Irving Berlin was a self-made man in the fullest sense of the term. Like ”White Christmas,” ”Blue Skies,” ”Cheek to Cheek,” ”How Deep Is the Ocean?,” and 1,500 other published songs, he was composed, words and music, by Irving Berlin. Or rather by a 19-year-old singing waiter named Israel Baline who had been born in Mohilev, Russia, in 1888. Arriving in New York at age 5 on an immigrant-packed ship, he endured nine years in a teeming Lower East Side tenement before leaving his family for the squalid dives of the Bowery. One of the surprises in Laurence Bergreen’s picaresque and picturesque account of Berlin’s early adventures is the abruptness with which the famous, reserved, carefully dressed composer sprang fully formed from his own alert and restless determination. One moment Izzy Baline is sleeping in filthy flophouses and singing for pennies among the drunken sailors, prostitutes, and opium addicts of the shadiest saloons in Chinatown; the next moment Irving Berlin is the picture of respectability and success- tight dark suit and celluloid collar, brownstone apartment, and the toast of New York and London for having written ”Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 when he was 22.
Inventing yourself, like writing a memorable song, is hard work. Berlin early established his monastic discipline: composing his songs all night, selling them in the afternoon, sleeping only in the late morning, if at all. An intense man who ”radiated nervous energy,” he was probably about 20 years short of sleep by the time he died last September at the age of 101. ”Irving, you look as if you slept well last night,” a friend remarked. ”Yes,” he said, ”but I dreamed that I didn’t.”
He resisted the temptations of success — gin and chorus girls on the casting couch — with the same self-possession as he resisted the temptations of poverty — opium, whiskey, despair. He saw plenty of his contemporaries ruined by them. From his life among the snares of the Lower East Side he took mainly a sense of what pleased even the hardest-to-please crowds-sentimentality, simplicity, and humor. His darkest moments — the death of his first wife in 1912 after five months of marriage, the death of his mother in 1922 — darkened and deepened his music into lonely ballads like ”When I Lost You” and ”All Alone,” but never interrupted it. The closest thing to an interruption came with the one great triumph of his life outside music — his successful pursuit of Ellin Mackay, the café-society debutante and New Yorker writer who became his second wife. After prevailing against her anti-Semitic father and the frenzied press, Berlin went through what was for him a creative dry spell, but as Bergreen points out, his dry spells would have made respectable careers for other composers.
Berlin was a perfectionist who shared some of the sentiments of the crowds he had to please but who was essentially aloof, feeling akin mainly to other perfectionists, such as Fred Astaire. Perfectionists loathe change. For Berlin, Bergreen concludes, it was always 1911, when ”Alexander’s Ragtime Band” took the country by storm. He adjusted slowly and reluctantly to radio, the movies, and the development of the Broadway musical after Jerome Kern’s Showboat revolutionized it. He assimilated ragtime but never jazz. As popular music during the ’50s and ’60s lowered its common denominator out of his reach, and as he aged into creative exhaustion, he stopped writing and retreated into hermetic silence punctuated by outbursts of rage. This has given certain reviewers occasion to make self-righteous clucking noises, a temptation that Bergreen doesn’t entirely resist himself. It’s true that Berlin in his old age was often nasty. When an exacting craftsman can no longer produce anything up to his standard, he’s bound to be bitter. I doubt that it had anything to do with a lack of an ”innate sense of worth,” as Bergreen speculates; it was rather, as he says elsewhere, a final, pugnacious manifestation of the same unbending will that kept Israel Baline from going under on the Lower East Side. It was the revenge of the artist’s conscience on his imperfect life, but it was the same conscience that had turned the Russian-born, Yiddish-speaking Izzy Baline into a composer as characteristically American as his idol, Stephen Foster. Cole Porter had more sophistication and urbane wit; Gershwin had more range, jazzy energy, and classical technique; Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern had a deeper melodic lyricism. But it was Berlin who wrote the words and music to the holiday anthems (”White Christmas,” ”Easter Parade”), the unofficial national anthem (”God Bless America”), and ballads so simple they have the purity of folk song (”Always,” ”What’ll I Do?”). As Thousands Cheer has the sweeping range that a crowded, century-long life requires. This is a colorful history of our greatest popular art — the music that emerged out of the ethnic and social commotion of 20th-century America — as well as a vivid biography of its greatest exponent. A