Irving Berlin (11 May 1888 - 22 September 1989)
Berlin, whose original name was Israel Baline and who was born in Temun, Russia, is the prodigious composer of music who helped launch 20th century popular music.
Brought to America when a child, Berlin worked for awhile as a singing waiter in a Bowery beer hall, where he introduced his "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
At the peak of his career in the 1940s, he had hit musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Call Me Madam; and songs such as "God Bless America" (1939) and "White Christmas" (1942). In 1954 he received a presidential citation as a composer of patriotic songs.
Berlin wrote over 900 songs, retired in 1962, and lived a reclusive life until his death in 1989.
"God Bless America" is a favorite song of believers. But as documented by Dan Barker In Freethought Today (Madison, Wisconsin, Freedom From Religion Foundation, May 2004), Berlin, the son of a Jewish cantor, was an agnostic. His religion was patriotism. The song originally had been written as a peace anthem, not a pro-war song as it sometimes now is performed. The peace anthem had not sold, so he converted it into something sellable. Barker has also documented that Berlin's "White Christmas" was not about Christ but about the coming of a season.
According to Barker,
- Some of us freethinkers might wonder why an agnostic would write a song about "God" at all, especially a Jewish agnostic who must have known that the capital-G "God" is perceived by most to be the Christian deity. But just as "White Christmas" is not about Christ, "God Bless America" is not about God; it is about America. Irving Berlin was not an atheist evangelist; he was a songwriter and businessman who wrote and sold music that reflected the popular mood.
- God Bless America revealed that patriotism was Irving Berlin's true religion," Laurence Bergreen wrote in As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (1990). "It evoked the same emotional response in him that conventional religious belief summoned in others; it was his rock."
- Even though Irving Berlin occasionally used the word "God" in a poetic sense, never once in his more than 1,500 songs did he ever promote religion.
- "I don't write church lyrics on the side," he once told a journalist, "have no passion for flowers, and never read Shakespeare in the original Greek."
Although one of the world's best-known musicians, Berlin never learned how to read music. He owned a special piano that mechanically transposed keys, and he had an assistant to write the musical scores.
Among Berlin's many friends was Cole Porter, who he knew had had infatuations and relationships with Russian dancer Boris Kochno and architect Eddy Tauch. Porter's "Anything Goes" was strongly decried by churchgoers. In the 1930s, the Hayes Office, carrying out censorship guidelines, possibly led him to tone down the penultimate line of "Begin the Beguine" from "And we suddenly know the sweetness of sin" to "And we suddenly know what heaven we're in." Berlin laughed uproariously when he learned, according to publisher Lyle Stuart.
Porter's 1953 Can-Can deliberately battled Puritanism, leading The Catholic News to deplore the scanty costumes worn by Gwen Verdon. To Porter a fellow disbeliever, Berlin wrote that he had seen the show with his daughter, and "It's a swell show and I still say, to paraphrase an old barroom ballad, 'Anything I can do, you can do better'."
Berlin was married twice . His first wife, singer Dorothy Goetz, sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz, contracted pneumonia and typhoid fever on their honeymoon to Cuba, and died five months after their wedding in 1912 at the age of twenty. Her death inspired Berlin's song "When I Lost You", which became one of his earliest hits. Curiously, a year before Dorothy Berlin's death, Irving Berlin, E. Ray Goetz, and Ted Snyder co-wrote a song called "There's a Girl in Havana".
His second wife was Ellin Mackay, a devout Irish-American Catholic and heiress to the Comstock Lode mining fortune, as well as an avant-garde writer who had been published in The New Yorker. They were married in 1926, against the wishes of both his family, who objected to religious intermarriage, and her father, Clarence MacKay, a prominent Roman Catholic layman, who disinherited her. (Her sister, who dated a Nazi diplomat in New York and was known for wearing a diamond swastika, remained a member of the family in good standing, however. Without a dispensation from the Church, the two were joined in a civil ceremony on January 4, 1926, and were immediately snubbed by society: Ellin was immediately disinvited from the wedding of her friend Consuelo Vanderbilt, although Vanderbilt was not a Catholic.
The couple had three daughters – Mary Ellin, Linda, and Elizabeth, all of whom were raised Protestant – and a son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died before his first birthday, on Christmas Day.
Berlin died of a heart attack at the age of 101 and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York, where his wife, Ellin, had previously been buried.