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Let’s Face the Music

Annie Get Your Gun

music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, as revised by Peter Stone, directed by Graciela Daniele, starring Bernadette Peters. at the Marquis Theater, New York City

The kings of Tin Pan Alley—Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and the rest—were a collegial but competitive bunch. Quick to praise each other’s music and to pay one another generous formal tributes, they dined together, played cards together, occasionally vacationed together—but always kept a sharp eye on the sales figures, their own and their rivals’.

Something of this friendly, feisty spirit seems to have permeated much of the writing about them. In biographies and theater reviews, in album liner notes and reminiscences, one is forever coming upon rankings and hierarchies: who was the best songwriter, and who the next best, which were the five finest musicals, the ten all-time greatest ballads. This is the domain of aficionados, and categories rapidly ramify into subcategories: the best bar songs ever written, the finest torch songs, the cleverest list songs…

But even among people keen for argument, there’s little dispute over who enjoyed the most remarkable life. What could be a more implausible, inspiring tale than that of Irving Berlin, born in 1888, who sold the rights to his first song for thirty-seven cents and went on to triumph, in his hundred-and-one years on the planet, in one musical revolution after another? More than half a century elapsed from his first hit, “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!,” in 1909, to his last Broadway show, Mr. President, which closed in 1963. (George Gershwin, by poignant contrast, was dead at the age of thirty-eight, felled by an undiagnosed brain tumor.)

Berlin launched his career in raucous Lower Manhattan, in an age when songs were boosted through “song-pluggers” in bars and theaters and stores, and hits were measured in the currency of sheet music; he plugged away as fervently as anyone, tossing off hit after hit, and became a partner in a firm of musical publishers by the age of twenty-three. When the rise of radio eclipsed the sheet music business—when a family no longer needed to perform a song themselves in order to bring it into their home—Berlin dominated the airwaves. When movies learned to talk and sing, he ventured out to California and, in a pair of Astaire-Rogers films, lifted the Hollywood musical to heights never since surpassed. He was still a commanding musical force—advance sales for Mr. President were a then-unprecedented two-and-a-half-million dollars—on the eve of Beatlemania.

There’s a pleasing irony to the notion that the man who became our nation’s unofficial songwriter laureate (the creator of, among other things, “God Bless America”) wasn’t born in this country—and a second appealing irony to the notion that his family origins were so misty. He might have sprung from Anywhere, Foreignland. No one in the family seemed to recall precisely where the Berlins had variously originated—“back in Russia” was about all that was certain. (Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett reports, in her appealing account of her parents’ marriage, Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir, that “latter-day research…indicates that my father was probably born in western Siberia.”) To complicate matters, the Berlins weren’t the Berlins when they disembarked on Ellis Island, in 1893, but the Balines: Moses Baline, a forty-six-year-old cantor, his wife Lena, and six children, the youngest of whom was five-year-old Israel. Before remaking the popular music of his adopted country, Israel Baline would remake himself, first name and last.

Moses never prospered in his new homeland—he became a part-time kosher poultry inspector and housepainter—and the family was still living in close-quartered sweatshop poverty when he died in 1901. Israel/Irving was thirteen. Moses, dogged by failure, must have sought consolation in the new opportunities he’d given his children. But even had he lived a few more years, Moses couldn’t have felt too sanguine about his youngest child: a slight, ragged boy who, despite having no formal musical training and an inability to read music, despite a thin tenor voice and extremely primitive skills on the piano, had resolved to pursue a musician’s life. More pathetic still: this high school dropout was composing his own lyrics. Shortly after his father’s death, Irving left home—“went on the bum” was his phrase—and apparently, although documentation for this portion of his life remains patchy, spent some two years living alone in lodging houses, singing in Bowery saloons, and taking what odd jobs he could find.

Later, Berlin married twice, both times to Gentiles. His first wife, Dorothy Goetz, sister of one of his collaborators, died in 1912, five months after their wedding, her health undermined by typhoid fever contracted during their Cuban honeymoon. Berlin waited fourteen years to remarry, this time to Ellin Mackay, daughter of Clarence Mackay, whose Irish-Catholic emigrant father, John “Bonanza” Mackay, had been a Nevada silver baron and one of the wealthiest men in America. Within a generation, entrance into the aristocracy had been purchased by the Mackays, so that when Edward, the Prince of Wales, visited America in 1924, one of his dinner-party stops was the Mackay home on Long Island, where he sat beside Ellin and afterward danced with her.

The Mackays were elevated people. Of course Berlin, too, was climbing quickly, in his fashion: by the time he met Ellin, in 1924, he’d become a perennial, internationally famous hit-maker. Their “mixed marriage”—as the press of the time would have it—captured the fancy of the world. They eloped and sailed to Europe, without the approval of Ellin’s father.

Berlin composed a song for Ellin at this time, “Always,” whose lyrics hummed with all the customary hyperbole of the songwriter’s trade:

I’ll be loving you, always,
With a love that’s true, always.
When the things you planned
Need a helping hand
I will understand, always.

Yet the pledge wasn’t empty. The marriage endured for sixty-two years, until Ellin died of a stroke when Irving was one hundred. During those sixty-two years there’s no record of his ever forming an attachment to another woman.

Not surprisingly, Berlin’s life has attracted its share of biographies, the first of them appearing when he was only thirty-six. In recent years we’ve had Lawrence Bergreen’s big, comprehensive, well-received As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin in 1990, followed by Mary Ellin Barrett’s memoir in 1994. The newest are Edward Jablonski’s Irving Berlin: American Troubadour, Philip Furia’s Irving Berlin: A Life in Song, and Charles Hamm’s Irving Berlin: Songs from the Melting Pot.1

It’s hard to figure out what motive propelled Mr. Jablonski’s book—other than the urge to write another book. (His “also by” page lists twenty-three titles.) He doesn’t come close to matching Bergreen’s considerable strengths: depth of background, balance of portraiture, believability of motivation, richness of peripheral detail. Nor does he seem intent on amending Bergreen’s occasional shortcomings: the clumsiness of his musical descriptions, his credulity, the traces of something hasty in his fact-checking (he repeats the familiar but unfounded tale that Berlin bailed out his father-in-law during the Depression with a million-dollar check; misidentifies the island from which the Enola Gay departed for Hiroshima; misleadingly implies that Richard Rodgers began collaborating with Hammerstein only after Hart’s death; etc.). Jablonski has almost nothing to say about the final decades of Berlin’s life—he accords a mere eighteen pages to his final twenty years—which were a bleak but psychologically revealing period, as Bergreen convincingly shows. (Jablonski is spared, however, Bergreen’s unwittingly comic obsession with weight, which leads to constant reminders that someone should have shed a few pounds: “the obese critic complained,” “the rotund director breathed an enormous sigh of relief,” etc.)

Furia lays the life out clearly and compactly, and gives Berlin his welcome due as a lyricist, as well as a composer. But the book is short on psychological penetration—nothing like a complex man emerges from its pages—and you might say that Berlin went on and outlived his biographer: Furia’s energies, like Jablonski’s, appear to flag well before his subject’s sprawling life concludes, and Berlin’s last forty-plus years—which include a number of Broadway shows, the debacle of Mr. President, and the death of his wife—are crammed into thirty pages.

Actually, my favorite Berlin anecdote—the one that best conveys the man’s intense, impacted presence—comes from Barrett’s memoir. Her mother, Ellin Mackay, describes a moment of misgivings as she readies herself to marry Berlin—knowing that by doing so she will painfully estrange herself from her adoring but anti-Semitic father and will work a permanent breach with many of her high-society friends:

I remember once catching this sudden glimpse of him standing under a street lamp. He had a hat on I didn’t much like, and he was chewing gum. As he chewed, his hat moved. I thought, Is he really what I am ready to give up all for, this funny little man chewing gum with his funny hat that moves as he chews, up and down, up and down on his head?

The image captures Berlin with a caricaturist’s slashing exactitude: the unease; the fidgeting energy; the hints of a boorishness that would keep him an outsider, however much money he amassed, among certain rarefied social circles; and, in its underlying devotion, the sense of some unaccountable specialness to the man—something as unlikely and as transformative as genius.

Whatever you want to call it—genius, a flair, a gift—something about Berlin’s talents has always awed and daunted his critics. Partly this is a simple matter of sales figures. Nobody wrote more hits, bigger hits, longer-lived hits than Berlin. (Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” with estimated sales at thirty million, sits securely lodged in The Guinness Book of World Records.) Late in life Berlin declared, “You can’t sell patriotism, unless the people feel patriotic. For that matter, you can’t sell people anything they don’t want.” No other songwriter so often, and over so many years, sold the American public what it wanted.

Yet the sales figures do not so much explain as deepen the puzzle. In both melodies and lyrics there’s a directness to Berlin’s compositions, a made-to-order quality, that logically ought to lead to formula and flatness—but doesn’t. Berlin’s career vindicates Harold Arlen’s observation that simple songs “are the hardest to write.” Somehow Berlin repeatedly managed to “give them what they ask for” in a straightforward but beguiling fashion. During the writing of Annie Get Your Gun, he was urged to compose a “challenge song”—a tune in which Annie Oakley and her beau Frank Butler could indulge in some one-upmanship—and fifteen minutes later Berlin produced one of the great joys of the show, “Anything You Can Do.” Need a sentimental song for the holidays? Maybe something called “White Christmas”… A patriotic song for an Armistice Day broadcast? Perhaps “God Bless America”… A pledge of eternal devotion? Why not “Always”…

In their choice of subject matter, most popular songwriters are essentially lyric poets: they have a small range of themes—most of them revolving around romantic love—which are systematically ransacked in an endless search for novelty and vibrancy. Berlin, however, was a novelist by temperament: his goal was comprehensiveness, the scattered daily minutiae of life. He meant to turn the full range of the American experience into song: everything from life in the military to national holidays, from dance crazes to ethnic assimilation and humor, from political campaign songs to Depression joblessness.

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press, 1997.

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