Irving Berlin (1888-1989), born Israel Baline, played a leading role in the evolution of the popular song from early ragtime and jazz through the golden age of musicals. Despite having no musical training, despite having never learned to read music, and notwithstanding a rather primitive technique, he became one of the most prolific and beloved songwriters of all time whose music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook.
Berlin’s 20 original Broadway shows include Annie Get Your Gun (1946); Miss Liberty (1949), in which he set Emma Lazarus’s famous “The New Colossus” to music; and Call Me Madam (1950), for which he won a Tony Award. His 15 original Hollywood films include Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Easter Parade (1948), and Holiday Inn (1942), which introduced White Christmas. Among the best known of his 1,500 songs are “There’s No Business Like Show Business”; “Cheek to Cheek”; and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” His songs, which included 232 top ten hits, with 25 earning the number one spot, have been covered by numerous singers, and he received eight Academy Award nominations.
In the November 19, 1979, correspondence to Debbie Reynolds exhibited here, Berlin writes “Here is the autographed picture you asked for and a copy of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’ I’ve always regretted that I couldn’t see you in the show, but I know from all accounts that you were wonderful.” Playing Annie Oakley, Reynolds performed the song in a 1977 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. She and the show earned rave reviews but, for reasons unknown, Berlin never brought it to Broadway.
After watching their house burned down by Cossacks, Berlin’s strictly Orthodox family escaped the pogroms of Czarist Russia for Ellis Island and New York City. His father, Moses, had been a cantor in Russia but, unable to find cantorial work in the U.S., he worked at a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons on the side to support his family while Irving attended school and sang in a synagogue choir. When Moses died a few years later after his son’s bar mitzvah, Irving, determined to become “fully American,” abandoned all Jewish practice. Forced to support himself after his father’s death, he sold newspapers in the Bowery, where he was exposed to the songs from saloons and restaurants, became passionate about music, and began performing popular ballads that he heard on the Lower East Side.
A few years later, he delighted customers as a singing waiter performing lewd parodies of hit songs and, after drawing the attention of a music publisher, he caught his first break as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company. He quickly rose as a songwriter on Tin Pan Alley and then Broadway, and his first huge success, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), sparked an international dance craze and made him a wealthy man at a young age.
The death of Berlin’s non-Jewish wife from typhoid fever on their honeymoon inspired “When I Lost You,” one of his most beautiful and emotional songs. He married his second wife, Ellin Mackay, a Catholic of Irish descent, in a secular civil ceremony, although the union was bitterly opposed by Ellin’s billionaire father, who was furious about her marriage to a Jew – and a lower-class Jew at that – to the point that he disinherited her. However, the story of an immigrant from the Lower East Side marrying an American heiress was tabloid gold for the press, including Ellin’s being dropped from the social registry for marrying a Jew (while her sister, who dated a Nazi diplomat, remained in good standing).
Ellin had wanted to be married by a priest, but Berlin refused; as their daughter later explained, “The cantor’s son does not forget who his people are.” However, Ellin later decided that their three daughters should be acquainted with their father’s Jewish heritage and, toward that end, she joined a Manhattan Reform Temple and took their children to a Passover seder and Yom Kippur services.
Ironically, Berlin’s most enduring song is undoubtedly “White Christmas,” which has been called “the ultimate goyische anthem” written by a Jew who “had reached the outer limits of musical assimilation” and personified “Yankee Doodle Yiddishkeit.” His three-week old son, Irving, Jr. died from SIDS on Christmas day 1928, which may explain why, as one writer insightfully put it, “White Christmas” has “a strong undertone of melancholy, yearning for something that feels just out of reach.” The song, which has sold over 50 million records and remains the highest top single selling song in recording history, won him the Academy Award for Best Music in an Original Song.
Many lament the irony of a “nice Jewish boy” writing Christian standards such as “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” but, in fact, Berlin’s affection for the trappings of Christmas led to the beginning of his assimilation even before his father’s death. Among his most treasured early memories was sneaking over to a neighbor’s house to see the Christmas tree and eating non-kosher Christmas food. Berlin insisted that Christmas was an American non-Christological holiday in which Jews could participate without betraying their faith and that, as such, his being a Jew was irrelevant. In this regard, some commentators note Berlin’s brilliant “de-Christing” of the two ultimate holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ by sidestepping all religious associations, transforming Christmas into a celebration of the winter season and turning Easter into a festival of spring fashion. It is perhaps for this reason that in Operation Sherlock, novelist Philip Roth characterizes Berlin as “the greatest Diasporist of all.”
Though intermarried and wholly agnostic, Berlin remained a strongly self-identified Jew who was a great supporter of Jewish charities and organizations, including supporting efforts on behalf of European refugees and war victims during the Holocaust. His pro-Israel activities include singing “God Bless America” at the JNF Land of Freedom conference in December 1942 and being honored by the YMHA as one of the 12 “most outstanding Americans of Jewish faith” (1949). He wrote “Israel” (1950), a Zionist anthem in honor of the new Jewish state and, in an unfinished song he began in 1959, he wrote the lyric, “Israel, with outstretched arms, you gave hope to your homeless people.”
When Berlin was drafted into the army at the end of World War I in 1917, it asked him to write songs to lift the spirits of American soldiers and, ever the patriot, he composed an inspirational all-soldier musical revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. Its popularity was such that it was taken to Broadway the following summer, where it earned $150,000 for a camp service center. One song that he wrote for the show, but ultimately decided not to include because it was “a little too obvious for the soldiers to sing,” was a little ditty called “God Bless America.”
The title for “God Bless America” was inspired by Berlin’s mother who, despite living a life of hardship and poverty in her newly adopted land, would often walk around the house exclaiming “G-d bless America!” According to Berlin, she would not say it casually but, rather, “with emotion which was almost exultation.” His original 1917 lyrics were:
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her, and guide her,
to the right with a light from above.
Make her victorious on land and foam,
God bless America, my home sweet home.
However, when Berlin dusted off the song for release at the beginning of World War II, he wanted a song about peace, so he changed the militaristic sounding “make her victorious on land and foam” to the now familiar “from the mountains, to the prairie, to the ocean, white with foam.” Moreover, the term “to the right” had developed political associations that Berlin sought to avoid, so he changed the lyric to “through the night (with a light from above).”
Intriguingly, the first six notes of “God Bless America” are identical to a six-note melodic passage from “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band,” a 1906 novelty song written by three Irish songwriters about a Jewish musician known as “the Jewish Sousa.” Whether accidental or intentional, the tune to which the lyric “Abie then starts to play” is sung in “Mose” exactly matches the melody to Berlin’s opening musical phrase of “God Bless America.”
“God Bless America” was first performed by Kate Smith – most poignantly, it had its debut the day after Kristallnacht in Germany – when Berlin gave it to her to sing as a patriotic song marking the twentieth anniversary of Armistice Day. Berlin always made clear that “to me, ‘God Bless America’ was not just a song but an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.” The New York Times captured the importance of the song when it wrote that it “enshrines a strain of official patriotism intertwined with a religious faith that runs deep in the American psyche.”
Berlin’s core patriotism may ironically perhaps be best expressed by the song’s introduction, which Smith sang but is rarely heard today:
While the storm clouds gather from across the sea,
let us swear allegiance to the land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
Although Berlin always modestly insisted that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was America’s one and only national anthem, “God Bless America” quickly became a second anthem when the United States entered World War II. Its popularity was not without some controversy, however, as antisemites and xenophobes were outraged that a Jew – and a lowly immigrant at that – had written the popular song. The Nazi American Bund characterized it as a Jewish conspiracy and a manifestation of the mindset of “the refugee horde”; followers of Father Coughlin regarded singing the song as “a provocation of violence”; and KKK leaders called for its boycott. Opposition also came from the left; for example, Woody Guthrie reacted to what he characterized as the saccharine jingoistic smugness of “God Bless America” (revealing, as he claimed, Berlin’s unfamiliarity with the “real” America) by penning This Land is Your Land, which went on to become an American anthem of sorts in its own right.
Pointedly refusing to personally capitalize on patriotism, Berlin assigned all rights and royalties to “God Bless America” in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, and it has generated many millions of dollars over time. Berlin’s generosity and patriotism was legion. For example, when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau requested that he write a song to inspire Americans to buy war bonds, he wrote “Any Bonds Today?” and assigned all royalties to the U.S. Treasury Department, and he wrote “Angels of Mercy” for the Red Cross and assigned it all profits from the song.
Exhibited here is a program for the Army Air Forces presentation of This is the Army and a Playbill for a production at the Broadway Theatre (September 1942), both signed by Berlin. The play, which was the biggest and best-known morale-boosting show of World War II, began life on July 4, 1942, as a Broadway musical designed to raise money for the military and, after touring the nation and later the world, it was made into a movie starring Lt. Ronald Reagan (1943).
In May 1941, The War Department asked ex-Sergeant Irving Berlin to create another morale-boosting show like Yip, Yip Yaphank and, while on tour at his old army base, he spoke with commanding officers about restaging the show as This is the Army. General George Marshall approved a Broadway production of the wartime musical for the army and permitted Berlin to hold rehearsals at Camp Upton, just as he had during World War I. Insisting on an integrated cast and staff, Berlin hired African Americans to work on the play, making This is the Army the first integrated division army unit in American history, and he wrote a song specifically to be sung by his black actors (as opposed to being sung by blackface singers), That’s What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear. He was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict” (1944).
This is the Army was presented at American military bases throughout the world, sometimes in close proximity to battle zones. Berlin wrote nearly three dozen songs for the show which contained a cast of 300 men, and he supervised the production and traveled with it, always personally singing “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” As was his wont, he accepted neither salary nor expenses for his three-and-a-half-year involvement with the show, during which time he was separated from his wife and daughters, and he donated all profits to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
A significant feud erupted between Berlin and stage director Ezra Stone when Life magazine published Berlin’s declaration that there were “too many Jews in the show and too many of Ezra Stone’s friends.” Everyone present was astounded that Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, could have actually said this. Berlin explained that he wanted to avoid the appearance that the cast of This Is the Army seemed to consist mainly of Jews trying to avoid combat duty by appearing in a morale-boosting show. Stone and others argued that this was the sheerest nonsense, as the number and proportion of Jews in Army was no different than any other civilian production.
This Is The Amy ran on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre from July 4, 1942, to September 26, 1942, and it was such a success that it went on the road – due, in part, to the enthusiasm of Eleanor Roosevelt – including a command performance before President Roosevelt in Washington. When the national tour ended in San Francisco on February 13, 1943, it had earned millions of dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund over and above the massive proceeds from sales of sheet music from the show, all of which Berlin donated to the Army. The play was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1943 starring Lieutenant Ronald Reagan and in which Kate Smith also sang “God Bless America” against a backdrop of anxious families apprehensive about the war. Berlin also donated to the Army the $250,000 he received from Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Studio, for the film rights.
Later, during the Vietnam War, Berlin, furious with the growing spirit of anti-Americanism spreading through the United States, recommended changing the lyrics to his classic song:
God bless America, land I enjoy.
No discussions, with Russians,
until they stop sending arms to Hanoi . . .
The original anthem took on increased prominence in the wake of 9-11, when it became the spontaneous symbol of national unity and collective mourning after members of Congress stood together singing it on the steps of the Capitol.
Finally, the United States Postal Service creates photos of essays in various formats to publicize designs of upcoming stamp issues. Produced in advance of the stamp’s issue, these are original artist’s models; i.e., stamp production artwork. Shown here are two original photo essays of Scott 3666, the U.S. Berlin stamp, which was ultimately issued as a 37-cent stamp (see photo at right); the 34-cent version to the left is a “preliminary design.”