It is supremely fitting that “God Bless America”—that stirring hymn to patriotism—has become our unofficial anthem in the aftermath of September 11, since the life of the legendary New York songsmith who penned it, Irving Berlin, born one Israel Baline in 1888 in distant Siberia, epitomizes everything about America’s indomitable civilization that our terrorist enemies despise: its openness to striving and talent, its freedom, its inexhaustible optimism and creativity.

Baline’s amazing American success story began when he stepped onto Ellis Island in 1893, on his way to Gotham’s teeming Lower East Side, “the eyesore of New York and perhaps the filthiest place on the continent,” according to the New York Times of the era. However dirty and poor, this Jewish ghetto was incubating an American renaissance that would produce legislators, merchants, professionals of all stripes—and Irving Berlin. Berlin’s family was too poor to provide piano lessons, let alone a piano; Berlin would remain musically illiterate. His father, Moses, a cantor, gave him a love of melody and a quick wit, but that was about all he could afford. To supplement the family’s meager income, Israel, more fluent in English than his parents and five older siblings, haggled with a nearby junk shop. “I used to go there selling bits and pieces of an old samovar that my mother had brought from Russia and kept under the bed,” he once recalled. “I’d get five and ten cents for the pieces and kept selling them until the entire samovar disappeared.”

Berlin understood the value of hard-earned money from early on. Hawking papers on a downtown pier in 1901, a 13-year-old Israel had just sold his fifth copy of the New York Evening Journal when a loading crane swung into his path, knocking him into the East River. Fished out just in time, he was given artificial respiration and packed off to Gouverneur Hospital for further ministrations. An hour later, as the young newsie slept, a nurse pried open his clenched hand. In it: five copper coins. He remained tight-fisted for the rest of his 101 years.

Shortly after Israel was bar mitzvahed, Moses died, and the following year young Izzy left home and school to try his luck at street singing. Sans education, but brimming with aspiration and besotted with the street sounds and street language of the town he would never leave for long, the teenage Berlin plied his trade along the Bowery and the Lower East Side. He soon got a regular gig at the roughhouse Pelham Café, doing ribald parodies of popular hits. The salary was meager, sure, but the café provided a piano and a place to hang out. He taught himself to play a bit by ear, amused the rowdy crowds, and picked up small change. A colleague, Jubal Sweet, remembered the young Berlin “moving around easy, singing all the time, every time a nickel would drop, he’d put his toe on it and kick it or nurse it to a certain spot. When he was done, he’d have all the jack in a pile, see?”

As the pile grew, Izzy kept his eye open for the main chance. It came in 1907, when a song in an Italian dialect, “My Mariucci Take a Steam Boat,” swept through the saloons. Collaborating with a melodist, Izzy wrote the lyrics for “Marie from Sunny Italy,” to be performed with the same Neapolitan intonation:

Please come out tonight my queen
Can’t you hear my mandolin?

The riffraff made “Marie” a hit. Spurred by its success, Izzy Baline changed his name to Irving Berlin and began to write more songs—lots more. After all, if one ditty could earn a few coins, perhaps a hundred would make him rich. Berlin set to work, 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

Right from the start, he shattered conventions. By contrast with the popular songs of his time, which used stilted language and wooden, overly refined images, Berlin resolved instead to use the rude wit and terse phrases of everyday speech. “Three-fourths of the quality which brings success to popular songs is phrasing,” he later noted. “I make a study of it—ease, naturalness, every-day-ness—and it’s my first consideration when I start on lyrics.”

One early effort perfectly encapsulates Berlin’s marvelously creative economy with words. Berlin took off from an actor’s offhand remark that he was free for the evening because “my wife’s in the country.” “Now, the usual and unsuccessful way of handling a line like that,” Berlin said, “is to dash off a jumble of verses about the henpecked husband, all leading up to a chorus running, we’ll say, something like this:

My wife’s gone to the country,
She went away last night.
Oh, I’m so glad! I’m so glad!
I’m crazy with delight!”

Needlessly wordy and flat, thought Berlin. “All night I sweated to find what I knew was there, and I finally speared the lone word, just a single word, that made the song—and a fortune. Listen:

My wife’s gone to the country!

Hooray! That word gave the whole idea of the song in one quick wallop,” enthused Berlin. “It gave the singer a chance to hoot with sheer joy. It invited the roomful to join in the hilarious shout.” He concludes: “And I wasn’t content until I had used my good thing to the limit. ‘She took the children with her—Hooray! Hooray!’ ”

Berlin’s early lyrics—now increasingly wrapped in melodies of his own invention—depicted the world of immigrant New York that he knew well, especially that of the avidly assimilating Jews. “Sadie Salome” concerns a young lady who takes to the stage, much to the consternation of her sweetheart, Moses:

Don’t do that dance, I tell you, Sadie,
That’s not a business for a lady!
Most everybody knows
That I’m your loving Mose
Oy, oy, oy, oy
Where is your clothes?

“Business Is Business” explored the humorous crossroads where avarice and amour meet:

Business is business, Miss Rosie Cohen,
I’ve got to pay for everything I own
Seven suits of clothes your father took from my store,
All he says is “Charge it to my future son-in-law.”
Tell your expensive father C.O.D.
Don’t mean “Come On Down” to my store, for
Ev’ry little dollar carries int’rest of its own,
Bus’ness is business, Rosie Cohen!

Years later, Berlin’s contemporary Groucho Marx would sing these ethnic Jewish songs at parties, to the songwriter’s excruciating embarrassment. “Every time I see him,” Berlin grumbled, “I stick my hand in my pocket and ask him, ‘How much if you don’t sing it?’ ” It wasn’t just his co-religionists whom Berlin sent up, however. The Bard of the Bowery was an equal-opportunity gadfly. For his Teutonic neighbors, he wrote “Oh, How That German Could Love.” For the Irish, there was “Molly-O!” For blacks, “Colored Romeo.”

Not content with ethnic humor, Berlin began writing about sexual shenanigans too. Amused by the bawdy tales that young showgirls told their friends, he made this bold inquiry:

How do you do it, Mabel
On twenty dollars a week?
Tell us how you are able,
On twenty dollars a week,
A fancy flat and a diamond bar,
Twenty hats and a motorcar;
Go right to it,
But how do you do it,
On twenty dollars a week?

Had Berlin just stuck with ethnic jokes and sexual satire, he undoubtedly would have won big profits and a bright, if short-lived, reputation, like so many Tin Pan Alley writers of the time. But there was always something more ambitious about him. Where other songsmiths were personally flamboyant, he was fastidious, carefully barbered, turned out in the best suits he could afford. Where the others chased secretaries around desks, he dated women with politesse. Where the others were content with hackwork that the public gobbled up like peanuts, he wanted to serve up more substantial fare.

Berlin’s higher aspirations made him alert to changes in the cultural atmosphere—like jazz. His composition “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” wasn’t really a rag, rather a song about rag, but that was good enough for sheet-music buyers, who made it their Number One choice in the U.S. and abroad in 1911. To his astonishment, Irving Berlin became a brand name on both sides of the Atlantic. The song has remained popular until today, with a time out during the Vietnam War. For sixties protesters, one couplet crystallized all that was wrong with Amerika:

They can play a bugle call like you never heard before
So natural that you want to go to war. . . .

In 1912, fresh from his “Alexander” success, Berlin experienced both great happiness and profound loss. He married Dorothy Goetz, sister of a fellow songwriter. After a traditional Jewish wedding, the couple sailed off to honeymoon in the Caribbean. Typhoid had hit the region; Dorothy contracted it. Five months later, she was dead. The Berlin song factory shut down.

It wasn’t until the following year that Berlin mastered his grief; unsurprisingly, he came to terms with it in a song dedicated to his bride’s memory:

I lost the sunshine and roses
I lost the heavens of blue . . .
I lost the angel who gave me
Summer the whole winter through
I lost the gladness
That turned into sadness,
When I lost you.

He never wrote so autobiographically again; his life remained creatively off-limits.

From then on until late in the century, the song factory ran at full capacity. Some songs took the writer weeks of concentrated effort; others he scribbled in taxis or composed tossing restlessly in bed. Past triumphs evaporated as soon as he started to work; each song, he later admitted, came to life “under a nervous strain, and more often than otherwise I feel as if my life depends on my accomplishing a song.” Note: not writing or composing, accomplishing. Because of the effort required, Berlin never slept much; barbiturates were one of his basic food groups.

It was after Dorothy’s death that another theme began to emerge in Berlin’s life and writing: a deep love of the country that had allowed such success. “Patriotism,” notes biographer Laurence Bergreen, “was Irving Berlin’s true religion. It evoked the same emotional response in him that conventional religion summoned in others; it was his rock.”

In 1915, shortly after becoming an American citizen, Berlin offered an early expression of his patriotism, “The International Rag,” a song that derided those Europeans who lamented the influence of U.S. dress, idioms, and music. Contemporary European America-bashers could still learn from it:

What did you do, America?
They’re after you, America.
You got excited and started something,
Nations jumping all around;
You’ve got a lot to answer for,
They lay the blame right at your door. . . .

Looking around his beloved adopted nation, Berlin saw that one benefit of its burgeoning prosperity was progress in educating ever-greater numbers of people. He regretted his own lack of schooling, and set out in what spare time he had “to at least get a bowing acquaintance with the world’s best literature, and some knowledge of history, and all of the famous dead people.” In addition to Shakespeare, whose expensively bound works he displayed in his home, Berlin loved American history and culture. He treasured his autographed first editions of American novels and a biography of Abraham Lincoln that came with some of the president’s letters.

As Berlin’s love for America deepened, so did his interest in politics. When World War I first engulfed the Old World, Berlin took a pacifist stance, but in 1917, he sharply reversed course:

Lincoln, Grant and Washington,
They were peaceful men, each one;
Still they took the sword and gun
When real trouble came,
And I feel somehow
They are wond’ring now
If we’ll do the same.

The following year found Private Irving Berlin drafted. His musical plaint still rings out at military bases around the world:

Someday I’m going to murder the bugler;
Someday they’re going to find him dead—
I’ll amputate his reveille,
And step upon it heavily. . . .

Other composers would’ve stopped there. Not Berlin. He was forever in search of the “kicker”—the final line that summed up a song and made the audience smile. In the last chorus, he fingered the true culprit:

And then I’ll get that other pup,
The one who wakes the bugler up,
And spend the rest of my life in bed. 

For an army show at Camp Yaphank, Berlin wrote another song, then put it back in his trunk: “God Bless America” wouldn’t see daylight for 20 years, but it perfectly expressed Berlin’s patriotic feelings at the time and later.

Given Berlin’s pro-democracy, pro-U.S. worldview, it’s no surprise that he was one of the first popular artists to skewer the new Soviet Socialist Republic. He used his kicker to warn Americans, “Look Out for the Bolsheviki Man”:

To the speeches that he makes
Tie a little can;
He hasn’t got a single sou,
And he wants to share it all with you. . . .

In case anyone missed the point, Berlin followed with “The Revolutionary Rag”:

’Twas made across the sea
By a tricky, slicky, Bolsheviki.
Run with your little moneybag
Or else they’ll steal it all away, wheel it all away,
As they go raving, madly waving
That Revolutionary Rag.
It’s not a melody.
It’s a crimson flag. . . .

Berlin didn’t just defend American democracy from its enemies; he also cast a perceptive eye on changes in social mores on the home front. Splitsville, an area rarely visited in the prewar period, became a favorite subject. “A Fair Exchange Scene” caricatures wife- and husband-swapping in the Jazz Age:

JUDGE: What do you want?
COUPLE: A divorce.
JUDGE: Do you really want it? 
COUPLE: Of course!
JUDGE: Are you tired of him? And you of her?
COUPLE: We’d rather not discuss it, sir!
JUDGE: But you must have a very good reason—And you cannot keep it mum
COUPLE: We have two very good reasons—And here they come!
(Enter the SECOND COUPLE) 

Hollywood bluenoses, prohibition, the loose morals of Greenwich Village, religion—hardly any American phenomenon was outside his ambit.

The year 1925 marked a watershed in Berlin’s life: he met the young—16 years his junior—socialite Ellin Mackay, a Catholic. The two fell instantly in love, infuriating her father, who was president of Western Union. He forbade the courtship and even sent Ellin on a European trip so that she’d forget about her show-business upstart. This, of course, was the stuff of tabloids, and the New York Mirror ran a slew of stories (some actually true) about the couple. “The day you marry my daughter,” Clarence Mackay allegedly told Berlin, “I’ll disinherit her.” Berlin supposedly retorted, “The day I marry your daughter, I’ll settle $2 million on her.” Another reported clash had Mackay boasting of his ancestry, and Berlin countering, “I can trace mine back to Exodus.” Said Mackay: “Is that so? Here’s another Exodus for you. Get out.”

The composer gave his wife a unique present upon their marriage at City Hall in 1926: the song “Always.” In later years, George S. Kaufman, director of the Marx Brothers’ first show, The Cocoanuts, claimed that Berlin wanted to shoehorn the number into it. Kaufman, perhaps recalling his own peccadilloes, grumbled that the verse was unrealistic. “Instead of ‘I’ll be loving you, Always,’ ” he said, “it should be ‘I’ll be loving you, Thursday.’ ”

When the Depression came, the Berlins stayed in the headlines and out of the bread lines. Hit followed hit in the early 1930s; royalty checks flooded in. In 1933, writer and director Moss Hart seized on Berlin’s ability to turn current events into profitable songs. The collaboration resulted in As Thousands Cheer, a Broadway revue built around newspaper headlines. Herbert Hoover, leaving the White House to a Bronx cheer, Mahatma Gandhi sitting cross-legged on a mat, Josephine Baker caterwauling, Walter Winchell retailing gossip—Berlin’s songs poked fun at them all.

Not everything in the revue was satirical, however. Those who had dismissed Berlin as a lightweight changed their tune when Ethel Waters appeared in a powerful scene with the headline UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB. The writer had produced more than his share of “coon songs”—comic numbers in black dialect—and most people assumed that he would carry on in that style. Instead, he underwent a change of attitude 20 years before his country did, and gave Waters “Supper Time.” The piece brought down the house every night:

Kids will soon be yellin’
For their supper time;
How’ll I keep from tellin’ that
That man o’ mine
Ain’t comin’ home no more?
How’ll I keep explainin’
When they ask me where he’s gone?
How’ll I keep from cryin’
When I bring their supper on?

Berlin wasn’t content to editorialize in song: his deeds backed up his belief in racial equality. During the rehearsals, actors Clifton Webb and Helen Broderick refused to take curtain calls alongside a Negro. Very well, responded Berlin, no one would bow for any number. The mutiny promptly ended; thereafter all three performers acknowledged the applause together.

Had the composer retired in the early 1930s, he’d be remembered as two Irving Berlins—the writer of “singles,” songs that went out and succeeded on their own; and the creator of words and music for Broadway revues. But there were more Berlins to come. A third sojourned in Hollywood, a place that he found 3,000 miles too far from Manhattan. It did have one incomparable asset, however: Fred Astaire.

When Jerome Kern said, “Astaire can’t do anything bad,” Berlin concurred. “You give Fred Astaire a song,” he observed, “and you could forget about it. If he did change anything, he made it better.” No wonder almost all the great New York songwriters of the period trekked out West to work with the dancer, among them Kern, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter. It was an extraordinary confluence of craftsmen and artists. Unlike the others, Berlin had no formal musical training or schooling, yet the autodidact more than held his own. By every critical measure, Top Hat is the greatest of the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers collaborations, boasting such Berlin classics as “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain?” “Cheek to Cheek,” and the title tune, which established Astaire’s jaunty protagonist in a series of cascading rhymes:

Dudin’ up my shirt front,
Puttin’ in the shirt studs,
Polishin’ my nails.
I’m steppin’ out, my dear,
To breathe an atmosphere
That simply reeks with class;
And I trust
That you’ll excuse my dust
When I step on the gas
For I’ll be there
Puttin’ down my top hat,
Messin’ up my white tie,
Dancin’ in my tails.

Now that Berlin moved in fast company—in every sense—he quickened the tempo of many numbers and raised his craft to a higher level, ready to match wits with the great Cole Porter himself. Indeed, he wrote a private salute to his fellow Astaire fan, kidding “You’re the Top”:

You’re the top!
You’re Miss Pinkham’s tonic
You’re the top!
You’re a high colonic;
You’re the burning heat of a bridal suite in use,
You’re the breasts of Venus,
You’re King Kong’s penis,
You’re self-abuse.

The proof was there for anyone to see and hear: Berlin’s verbal agility could match even that of Yale grad and musical scholar Porter.

Berlin never minded reaching into his trunk and taking out an old number when the time was ripe. And the epoch of the Munich Conference was overripe. Shortly after Neville Chamberlain & Co. acceded to Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland, Berlin added a few touches to “God Bless America” and published it to national acclaim.

Republicans asked to use the song at their 1940 convention; so did the Democrats. Though for years, Berlin—concerned by high taxes and swelling government—had been moving inexorably from left to right (he rooted for Wendell Willkie to unseat President Roosevelt), he chose to sidestep controversy and let both parties use the song. Within months, “God Bless America” became so popular that the composer felt uncomfortable when the enormous royalties rolled in: this was, after all, a piece extolling patriotism, not a Broadway production designed for gain. In a bold philanthropic gesture—though he hated squandering money, he was generous if the cause was right—he ceded the profits in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Enthusiasts lobbied to replace the difficult “Star Spangled Banner” with words a child could recall and a tune the tone-deaf could carry. Flattered but abashed, the writer answered, “We’ve got a good national anthem. You can’t have two.” True enough; but there was no law about having an unofficial national anthem, and “God Bless America” became the people’s choice—as it has become again post–September 11.

Berlin wrote other anthems that made it into the national bloodstream, as Philip Roth noted with typical salinity. In Operation Shylock, the narrator observes, “God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, and He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin do? Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”

In fact, Irving and Ellin raised all three of their daughters as Protestants. They sent them to tony private schools, as well, and Ellin saw to it that they observed the amenities. She also made sure that the trio recognized who had given them their penthouse on East End Avenue. When Linda was very young, she remembered, Mama instructed her to get her elbows off the dinner table. “But Daddy has his elbows on the table,” the child complained. “That’s different,” instructed Ellin. “Your father is a genius.”

Few would have disputed her—certainly no one in uniform during World War II. When the hostilities began, Berlin turned his attention to the armed services. He recruited talent from the ranks for a touring show, This Is the Army, and donated profits from the musical to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. The production offered more than 20 new Berlin songs, including one for black troops—thus creating, willy-nilly, the army’s first integrated unit.

The show toured Great Britain just as Prime Minister Winston Churchill was reading war dispatches by the brilliant Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, at the time head of the Special Survey Section of the British Embassy in Washington. Churchill asked for a meeting. A communications snafu sent the luncheon invitation to the wrong I. Berlin, and Irving showed up at Number 10. The PM addressed him as Professor and grilled him about the progress of the war. Bewildered, the composer answered in monosyllables, until a frustrated Churchill gave up and turned to the guest on his left. Later, he commented: “Berlin’s like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper, but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”

Composer Jerome Kern, who knew the difference between Berlins, was wiser. Asked about Irving’s place in American music at this time, he answered: “To my mind, there are phrases in Berlin’s music as noble and mighty as any clause in the works of the Masters, from Beethoven and Wagner on down.” In short, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.”

Irving had proved that movie musicals presented no obstacle, but Broadway was different. Though Berlin had been a star composer in the days of the Follies, the theater had undergone vast alterations since then. Replacing the old revues and girlie extravaganzas, “book shows” now used songs to define character and propel plot. Gotham’s Great White Way was home to such colossi as Leonard Bernstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, and two gentlemen who, like Berlin, dared to write their own words and music, Harold Rome and the British visitor Noel Coward. Could Irving Berlin compete?

He’d give it his best shot in 1945. Replacing Kern, who had died while Annie Get Your Gun was in preparation, Berlin turned the romance of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill into a credible backstage story. En route, he showed that at age 57 he hadn’t lost the ability to tell a joke in verse. Some of the biggest laughs came from a chorus of one- and two-syllable words, adhering to Berlin’s ideal of economy of expression:

My uncle out in Texas
Can’t even write his name;
He signs his check with X’s,
But they cash them all the same.

Nor had he lost his gift for anthems—this one dedicated to show business:

There’s no people like show people;
They smile when they are low.
Yesterday they told you you would not go far,
That night you open and there you are,
Next day on your dressing room they’ve hung a star—
Let’s go on with the show.

Total: 45 words—41 of one syllable, three of two syllables, one of three syllables.

The Master stumbled, though, with Miss Liberty, a musical about the statue of the same name. Then, just when the critics were set to treat him as a relic, he returned with Call Me Madam in 1950. This SRO smash was based loosely on the life and times of Perle Mesta, Washington’s then–Hostess with the Mostest. Berlin came up with a series of sparklers, including “Marrying for Love.”

One new song, however, sparked more enthusiasm than the others. “They Like Ike” (converted to “I Like Ike” for the presidential campaign of 1952) was Irving’s hymn to a fellow conservative. Once again, Berlin used simplicity, coupled with an unpredictable kicker, to make his point:

A leader we can call
Without political noise,
He can lead us all
As he led the boys.
Let’s take Ike,
A man we all of us like,
Tried and true,
Courageous, strong and human—
Why, even Harry Truman
Says “I Like Ike.”

Thousands of undecided voters may have found themselves persuaded when they heard the song ring out during the televised GOP convention of 1952. The convert who meant the most to Berlin, though, was his wife: a lifelong Democrat, Ellin signed a newspaper ad testifying that she, too, liked Ike.

After the 1952 campaign, Berlin mostly kept his politics offstage. Still, when the spirit moved him, he’d rebuke those who needed a lesson in Americanism. Lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, a splenetic member of the Old Left, got under Berlin’s thin skin during the Vietnam War by sarcastically recommending that “God Bless America” be retitled “God Help America.” Berlin proposed new verses for the song:

God bless America,
Land I enjoy,
No discussions with Russians
Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi. . . .
God bless America
When skies are dark,
God bless America,
My Noah’s ark.

Irving Berlin sailed in his beloved ark to the age of 101. Before his death in 1989, there were multitudinous awards, ranging from presidential citations to a Carnegie Hall recital celebrating his life’s work. And there was, of course, the limitless ocean of royalties. But there were also many sorrows before the final curtain descended.

Irving’s last Broadway show, Mr. President, bombed. Ellin died in 1988, in the 62nd year of their marriage, after which Berlin rarely ventured out of his East Side digs. He lived to see his oeuvre drowned out by the din of rock ‘n’ roll, with its celebration of the singer, not the song. And he watched as love for one’s country become cringe-making within the academy, the High Journalism, and the Beltway.

Yet honest craft and valid emotion have a way of outlasting fashion. In the last several years, cabaret singers have revived the Berlin masterworks; there are now more than 30 CDs celebrating the oeuvre, ranging from Ella Fitzgerald’s classic renditions to Michael Feinstein’s friskier tributes. A beautiful new book, The Collected Lyrics of Irving Berlin, has just appeared, edited with impeccable scholarship by Robert Kimball. And of course, there’s been “God Bless America.” Irving Berlin’s sentiments have proven their lasting worth. As he observed,

A fiddler can speak with his fiddle.
A singer can speak with his voice,
An actor can speak
With his tongue in his cheek,
But a songwriter has no choice.
Whatever his rights or his wrongs,
He can only speak with his songs.

There are almost a thousand of those speeches in the Collected Lyrics, each a time capsule of our manners and mores, our shifting identities and permanent values. No one has ever been so concise, or so consistent, about why America remains our home sweet home.


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