Rediscovering Irving Berlin

By Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.


Barrett, Mary Ellin, Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. $14.95

Furia, Philip, Irving Berlin: A Life in Song. New York. Shirmer Books, 1998. $25.00

Jablonski, Edward Irving Berlin: American Troubador. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. $30.00

Irving Berlin has long been one of the most misunderstood figures in American popular music, partly because he lived so long. As he moved into his late 80's, he became reclusive and misanthropic. Among other things, he became fanatic about guarding his privacy and refused to cooperate with anyone wanting to study his career. When Alec Wilder wrote his wonderful book The American Popular Song, Berlin would not allow a single note or word of a lyric to be cited. Jimmy Breslin had to rewrite part of a novel because Berlin would not allow him to quote three words from "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." On his 100th birthday, Berlin relented a little and allowed ASCAP to do a televised tribute to him, but he demanded that all the orchestrations be destroyed immediately after the performance. Such behavior went on for almost two decades, so that when Berlin died in 1989—at the ago of 101--he was one of the most misunderstood and disliked figures in the music business. People who knew him in better times and who could have spoken of him more favorably were dead.

That is a shame. Irving Berlin was always a workaholic. As he advanced into extreme old age, his mind remained sharp and his desire to work strong. (His daughter speaks of him as tinkering with lyric possibilities when he was ninety-nine.) But his body had gone feeble; popular music had gone a direction he didn't understand, and all of his friends and co-workers had died. Who wouldn't have become disagreeable amid such circumstances?

Consequently, by the time Irving Berlin died, very little had been written about him. Britisher Michael Freedland, who had a passing acquaintance with Berlin, tried a biography in 1974. Freedland hoped Berlin would cooperate, but he didn’t.

Alexander Woollcott (essayist and drama critic for the New York Herald in the ‘20’s) wrote a brief biography in 1925. Young Irving, who was friends with Woolcott, shared much information about his early life, and most of what we know about Berlin's family, boyhood and adolescence comes from that book. (Da Capo even reprinted it in 1983, but few people read it because the flowery, antiquated style seems comical to modern tastes.)

The first well-researched biography of Berlin appeared in 1990, shortly after his death. The author, Lawrence Bergreen, a cultural historian who writes with a broadly panoramic style, gives us a good feel for the social context in which Berlin lived and worked. Bergreen finished his text before Berlin died, however, and was given access to none of the Berlin papers, and his biography suffers accordingly. Even though Bergreen's impulses are charitable, his sources often aren't, so that Berlin is characterized as rigid, insecure and unforgiving.

That image did not set well with Berlin's three daughters (who were left in charge of their father's estate), so a literary counter-attack was mounted in the 1990's. The first volley in this skirmish occurred in 1994, when Berlin's oldest daughter, Mary Ellin, published Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir. This is the best book of its kind I have ever read. Typically, when children write about show business parents, their axes are thoroughly and minutely ground. But Mary Ellin Barrett is not a typical show business child. Herself a novelist, she was sixty-eight when the book was published. She writes beautifully and insightfully about both her parents. It is our first glimpse of Irving Berlin's domestic life. (Ironically, he was married for over sixty years to a successful writer, and yet hardly anything has been written about his wife or their relationship.) The most startling detail is how much time Berlin spent with his family, especially his oldest daughter, amid such a busy career. Many anecdotes make fascinating reading—Berlin’s taking his children and their schoolmates to Broadway shows, his listening to his wife read drafts of her novels, his stewing about everyday problems with the children in school.

The image of Irving Berlin that emerges from this book is of a more stable, charitable and selfless man than we have before imagined. No doubt Mary Ellin is deliberately trying to soften her father's image, but, nonetheless, she does a convincing job it. I have never read a book that, by itself, does so much to alter a public impression.

A follow up to Ms. Barrett's book is Edward Jablonski's Irving Berlin: American Troubadour. Jablonski is the biggest of the big names among songwriter biographers, having written definitive biographies of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen, among numerous other books. Jablonski insists that his is not an "authorized" biography, that he didn't even interview Berlin's daughters for the book and drew his own conclusions (though he acknowledges that Ms. Barrett did read the finished manuscript and make "suggestions" and "corrections"). I don't wish to argue the point, but if this isn’t an "authorized" biography, it’s fairly close. Jablonski falls into step with Mary Ellin Barrett and continues to soften the impression left by Lawrence Bergreen.

An example of the books' differences may be helpful. In discussing the arrangements for Annie Get Your Gun, Bergreen emphasizes the negative-- Berlin's balking at the project because he couldn't have the words "IRVING BERLIN'S" above the title. Berlin ultimately backed down, but for a while it was a sticking point. Jablonski, by contrast, emphasizes the positive: Berlin's relinquishing part of his fee to Dorothy Fields so that she would make as much for the libretto as he did for the music and lyrics. Both details are apparently true, but each reveals a different side of Berlin.

In short, Berlin was a complicated man. At times he showed monumental toughness, stability and generosity. At other times he displayed equally enormous petulance and parsimony. It is a syndrome common to extremely gifted, artistic people. Taken together, Bergreen, Barrett and Jablonski have produced books that provide a thoroughly round portrait of Irving Berlin.

And yet none of the above books discuss Irving Berlin's music in any detail, and that is a shame. Part of the problem is that Irving Berlin's life is so full of tension, drama, interesting characters and complex relationships that by the time biographers get it all analyzed, there simply isn't enough time or space left to do justice to the music.

Fortunately, Philip Furia's Irving Berlin: A Life in Song, sketches only the essential biographical details and focuses on the music itself. Working from unrestricted access to Berlin's manuscripts and working drafts (a treasure trove of material that no one had been able to look at before), Furia uncovers a wealth of new information about Berlin's musical knowledge and working methods. Not only is Furia an English teacher at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, thereby possessing an English teacher's sharp eye for detail, but he is an expert in the field of popular music, having written excellent books on Ira Gershwin and popular lyricists. His analysis of Berlin's work is fascinating. Throughout his life, most people viewed Berlin as an uneducated immigrant who pecked out tunes on the black keys without any particular method. Furia's analyses of the manuscripts reveal an extremely skillful artist who, though uneducated, had a clear feel for musical effects. In examining the differences between early drafts and final drafts, we see repeatedly that Berlin took prosaic phrases (both musical and lyrical) and altered them slightly to achieve inspired effects. As Furia moves through Berlin's career, he spends lots of time examining the great classics (and some lesser known songs) to explain why Berlin is America's greatest and most versatile songwriter.

For popular music buffs like myself—who never tire of reading about songs and songwriters—all of the books discussed above are richly rewarding. For those who would like to read a single book about Irving Berlin, I would suggest Philip Furia’s because it is most centrally about the music, and that, after all, is the most important thing.