Irving Berlin: 101 years of musical genius
- Created on Sunday, 09 November 2014 07:19
As you know, I enjoy reading biographies, and my favorite are biographies of musical genius. And there certainly is no one who deserves the title of musical genius more than Irving Berlin.
He wrote so many popular and enduring songs, some of which are deeply ingrained in our culture, such as White Christmas, God Bless America, Always, What’ll I Do, Easter Parade, Happy Holidays, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Let's Face the Music and Dance, How Deep Is the Ocean, and Blue Skies. But, there seems to be no end to the gems that he wrote. For instance, listen to this rendition of A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody. It was written in 1919- almost 100 years ago- and I have no doubt that people will be listening to it 100 years from now because it is that good.
I don’t know what is more amazing: the fact that Irving Berlin wrote such beautiful music without any education in music and with only a limited ability to play the piano OR the fact that he lived 101 years. But, I’ll address both.
Israel Baline (his real name) was born in Russia in 1888. There was an awful lot of anti-Semitism in Russia at that time, and when he was 5, his family had had enough. So, they moved to America. They were Ellis Island immigrants. His father was a cantor, which is a professional singer of religious music at the synagogue. But unfortunately, he could never find gainful employment as a cantor here. So, he had to work other jobs, like at a chicken processing plant. But, everybody in the family worked. And when Moses Baline died of a heart attack at age 49, it became even more imperative that everyone worked. Izzy dropped out of school at the age of 14 in order to work. But, he loved music, and when he was 17, he became a singing waiter. He sang popular songs of the day, but he also created his own songs and sang them, and people liked them. He taught himself to play the piano at night, but he only learned to play the black keys, which meant that he could only play in one key F#. But, he eventually bought a piano which had a mechanical transposing device, so that he could play in F# and make it sound like any key he wanted.
This was the Lower East Side of Manhatten, a very tough neighborhood, teeming with immigrants. But, it was close to Tin Pan Alley, which was where the music publishing houses were. Back then, sheet music was much more popular than it is today. It was a very big business. And these publishers were always looking for new songs. Izzy Baline saw it as way for him to make money and rise out of poverty. His first song was a collaboration in which he wrote the words and another guy wrote the melody, called Marie from Sunny Italy. And that is when the name Irving Berlin came to be. And that was soon followed by a song called Alexander’s Ragtime Band, written entirely by Berlin, words and music, which became an international sensation.
That was 1911, and he just rose like a rocket after that. By the time of the first World War, he was the preeminent songwriter in America. However, that did not stop him from getting drafted. But, he was very patriotic, and he served willingly. Fortunately, the Army realized that putting a rifle in his hands and sending him into battle was not the best use of his talents. So, he spent his war years right on Long Island designing musical revues for the Army- shows to entertain the troops. And by the time of the second World War, he was no longer in the Army, but he did it all over again, traveling the world to entertain American troops.
His first marriage was very brief because his wife caught typhoid fever in Cuba on their honeymoon, and she died a few months later. He was single for many years after that until he met Ellin MacKay, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic industrialist who happened to be an anti-Semite. His relationship with and marriage to Ellin became a scandal, especially because it was so vehemently opposed by her father. But, it was a good marriage, and they stayed married until her death, which was shortly before his. They had 4 children, but his one and only son, Irving Berlin Jr., died shortly after birth.
Irving Berlin wrote all of his own lyrics, and that’s amazing too when you consider that English was not his first language. It was actually his third, after Russian and Yiddish. And as I said, he dropped out of school so young that it’s amazing that he could have such a way with words, English words. It was a rare thing back then for a composer to write his own lyrics. The only other prominent one who did was Cole Porter, and they became close friends, even though they were as different as night and day. ( Hope you caught the pun.)
Irving Berlin was also a very competent businessman. He started his own music publishing company, which published his works and the works of other songwriters. He also started his own musical theater which was called the Music Box Revue. It was very successful, and he amassed a vast fortune. But, he was also very generous. For instance, he did all that work for the troops during WW2, traveling to faraway places such as New Guinea, for absolutely nothing. And he donated all the revenues from God Bless America (which was actually written for the 1st World War, but it didn’t take off until the 2nd World War) to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. And that is true to this day through the Irving Berlin Charitable Fund. During and after his life, he gave away millions.
Before I get to his health and his longevity, I’d like to relate one more thing about his music, and that is the production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun. It’s amazing how that came about. It was actually produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was their musical. But, they didn’t have time to write the score because of other commitments. So, they hired the great Jerome Kern to do it. So, he came back to New York from California explicitly for that purpose ready to begin work on it right away. But, he died of a heart attack the night of his return. So, Rodgers and Hammerstein had to scramble. The only names they could think of who were up to the task were Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. They decided on Berlin mainly because Porter had a reputation for being risque’, and they didn’t want that. So, they chose Berlin.
And Irving Berlin was very honored to get the gig. But, he was also very intimidated because he knew that Rodgers and Hammerstein were very great technical composers, and he couldn’t even read or write music. He wasn’t sure he was up to the task. But, they encouraged him and expressed their confidence in him. The result was the marvelous musical score to Annie Get Your Gun. Here, from Spider Man 2 is Kirsten Dunst singing the beautiful They Say That Falling In Love is Wonderful, originally from Annie Get Your Gun, which is surely one of the greatest songs about love.
Now, concerning Irving Berlin’s health and longevity: The bio I read is called As Thousands Cheer by Laurence Bergreen. And, it’s very good except that it deals mostly with his professional life, and only superficially with his personal life, including his habits. For instance, the author never stated whether Irving Berlin smoked. And I was unable to find out online. However, the author did make one statement which gave it away. He said that the old transposing piano which Irving Berlin composed on and transported everywhere he went, which is now sitting in a Belgian museum, and which he called his "Buick", got to be “cigarette-stained.” So, I take that as an indication that Irving Berlin did smoke. But, I have a hunch that he was a light smoker, the reason being that I have yet to see one photo of him with a cigarette.
As for alcohol, he did drink some, but he never had a problem with it. It was mostly social drinking; celebratory stuff, champagne and wine. Not once did the author mention Irving Berlin getting inebriated.
As for food, he just ate regular food for that time, and there certainly was an emphasis on animal foods: meats, dairy products, eggs. He liked duck. Also crabs. I don’t recall the author mentioning any fruit or vegetable being a favorite of his. But, my impression is that he was not a big eater. He wasn’t a foodie. He ate to live; he didn’t live to eat. And he stayed thin his whole life. He was lean as a boy and lean as a man. And that, I suspect, is the single biggest reason why he lived so long. We know that keeping calories down- undernutrition without malnutrition- prolongs life. It is the single most proven life extension technique. But, Irving Berlin did it spontaneously. He just wasn’t a big eater.
Did he exercise? Not really. I saw one photo of him playing golf. But, that was just something that others put him up to. It was a social thing. He really wasn't into it. What he was into much more enthusiastically was playing poker, and he played it a lot with other composers. I kid you not: he, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, and other songwriters of that era had a regular poker club. They were close buddies, and Irving Berlin was the senior member. You might say he started it all.
Apparently, his health was remarkably good for most of his life. The author never mentioned any medical problems until Berlin got quite old. Never once did it say that he had to miss an important event or engagement or performance because of illness. There was no mention of any hospitalizations or surgeries.
However, Berlin did have one very chronic health problem: insomnia. And it was lifelong. Typically, he couldn’t fall asleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. It wasn’t uncommon for him to stay up all night and just be active the next day, skipping a night's sleep. Especially when he had deadlines to write music, he just stayed up all night and did it. He was most productive at his songwriting in the dead of night.
However, when he was in his 50s, he started taking a drug for sleep, Nembutal, which is another name for phenobarbital. It’s a very strong barbiturate. It’s still around, but today, it’s used more in veterinary medicine than human medicine. It’s considered a harsh drug. It’s addicting, and if you take too much of it, it can kill you. But, that's what they gave for insomnia back then, and you know what it did to Marilyn Monroe. It didn’t go too well for him either. He got habituated to it, and he had to keep increasing the dose to maintain the effect. And sometimes, even with a heavy dose, he still wouldn’t sleep.
So, Irving Berlin’s sleep problem was his biggest health challenge, and it took a toll on him. In the latter decades of his life, he became clinically depressed. That was stated, and, his sleep problem surely contributed to it. How could it not? He became difficult and short-tempered. And once rock n’ roll became dominant, he had even more to be depressed about. He probably should have retired sooner than he did. And once he couldn’t write music any more, it was hard for him to find other things to do with his time. He tried to take up fishing, but that didn’t go too well. He didn't have the patience for it. He did take up painting, and that he really enjoyed. However, apparently, nobody thought he was particularly talented at it.
He lived the last decade of his life in complete seclusion. He really dropped out- almost like Howard Hughes. And other problems cropped up, for instance, a bad case of shingles. He also developed a heart condition and had a cardiologist who would treat him at home. There was a big television production for his 100th birthday, but, they couldn’t get him to attend. His last notable public appearance was when he sang God Bless America on the Ed Sullivan Show on his 80th birthday with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts backing him up. For 80 years old, he looked and sounded fantastic. See for yourself.
So, how amazing is it that Irving Berlin lived to 101? Extremely amazing. He must have had a very good constitution, plus the fact that he stayed thin. Physically, he wasn’t athletic, but he had excellent proportions. For instance, he always maintained a healthy shoulders-to-waist ratio, and you could still see it even when he was 80. He didn't get apple-shaped or pear-shaped. He kept a v shape. He didn’t get fat and sloppy. He kept a youthful shape. And I’m sure it contributed mightily to his longevity.
You can’t say that Irving Berlin was 1 in a million because he was more like 1 in a billion. His talent to create music was beyond gifted. To me, it is like he was from another planet, not a regular human, but with faculties much greater than a regular human. And, it makes sense to me that a person with that much capacity to express life through music should have a lot of life to express. In other words, his longevity came from the same place that his musical creativity came from- his inner vitality. Irving Berlin had something great inside of him, sustaining him to write music and sustaining him to live. And, the music that resulted from it shall always live, making him immortal.