Snapshot in Prose: Irving Berlin

Is there a better known, more revered songwriter, even today, than Irving Berlin?

We think not.

But it’s intriguing to read the following profile, which dates from 1935. Berlin was already a giant in the world of music and theatre, but many of his greatest accomplishments still lay ahead of him.

In fact, of the dozens of titles of Berlin’s hit songs mentioned in this profile, very few were familiar to us (and we bet you’ll find them as unfamiliar as we did).

It was quite a life that Mr. Berlin led. And quite a career.

HE came from a burning village in Russia to the freedom of America. From a basement in Monroe Street to a palatial theatre on Broadway. From a little newsboy calling out his afternoon papers along the wharf to his rightful kingdom in Tin Pan Alley. From a singing waiter’s job on the Bowery to playing host to Park Avenue’s society. Irving Berlin.
But a change of address didn’t do it. It took courage.
First, let’s have a look at Irving Berlin. It is easy to picture a long line of singing poets back of his fathomless, dark eyes. Cantors, singing their hearts out in prayer, even as Berlin in his songs free our everyday emotion—sings out for us the loneliness, the love-making, the fun, and the stifled sobs that we are too timid to express.
“I Never Had A Chance,” “How Deep Is the Ocean, How High Is the Sky,” “Not For All the Rice in China,” and “Say It Isn’t So,” are just us thinking out loud.
See Berlin’s sensitive mouth; his ear, quick to the rustling of a leaf. Yet, for all his deep feeling, his responsiveness, Berlin is cool-headed. He is easier to talk to than is the average big man’s secretary. Without any fan-fare, he is standing quietly before you. Immediately you are aware of an unsuspected strength in him. He has tremendous poise. A keen, clear thinker, he makes lawyer-like decisions.
When the sad, refugee Cantor Baline and his family came to America back in 1892, our hero was little four-year-old Israel Baline, the youngest of eight children. It was not long before each, after the manner of their stout-hearted stock, was contributing her or her share to the family bank, Mother Baline’s anxiously waiting lap.
Israel was selling afternoon papers along the East Side wharves. One day, with five pennies held tightly in his manly fist, he felt optimistic. He was tempted to “Wanna Be Lazy.”
Idly, he stood watching a beautiful ship. A big crane came swinging overboard. Suddenly it caught up the little child. It dashed him through the air and dropped him in the deep waters of the East River. He went under quickly. Once. Twice!
A game, unidentified little Irish boy pulled off his shoes and jumped in the river after him. He saved the life of America’s king of popular songwriters—our own Irving Berlin.
Grief, in the death of the father, soon came to the Baline family. Israel was only eight years old. But his father, hoping he would follow the family tradition and became cantor, had already started the training of the small, sympathetic voice.
When the boy was fourteen, he wasn’t very big and he wasn’t very strong. Perhaps he was feeling “All Alone,” or like “Nobody Knows and Nobody Seems to Care,” the day he ran away from home and headed for the Bowery. The older children were bringing more money home to their mother’s lap. Pride had led the way, but it took grit, courage to go.
“If The Managers Only Thought the Same As Mother” along the Great White Way of the Bowery! Anyhow, Irving Baline who grew up to be Irving Berlin was “Wishing.”
Irving became a “busker;” in today’s parlance, a song plugger. Tony Pastor once paid him five dollars a week to join in the chorus of a song being sung on the stage, from his place in the balcony. It was tough being away from home. Not high living on five dollars. But the boy probably said: “Thank you, kind sir.”
First, Berlin worked in Callahan’s place. The, in 1904, when “Nigger Mike” (a white man, of course) opened the Pelham, a show place for slummers and a night club to Fifth Avenue patrons, Berlin went to work there. He was a singing waiter.
One night Max Winslow, a song plugger for Harry Von Tilzer, dropped in. He heard Irvin singing an original parody on “Mary Ann.” Winslow hurried back to Von Tilzer and begged him to employ the boy. At fifteen dollars a week. But Von Tilzer couldn’t see it.
Berlin and Winslow became fast friends from the time of this meeting. Theirs is still one of the finest friendships known along Tin Pan Alley.
From Salter’s, the young minstrel found work at Jimmy Kelly’s. It was while here that he wrote the words of “Marie from Sunny Italy.” It was his first published song and brought the hopeful singer the large sum of thirty-seven cents.
Undaunted, Irving, now nineteen, kept us working and scribbling away at his lyrics.

Within four years he was to write that exciting, stirring tune that was sung, and played by brass bands in open-air parks, from Michigan to Moscow—“Alexander’s Rag Time Band.”
But let us go back to Kelly’s. Berlin began as a writer of words. American language, straight from the shoulder. Honest-to-goodness thoughts. No misunderstanding what he meant, his rich humor, pathos, love. And he was singing his lyrics, his parodies, as naturally as a bird sings.
A big song-and-dance man came strutting into Kelly’s. He promised Irving ten dollars for some special lyrics. To use at Tony Pastor’s.
Irving wrote them, something about an Italian barber, but the “act” failed him.
Perhaps, Berlin decided at this time that he had better “Follow the Crowd.” For he grit his teeth and started his “Morning Exercises” to Tin Pan Alley.
At last, a publisher, after hearing him recite his lyrics, remarked: “I suppose you’ve got a tune for this. I’ll give you twenty-five dollars” he paused “for the words and music. Go on in the next room to the arranger. He’ll put your tune down.”
How would you have felt—if you had stood there without a tune, without ever having written a tune. There was no time to hunt a melody writer. Twenty-five dollars! A gold mine! No tune—a mirage—ashes.
Berlin may have felt tempted to run—to quit. All we know is that, in his distress, something deep within him—call it courage—fought on, until he found his voice; until a melody stumbled out to meet the words—“Dorando.”
“Dorando” became a hit. Berlin was put to writing lyrics on a royalty basis and a twenty-five dollar a week drawing account. Long ago he had returned from home. But the boy who wrote, “I Love a Piano,” for many of the years had not owned one.
It seems difficult for most people to accept a genius. As the fame of Berlin’s lyrics grew, he had to battle for the privilege of writing his own tunes. He was continually discouraged; told that he was a lyric-writer—not a composer. One built of less steely metal might have yielded to the suggestion. It has been said that environment can murder even genius.
But Irving Berlin’s head was made to reason with—not to be led. By the time he was thirty-five years old he had written about three hundred songs.
During the World War, Sergeant Berlin was appointed composer-in-chief of the United States Army. He was paid a wage between thirty and forty dollars a month. He wrote the songs of “Yip-Yip-Yaphank,” “ever Since I Put On a Uniform,” “Dream On Little Soldier,” “In the YMCA.” He courageously sang for our brothers and our beaux that most human soldier song. “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” And later, that amusing piece, “I’ve Got My Captain Working for Me Now.”
It was at this time that Berlin seemed to actually put new life into Rag Time. To give to it the forcefulness that pushed is over the hurdles. On to Jazz.
To Irving Berlin, too, we owe the revival of the sentimental ballad of the Charles K. Harris, “After the Ball” period. He smoothed over the edges of our melodies and added to words the emotion, the heart-beat, of his own personality.
A curious thing happened when Irving wrote “When I Leave the World Behind.” He had gotten the idea from the tale of an extraordinary will, attributed to a Mr. Charles Launsbery “whose will suggested the theme for this song.”
Imagine his amazement when he learned, years later, that Charles Launsbery was pure fiction. The “will” was originally contributed to a Banker’s magazine by one Williston Fish. Later it had been discovered in an anthology titled, “Heart Throbs.”
While it is true that Berlin thinks and experiences his sufferings and joy as words and music, it does not follow that he always writes his songs with ease.
Even in 1932, speaking of his show, “Face the Music,” Berlin said: “I grew nervous and I couldn’t sleep. I lost ten pounds trying to make songs. Even after we opened in Philadelphia I had to do a new finale, and all of the time I was frightened to death. If I could have revived my self-assurance, it wouldn’t have been so tough.”
Was ever a great artist more modest. And why did he suffer himself to go on. In his own music publishing house, after he had struggled over these numbers for two months, his friends shouted at him that they were “lousy.” And he believed them. He said they were not “yes men.”
Although he had been continually writing popular songs, it had been five years since he had done production stuff, since he had written the “Follies of 1927.”
I was rusty. I was over-anxious,” Irving said.
But he was already famous, already a millionaire. Why did he keep on? The answer is because it took courage, and Berlin had it. The job was worthy of his metal. You’ll remember the songs from “Face the Music,” “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” “Torch Song” and “Dear Old Crinoline Days.”
Does Irving Berlin pick out his tunes with one finger? Sorry, but he does not. The story made good copy. That’s why it was allowed to live. It started in London. Irving was being besieged by reporters, among them Max Beerbohm’s son. It was hard for him to believe the tales he had heard of how the Yankee boy had, on occasion, written both the words and music of a number in a remarkably short length of time.
Irving was willing to prove the story. He told the boys that he usually hummed out his tunes and then fitted in the words. Beerbohm suggested the title, “The Humming Rage.” Berlin hummed the tune and had finished “The Humming Rage” in an hour.
The reporters saw Berlin give Cliff Hess, who was doing his recording at the time, a phrase of the song with just one finger. The story was born. Irving had recently written “Alexander’s Rag Time Band.” The tale “he picks out his tunes with one finger” brought great publicity. And Irving, you know, was learning to be a good business man.
The truth is that while Berlin has never had piano lessons, he does play the instrument with both hands—all ten fingers. Moreover he is quite capable of putting down his own melodies.
Interesting to musicians is the fact that Irving composes everything in the one key of F-sharp. But he has a piano so constructed that he is enabled, through a mechanical device, to transpose his melodies into other keys, whenever it is necessary.
When Berlin “lost the sunshine and roses” with the passing away of his bride, Dorothy Goetz, he was only twenty-three. Young in years, but old in struggles, and grief.
Then the wise-acres said he was through. That his songs lacked the old gaiety. But whether they understood or not—Berlin went fighting on, writing one number after another, until he awoke one day to hear the whole world singing in sympathy with him, “When I Lost You.”
“If you ever want to build a theatre just for musical comedy, why not call it the Music Box?” Irving Berlin once remarked casually to Sam Harris. Several years later Sam Harris casually remarked to Irving Berlin: “Suppose we build a theatre just for musical comedy and call it the Music Box.”
Then Berlin told his good friends, Joe Schenck, another East Side boy, about the idea. Joe put up some of the money, and all of them together accomplished just that thing—the Music Box theatre.
Their expenses mounted. How they were laughed at! How they were ridiculed! Poor Berlin wondered if he had let his friend Schenck in for a loss. He worried, but he stuck to the ship—smiling. So did Schenck. So did Harris.
Everybody knows the history of that magnificent opening. The first revue of the Music Box at the end of a year had played to gross receipts of $2,000,000. The building, ground and all, had cost something over $947,000.
In writing each number for the Music Box, Berlins sees at the same time the whole plan of the number, production, the scenery, the girls dancing, and the costumed singers putting the songs over. We’ll wager that with his imagination, he can even see the whole audience, recognize his friends, and hear the distant hand-clapping.
It would be easy to write Irving’s biography, many of our histories, with the titles of his songs. For instance, juggle any half-dozen of them, and you practically have a short-short story.
“In a Cozy Kitchenette Apartment,” “All By Myself,” “I’m A Dumbell.”
“Take a Little Wife.”
“Dance Your Troubles Away.” On and on.
When Irving Berlin fell in love with Ellin Mackay, the lovely and intellectual daughter of Clarence Mackay, the head of the Postal Telegraph Company, he had the courage to win and marry her. Courage—because great genius and gentleman that he is, he was subjected to the most embarrassing and humiliating treatment.
Ellin Mackay proved herself a real thoroughbred. And perhaps never before was there such a large, unseen gallery pulling for a brave young couple’s happiness.
Through all of the snubbing and unpleasant publicity, Irving Berlin, the artist, revealed no temperament. Irving Berlin the man, behaved with a dignity worthy of the radiant girl who had entrusted to him her future.
Look at Berlin’s profile, his chin. There you will discover the sign-posts of his controlled firmness, persistence, and determination. The qualities that make him the great music publisher that he is today. The publisher who can often win a skirmish with the composer, Berlin. And how they do battle at times! We consider that the songwriter reaches his height of courage when he bows to the publisher.
But remember that this publisher is the same little news-boy, Izzy Baline, who came up out of the cold waters of the East River, in the arms of the Irish youngster, still gripping on to his five pennies.
Today, Berlin and his father-in-law are friends.
Irving is hard at work on his new show, to be called “More Cheers,” a follow up of his latest, greatest success, “As Thousands Cheer.” In that production he wrote those new hits: “How’s Chances,” “Easter Parade,” “Harlem on My Mind.”
Usually his lyrics come first in his writing, just a phrase like “What’ll I Do.” He loves triplets in words, as in music. Then the melody and words grow together, as naturally as the leaves and blossoms on a tree. It is probably why they are so easy to sing.
The list of Irving Berlin’s successes is the biggest page in the history of America’s popular songs.< His waltzes are not only distinguished for their smooth melodies but for their refreshing originality. They borrow neither from the French nor the Vienesse. They are truly Berlin American.
After all, is not our jazz music, of which Berlin is the king, the most unique, if not the only original art that America has given birth to in our century.
Therefore, may we look at Irving Berlin. This slight, medium-tall, unassuming man is the folk-song singer of our time. He is the genius of Tin Pan Alley. These things we all know. And by certain distinguished musicians, some of his work is classed with that of the great masters. He has given of his deepest self out of his sufferings and his courage.
I wanted to ask Berlin many questions. Like a young schoolboy, he looked at me innocently, and inquired:
“What could I tell you about me?”
And in that simple sentence, while I studied his face, I learned the best of the things about him which I have tried to tell to you.
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