Irving Berlin once said, “a patriotic song is an emotion, and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they will hate your guts.” This philosophy made him one of America’s most outstanding writers of patriotic songs from World War I through World War II.
Berlin was born Israel Baline in Eastern Russia on May 11, 1888. He was one of eight children born to Leah and Moses Baline. His father was a shochet (one who kills kosher animals as prescribed by Jewish religious laws) and the cantor in the synagogue. His family moved to New York in 1893 to escape the pogroms in Russia. At the age of eight, he took to the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City to help support his mother and family after his father had died. In the early 1900s, he worked as a singing waiter in many restaurants and started writing songs. His first published hit was “Marie From Sunny Italy.”
Berlin was married for only a year to Dorothy Goetz, who died from typhoid contracted while on their honeymoon in Cuba in 1913. He married Ellin Mackay in 1926. She was the daughter of Clarence Mckay, president of Postal Telegraph Company, a leading Catholic layman who opposed the wedding. The Berlins had three daughters.
In World War I, he wrote the musical Yip, Yip, Yaphank, produced by the men of Camp Upton. In this musical, the big hit song was “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which reflected Berlin’s aversion to rising early. This musical raised over $150,000 to build a service center at Camp Upton.
On Armistice Day, 1938, he introduced “God Bless America,” which was sung by Kate Smith. This song threatened to replace the national anthem because of its patriotism and popularity.
In World War II, he wrote the musical This is the Army, which raised $10 million for the Army Emergency Relief. His hits in this musical were “This is the Army, Mr. Jones” and I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.” He also wrote other patriotic songs such as “Any Bonds Today?,” “Arms for the Love of America,” and “Angels of Mercy” for the American Red Cross.
Berlin was prolific: He wrote more than 900 songs, 19 musicals, and the scores of 18 movies. Some of his songs that have become classics include “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Easter Parade,” and “White Christmas.” He is the top money maker among songwriters in America. In 1924, songwriter Jerome Kern observed, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.”
Berlin supported Jewish charities and organizations and donated many dollars to worthwhile causes. He was honored in 1944 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict.” Five years later, he was honored by the New York YMHA as one of “12 outstanding Americans of the Jewish faith.”
On February 18, 1955, President Eisenhower presented him with a gold medal for his services in composing many patriotic songs for the country. Earlier, Berlin assigned the copyright for “God Bless America” to the God Bless America Fund, which has raised millions of dollars for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Berlin’s World War I doughboy uniform and many of his original patriotic scores are displayed in the Jewish War Veterans Museum and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Irving Berlin died on September 22, 1989, at 101.
Following a gala 100th birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall, Morton Gould, president of ASCAP, said, “Irving Berlin’s music will last not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.” Not bad for a poor immigrant who had only two years of formal schooling and never learned to read or write music!
Sources: Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America from Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America: 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour
Sy Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
Jewish-American Hall of Fame - Jewish Museum in Cyberspace.