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Irving Berlin: New York Genius
by James Kaplan

Book Review by Jerry Beal

Maybe the most familiar quote about any Broadway figure comes from Jerome Kern, speaking of his contemporary and fellow composer: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music." Certainly the list of songs always cited in support of Kern's undeniable claim speaks for itself: "God Bless America," "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "There's No Business Like Show Business." These have become anthems for each of the occasions or institutions they represent. But, as James Kaplan clearly and eloquently illuminates in his new biography "Irving Berlin: New York Genius," the great man, through his personal history, his sensibility, and his genius, was repeatedly able to tap into the soul of his adopted country and capture the core feeling and essence of what it means to be an American.

Berlin's background is generally known. Born in Eastern Europe, raised in a Lower East Side tenement in a basement apartment with no running water and a courtyard privy, "Izzy" Baline began to vocalize in public and launched his musical career as a sidewalk entertainer. The young newsboy found that if he broke into song, his clients might toss him an extra penny. From there, becoming a busker on the city streets singing for his upkeep, then a song plugger, first for the legendary songwriter turned publisher Harry Von Tilzer, then for the Russian Jew Mike Alter, owner of the Pelham cafe in Chinatown (better known, as Kaplan discreetly notes: "there is no other way than to say it—as Nigger Mike's"), the young dynamo was exposed to a world of cultural ferment developed and populated by people like him: driven, quick-witted, talented, optimistic, and immigrants. "Everyone should have a Lower East Side in their lives," said Berlin later in life, and Kaplan traces how this foundation was at the root of so much of his work.

During the creation of Annie Get Your Gun, Kaplan notes that Berlin and producer Richard Rodgers never really meshed, but there was a great mutual respect. One day onstage during a rehearsal and seeing Berlin pacing in the theatre, Rodgers said, "There is America's folk song writer." The appropriateness of this comment seems evident given the show that Berlin was composing at the time: a musical about an uneducated farm girl who becomes an American heroine by joining forces with a Wild West show. But Rodgers' statement, like Kern's, is equally apt in looking at virtually all of Berlin's shows:

Miss Liberty, a fictionalized account of the statue's creation; Louisiana Purchase, for which he later interpolated the uplifting "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow" as news arrived from Europe of Hitler's advances; Call Me Madam, another fiction centering on Washington socialite Perle Mesta and her ambassadorship in Lichtenstein, and Mr. President, his last and least successful show but one based loosely on the Kennedys and culminating with his last anthem, "This Is a Great Country." All of this is not to mention his earliest works—a series of revues whose success lay in their topicality with current happenings. And the series of jazz and ragtime infused songs that preceded any of the productions, catching the feel of the music that was taking over. And, of course, This Is the Army, his World War ll salute which toured army bases around the world after its New York run to lift the spirits of U.S. servicemen.

The other great pleasure Kaplan offers is in his descriptions of the varying ways a Berlin song may have come together, depending on the reliability of the speaker. "Blue Skies" entered the pantheon through its interpolation into Rodgers and Hart's Betsy, though it may have been written up to a year before. "Remember" was greeted by Berlin's business partners as "terrible" and "not so good" possibly because of his limited piano skills and small voice. "What'll I Do" was first heard in an unfinished state at a studio party and presumably finished later that night after the assembled revelers had imbibed a considerable amount. "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" was about to be cut by producer Daryl Zanuck from the movie On the Avenue because of the non-plot-driven nature of the score, until Berlin convinced him that once the film was released, bandleaders would jump on it. And, to counter the notion that Irving sat up all night thinking only of his work, Kaplan offers the 1914 title "If You Don't Want My Peaches You'd Better Stop Shaking My Tree."

As the book nears its end, we are brought back to the night of December 24, 1983. Neighbor, songwriter, and cabaret singer John Wallowitch, who had met his esteemed neighbor occasionally on the street, brought sixteen friends with him to Berlin's house on Beekman Place, and under his window sang "White Christmas." The great man invited them into the kitchen, kissed the ladies, hugged the men and said, "This is the nicest Christmas present I ever got."

Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan
398 Pages
Yale University Press
Publication Date November 5, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-300-18048-0
Available in Hardcover/Kindle/Audiobook narrated by L. J. Ganser