Irving Berlin's Life, His Biographer Finds, Was as Rich in Myth as in Music

updated 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Irving Berlin died on Sept. 22 at age 101, a small group of people gathered outside his home on Beekman Place in New York City and spontaneously broke into song. The strains of "God Bless America" that drifted down the street seemed a fitting tribute to the man who had kept America singing for generations. Although Berlin himself was seldom seen in the last 20 years of his life, his music-including such standards as "White Christmas," "Blue Skies," "Always," "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "Cheek to Cheek"—continued to be heard. "I was curious about what had become of Berlin, "says author Laurence Bergreen, who has just completed a forthcoming biography for Viking Penguin, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. In 3½ years of digging, Bergreen found that many legends about Berlin were myths. He separated fact from fiction with staff writer Mary H.J. Farrell.

What was Berlin like in his last years?

He was the Howard Hughes of show business—a paranoid, reclusive, genius tycoon. He was worth tens of millions when he died. He could have earned a lot more if he had licensed his songs to movies or commercials, but in later life he never did. When Steven Spielberg asked to use a song in a movie, Berlin said, no, he was going to save it for one of his own projects. He was 98 years old at the time.

How would he spend his time?

He talked endlessly on the phone to his friends—composer Harold Arlen, music historian Edward Jablonski, Morton Gould, president of ASCAP. They would talk shop, and Berlin would carefully check on his royalties. This gave Irving a sense of being in the thick of things. Of course, he wasn't. It was kind of poignant.

Why was Berlin so concerned about money?

When Berlin's father died, his life underwent a revolution. He was the youngest of six children. There was no money to support the family. At 13, he began singing popular songs of the day on the sidewalks of the Lower East Side. This was a Dickensian situation that went on for four or five years. His equating music with money began then. For him music was a matter of survival. If he did it well, he ate. If he didn't, he starved.

Were there any recent Berlin sightings?

For the last six years, a group of fans have gathered outside Berlin's home on his birthday and at Christmas to serenade him. On Christmas Eve 1983, as they were singing "White Christmas," the maid invited everyone in for cocoa. Berlin was in the kitchen in his pajamas. He hadn't made a public appearance since his 80th birthday in 1968. He said it was his loveliest Christmas present ever and gave all the men a hug and all the women a kiss.

So he was capable of being magnanimous?

Yes, and although he pinched his nickels and dimes, he could be generous. This Is the Army earned nearly $10 million, and he gave it all to the government. After Kate Smith made "God Bless America" popular in 1938, Berlin signed over the money to the Boy Scouts and the Girls Scouts.

Was it true that Berlin could only play the piano with one finger?

No. He was a crude pianist—he only played the black keys—but he used all 10 fingers. Because Berlin couldn't read or write music, he used an invention called the transposing piano. It had a lever that moved the keyboard, changing the key signature. For him it was like a blind man learning to read with braille.

Berlin was often charged with plagiarizing songs. Were the charges unfounded?

There was a very persistent rumor that dogged him to his dying day that his songs were written by black musicians in Harlem who toiled anonymously. This started with his first hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. Many people believed it was impossible for one person to write as many songs in as many styles as he did or for an untrained musician to write so many works of genius. Berlin, relying on his ear, worried that something he had heard somewhere would crop up in his music. But no evidence has ever been found that he plagiarized anyone.

When Berlin met his second wife, Ellin Mackay, what did her father object to most—the fact that he had grown up poor, was Jewish or was in show business?

Each was worse than the next. Clarence Mackay was a pillar of New York society. He was an arrogant man who had inherited all his money and had no business sense himself. The romance never got going seriously until Clarence realized his daughter was dating this Tin Pan Alley composer and sent her on a trip around the world to break it up. This was the worst thing he could have done because once she was away, Irving began to miss Ellin and wrote "Remember" for her. She returned in September 1925, and they married right after New Year's. When they met, Ellin was a journalist contributing to the New Yorker. Irving had always been in awe of literature and higher learning, which he felt had been denied him because of the poverty of his youth, and that was part of his fascination with Ellin. He remained devoted to her until she died in 1988.

Is it true he wooed her with "Always"?

He didn't write that for Ellin. An associate asked him to write a song for his girlfriend, Mona. He worked out the tune and the line, "I'll be loving you, Mona," on a napkin and put it away. A few years later he pulled it out and substituted the word "always" for "Mona." He tried to use it in the play The Cocoanuts, but the director hated it. When he eloped with Ellin, he still had it in mind so he dedicated it to her and assigned her the copyright. Over the years it earned her $300,000.

What kind of father was Berlin?

He was absent too much to be a doting father. During World War II he traveled with his show, This Is the Army. When he wasn't on the road he worked at night, going to bed at 4 or 5 A.M. and sleeping until noon. He had one son who died shortly after birth—Irving Berlin Jr. There were three faiths in the house—Ellin was Catholic, Irving was Jewish and the three girls were raised Protestant, largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance.

What did Berlin do to relax?

He was rarely able to relax. He tried fishing but didn't have the patience for it. He tended to brood and become unhappy when he tried to unwind. He was really only expansive in his work.

Was he impressive in person?

He was blunt and never lost his Lower East Side accent. And though he revered learning, he was not an intellectual. Berlin was in London with This Is the Army when he was invited to visit Winston Churchill. The PM poured him a cognac and said, "Mr. Berlin, can you tell me about war-production figures in the U.S.?" Berlin was staggered—he expected to talk showbiz. The less he said the more Churchill pestered him about politics. It turned out Churchill thought he was Isaiah Berlin, the English scholar and diplomat.

When Berlin wrote Mr. President in 1962, it was hailed as a comeback, but from what?

In the late '50s he had a lot of career frustrations and lived alone in a separate apartment in his building for several years. He had a bad attack of shingles. After he recovered, everyone was delighted that Berlin, then 74, was back. The problem was that Mr. President received such mixed reviews—some terrible—that it revived rumors that he didn't write his own stuff. Unfortunately, he had written it. After that, his confidence was shot.

Did he understand how much he had contributed to American music?

I'm sure he regarded himself as the greatest American songwriter, but insecurity tormented him all his life. But at the same time he was as astonished as anyone that he was so successful. Underneath it all he was just Izzy Baline from the Lower East Side who was utterly dependent on his audience to keep him happy.

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