My Review of Irving Berlin: American Troubadour, by Edward Jablonski
Source of book: I own this
Date originally posted to Facebook: May 3, 2011
I am slowly republishing my old reviews on the blog. I'm almost done! After that, I intend to figure out how to create an index of all the posts. Wish me luck.
This biography covers the long life of one of the most prolific songwriters of all time. Irving Berlin holds the distinction of writing both our nation’s unofficial national anthem (God Bless America), and the most popular modern Christmas song (White Christmas). Thus, even those who have little if any knowledge of Berlin can hum his songs. This is, of course, the merest taste of his craft.
Berlin was born in what is now Russia in 1888. (The town is in the area that has changed hands between Russia and Poland a few times over the last 500 years.) His family fled his homeland when he was a child to escape the persecution of the Jews. One of many from that era to settle in New York City, he endured the usual poverty, found a niche for his talent, and eventually achieved amazing success – the quintessential American story. His big mistake, if you will, was that he outlived his style of music by more than a quarter century.
Jablonski’s biography is largely a sympathetic telling of the story, although it does not shy away from the grittier details. Part of the reason for this may be that Berlin is generally regarded a decent, generous sort; there was just not that much dirt to dig up. Berlin was married and widowed twice. The first marriage ended when his wife contracted a fatal infection, probably on the honeymoon. His later marriage, to Ellin Mackay, followed another mythical American story. Ellin’s father, among other faults an anti-semite, opposed the marriage and tried to stop it. Ellin was headstrong and ran off with Berlin without telling her father. Although on paper, the marriage may have seemed doomed, it lasted for over 50 years, ending only when Ellin died in her late 80s. Berlin passed less than a year later at age 101.
In addition to the relatively non-scandalous marriages, Berlin seems to have been a faithful, devoted husband, if a bit of a workaholic. His children remained on good terms with him, and he lived to see his grandchildren and great grandchildren. With such a history, he was unable to become the legendary Byronic hero, perhaps. However, his music lives on in a way the works of few others from the era have.
Berlin wrote over 1200 songs – an amazing output even considering his long life. Unfortunately, many are hard to find these days, and have fallen from memory. However, my admittedly limited exposure (through my wife, who is an avid fan of the era) has led to an appreciation of his skills both with melody and lyric. While Berlin never learned to read music, he was an accomplished musician in his own way. His melodies, while not as unexpected as contemporary classical musicians such as Stravinsky or even Gershwin, are remarkably catchy, and wear well. White Christmas, of course, is the most chromatic melody ever to gain popularity. Berlin’s wit is not as biting as Cole Porter, or (to a lesser degree) Lorenz Hart (another of my favorites). They might be described as a “comfortable” or “familiar” wit – the kind you would use with family or friends. This should be read as a compliment. Not everyone can create laughter and knowing smiles, poking fun without losing affection.
I would list as some of my favorites the following: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep, Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning, and (cue mushy looks at my wife) Cheek to Cheek. I could name more, of course, as there are so many to choose from, but these by themselves would ensure Berlin’s place in the songwriter pantheon.
Jablonski has written biographies of a number of musicians from the early half of the 20th century, including Gerswhin, Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady), and Harold Arlen (Somewhere Over the Rainbow). His biographies are well researched and written, neither too technical nor too breezy. I recommend this book for those who wish to know more about a true American icon, and perhaps gain a feeling for the era in which he wrote as well.
As a final word, I have decided to adopt a line from this book, used by the author to describe Ellin Berlin as one of the blessings that Irving counted: “a beautiful wife, whose mind was as sharp as her tongue”. Since this might as well describe my own lovely and intelligent wife, I couldn’t help but appreciate it.
Who doesn’t love a little Louie and Ella?