mr. Jones” (WWII); “A Couple of Swells” (“We’re a couple of swells, we stay in the best hotels”); “Cheek to Cheek” (“Heaven, I’m in heaven”); “A Pretty Girl is Like a Memory”; “Putting on the Ritz”; “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”; “Anything You Can Do (‘I Can Do Better’)”; “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”; “It’s a Lovely Day Today”; and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”
A good case can be made that Berlin was much more than just the finest American composer of his time but that he was the voice, even the embodiment, of 20th-century American culture.
Almost as amazing is the journey that he made to become Irving Berlin.
He was born Israel Beilin in 1888 in western Siberia, the youngest of eight children of Leah and Moses Beilin. When the family came to America in 1893, an immigration clerk changed their name to Baline, and it stuck. His father was mostly unemployed, and the family was sustained by the work of Lena (Leah’s American name) and two of Israel’s siblings as makers of cigar wrappers.
Israel apparently had begun singing while hawking newspapers on the street at age 8. He made only a half-penny profit on newspaper sales, but noticed if he sang while selling, sometimes the paper buyers might give an extra cent or two.
At 13, his father died and — reasons not clear — he quit school and left home, singing in saloons to earn his bread and staying in flop houses.
“He could sing,” the author writes. “He could keep a tune; he could remember the words. He could, if the spirit or the audience moved him, fill in better, spicier words of his own. It may not be reaching to say that even then, barely into his teens, he felt a fascination for what a song said and how it said it.”
Eventually, he got a job singing in a cafe, and the cafe owner pushed the piano player and Izzy Baline to write songs and perform them to pull in more customers. The song they wrote, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” had I. Berlin as one of the composers. (It’s not clear when and why he changed his name to Berlin; Irving was then a “British-sounding,” “classy” name like Murray, Milton, Seymour and Sidney that were popular names among American Jews in the early 1900s, Kaplan notes, and, of course, later became names thought to be Jewish.)
He continued writing lyrics, eventually branching out into composing both lyrics and music, making himself rich from the proceeds earned from selling sheet music.
But his breakout occurred in 1911, when “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made him a very wealthy — and well-known — celebrity.
Despite his sudden wealth, Berlin eschewed extravagance —“poverty seems to have both toughened him and wised him up,” the author writes. “He also appears to have possessed some inner core of character, an innate moral compass: his lodestar seems to have been his family, and in particular, his mother.”
Making his first dollars from songwriting, he bought his mother a rocking chair. As soon as could, he moved his family “from the chaotic and malodorous Lower East Side to the leafy streets of the Bronx.”
Berlin had stopped attending synagogue and carrying out the rituals of his faith after his father died. In addition, Kaplan writes, he had “worked hard on purging the greenhorn from himself and becoming a true American.”
But, according to Mary Ellen Barrett, one of his daughters, “his kind of assimilation was not denying his Jewishness, He was very much a Jew.”
The author adds that “his Jewishness permeated his songs.”
Berlin also was a very complicated individual, Kaplan says, at the same time both modest and arrogant. He never did anything to undermine “the cult of personality” built around him. The song writer was “a Chaplinesque figure, camera-ready and seemingly self-effacing, who did possess genuine humility and deep reticence alongside a justifiable arrogance … .”
And, despite his enormous success over many decades, lasting almost until his death at 101, Berlin had an abiding fear of failure, the feeling sometimes that he might not be able to replicate his past achievements.
He was a most fascinating character whose life has been chronicled in a most fascinating book.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.