Arriving on May 11, 1888 in Tyumen, Siberia, Israel Isidore Beilin (Irving Berlin) was a Russian born composer of Jewish heritage. His father, Moses Beilin, was a cantor in a synagogue prior to uprooting his family to make a new home in America. The Beilins were just one of many Jewish families to settle in New York in 1893.
Though some would look upon Israel’s early years as living in poverty, he did not see it that way. First of all, he had no other experiences with which to compare his life to, so he had no reason to believe it was of a sad state. Add to that, there was always a hot meal on the table, so all was well with his little world. Moses would take his children to the synagogue to expose them to the sing-song readings from the Talmud, presented in a soothing fashion that helped to chase aware the cares of the day.
The day came when Israel found himself wrapped in a feather quilt by the side of the road. During the Cossacks’ rampage through the little village, they set fire to the Beilins’ home. As Israel lay there, he watched the flames engulf the house as it burned to the ground. By morning, the dwelling had been reduced to ashes.
Moses knew it was now time to remove his family from Russia and make a new life in the America. Doing so, however, would not be easy. To leave Russia in the legal manner required the use of a passport, something the family did not have, and likely would be unable to acquire. Thus, the Beilins would creep quietly from town to town until they were able to make their way to a ship that carried them to their destination – America. They finally saw the ‘star’ they sought – the Statue of Liberty.
Moses had a lot of company when it came to the Jewish exodus from Russia. The new Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, revived intense brutality against the Jews, which continued until 1906. Among those who fled Russia with the Beilins were George and Ira Gershwin, Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers.
A basement flat with cold-water and no windows on Cherry Street became home in New York. The Yiddish-speaking household was located on the Lower East Side within the Yiddish Theater District. Unable to find the same cantor work in New York, Moses worked in a kosher meat market and taught lessons in Hebrew on the side in an effort to support his family. Israel was 13 when Moses died a few years later. Now, with only a few years’ schooling to his name, Israel had to help support the family.
The first job he took was that of a newspaper boy who sold copies of The Evening Journal. During his first day on the job, Israel found himself enchanted by a ship setting sail for China. Israel’s intense interest in the vessel caused him to forget where he was and thus he failed to notice a swinging crane nearby. The crane knocked him into the river and thankfully third-time was his charm when he was fished out from the water as he began to sink for the third time. When removed from the almost watery grave, Israel still clung tightly to the five pennies he had earned for that day’s work – money he was able to take home and contribute to the family’s budget.
Everyone in the family had a job. Mother Lena worked as a midwife, while three of his sisters wrapped cigars. His older brother’s day was spent assembling shirts in a sweatshop. At day’s end, the family would gather and deposit their day’s earnings into Mother’s outspread apron.
As an eight-year-old selling newspapers in the Bowery, “Izzy” as he was known to many, would hear the music played in the restaurants and saloons which lined the streets of New York. He soon discovered that if he sang some of these same songs as he sold his papers, extra coins would be tossed his way in appreciation. A budding musician had now been born. One night he confessed to his mother that he had decided upon his life’s work – he would become in waiter who sang in a saloon.
Before his next birthday, Izzy realized he was contributing less to the family’s budget than the least amount provided by any of his sisters. The reality of this fact made him sick and caused him to feel worthless. He then left home and began a lifestyle in the Bowery which at that time bore a New York likeness to Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
Realizing his lack of education cancelled out his chances for formal employment, Israel resorted to the one skill he had acquired from Moses’ vocation – singing. As music became his sole source of income, Beilin began to learn the songs which most appealed to audiences. In Union Square, he would plug songs at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall and when he was 18 in 1906, he was a singing waiter in Chinatown at the Pelham Café. When Beilin was not serving drinks, he was teaching himself to play the piano. After the bar closed each night, he would sit at the piano picking out tunes.
The first song Beilin composed was Marie from Sunny Italy. Mike Nicholson, the establishment’s resident pianist, helped Israel to write the tune. An interesting fact about Beilin’s musical talent is that he never learned to play in more than one key. Also, when the sheet music for the song was released, Beilin’s name was misspelled. The sheet music read “I. Berlin”, whereby he decided to change his name to “Irving Berlin”.
Up the coast a bit from the Bowery where Berlin called home lived Rudyard Kipling, the Nobel-Prize winning author. As Kipling looked upon the “screeching squalor”, he felt the dirty gray tenement canyons that were home to the New York immigrants compared well to the slums he had seen in Bombay, India. He was impressed, however, by the Jews who lived there. As he witnessed the little boys saluting the Stars and Stripes, Kipling wrote, “For these immigrant Jews are a race that survives and thrives against all odds and flags.”
The time came when Max Winslow, employed with the Harry Von Tilzer Company, a music publisher, became aware of young Berlin’s singing and admired his talent to such a degree, he endeavored to have him hired by the publisher. He constantly bombarded Von Tilzer with boasts about Berlin to such a degree; Harry later stated Berlin should attribute a great deal of his success to the free advertising he received from Max Winslow.
In 1911, Berlin’s skill as a songwriter came to the forefront with the release of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The instant celebrity status he received from the song’s popularity won him the chance to be the featured performer at Oscar Hammerstein’s Vaudeville House. Here he introduced dozens of other songs to the gathered audience. It was later reported in the New York Telegraphy that a “delegation of two hundred of his friends from the pent and huddled East Side appeared . . . to see ‘their boy’.”
Though the song was a success, it would be awhile before it was considered a hit. Composer George Gershwin could foresee the influence a song of this style could have and stated, “The first real American musical work is ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.” Berlin himself was stunned by the song’s success.
In 1912, Irving married Dorothy Goetz. During their honeymoon in Havana, Dorothy contracted typhoid fever and died six months later. Her loss hit Irving hard and he turned to music to express his grief. He now wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You.” This song was also a big hit and sold more than one million copies. Berlin now began to write more love songs. By 1918, hundreds of songs spanning several genres filled his music portfolio. On a train trip, Berlin decided to entertain fellow passengers with numerous creations. When one of them later asked him how he knew so many of the hit songs, Berlin modestly replied, “I wrote them.”
In 1918, Berlin wrote one of his greatest pieces, which he then filed away for 20 years. In 1938, the manager for singer Kate Smith came to Berlin and asked if he had a patriotic song in his collection that could be sung by Kate to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I. Kate wanted such a song because she hoped not only would it serve to remember the war’s veterans, but also because tensions in Europe were again escalating and she sought something that would act as “a simple plea for Divine protection in a dark time.”
For Berlin, God Bless America was something he considered to be “very personal”. He wrote it in an effort to express deep gratitude to a nation that had provided the opportunity for a Jewish immigrant who had grown up in poverty to become a successful songwriter – thus he wrote the lyrics to say, “land that I love.”
Now probably the song Kate Smith is most remembered for, God Bless America became thought of as America’s second National Anthem after the United States entered World War II a few years later. With its release, Berlin assigned all royalties from the song to be donated to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; organizations which have since been blessed with millions of dollars due to this immense generosity. In return, during 1954, Berlin was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Berlin’s beloved song was later sung on the steps of the U.S. Capitol following the terrorists’ attacks on September 11, 2001 by members of the U.S. House and Senate.
Between 1920 and 1950, Berlin also wrote a number of movie scores. Probably the one he is best known for is “White Christmas”. The song was first heard in the film Holiday Inn. Sung by Bing Crosby who was accompanied by Marjorie Reynolds, White Christmas sold more than 50 million copies and claimed the #1 spot on both the R&B and pop charts for 10 weeks. It also resonated with World War II GIs who were spending their first Christmas overseas.
White Christmas won Irving Berlin an Academy Award for Best Music in an Original Song – along with a very unique opportunity. To date, he is the only winner of an Academy Award to present the Oscar to himself; due to the fact he opened the “envelope” and read his own name for the award. The likelihood of this ever happening again is practically impossible, due to the fact the Academy quickly changed the rules of protocol the following year so history would not repeat itself in like manner.
During the 1920s, love found Irving again. This time it was in the form of a young heiress, Ellin Mackay. Her father, Clarence Mackay, was head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company. Their relationship was of constant interest to the press due to the fact she was Catholic and he was Jewish. Irving’s faith caused Papa Mackay to oppose the relationship from the start, with Clarence going so far as to ship his daughter off to Europe in an effort to seek a more appropriate suitor for her. Though he could move Ellin out of Irving’s physical reach, he apparently failed to consider the fact the airwaves were able to transport the love songs Irving wrote for Ellin from his lips to her ears and heart. Eventually love won out; despite the fact Clarence said the wedding would take place over his dead body. In an effort to spare Clarence’s life, the couple eloped.
Ellin’s mother, however, was of a different mindset. Divorced from Clarence and remarried, Mrs. Blake wanted to see her daughter follow the dictates of her heart and marry the love of her life. After the nuptials at the Municipal Building, the couple traveled to Mrs. Blake’s home that evening and received her blessing.
When Clarence disowned his daughter due to the marriage to Berlin, Irving assigned all rights to a number of his most popular songs to his wife in an effort to guarantee her a steady income, no matter what the future held regarding their marriage. Some might say Irving also enjoyed some ‘sweet revenge’ at his father-in-law’s expense when five years later, Irving bailed out him due to the losses Clarence suffered in the crash of the stock market.
The marriage of Irving and Ellin was a love match that lasted until her death in July 1988 when she was 85. During their 63 years together, four children were born to the couple, with their only son, Irving, dying in infancy on Christmas Day 1928.
In later years, one of Berlin’s daughters offered this description of her father, “I found my father a loving, if workaholic, family man who was basically an upbeat person, with down periods, until his last decades, when he retreated from public life….” She went on to say her parents enjoyed celebrating all the holidays with their children – “the special stories, foods, and decorations and that special sense of well-being that accompanies a holiday.” One time her father referenced her mother’s lavish Christmas spending by saying, ‘I gave up trying to get your mother to economize. It was easier just to make more money’.” She also added, “He was consumed by patriotism. He often said, ‘I owe all my success to my adopted country’ and once rejected his lawyers’ advice to invest in tax shelters, insisting; ‘I want to pay taxes. I love this country.’”
Irving Berlin was 101 when he died in his sleep due to natural causes on September 22, 1989. He was laid to rest in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Following his death, the marquee lights of Broadway’s playhouses were dimmed prior to curtain time in his memory. Then Former President Ronald Reagan, who had costarred in Berlin’s musical This is the Army in 1943 stated, “Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the death of a wonderfully talented man whose musical genius delighted and stirred millions and will live on forever.”
A Russian Jew who immigrated to America, Irving Berlin’s life is a classic rags-to-riches story that could only happen in America. He wrote 1,500 songs in his lifetime and became a legend by the time he was 30.
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“To me, ‘God Bless America’ was not just a song, but an expression of my feeling towards the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.” Irving Berlin
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