Throughout this painstaking, professional and ultimately satisfying biography, author Laurence Bergreen displays a mastery of the apt anecdote and on-the-nail quote.
Cole Porter, arch-sophisticate, dearly loved Irving Berlin, that simple-hearted minstrel-patriot who claimed he only followed the crowd. Bergreen quotes a letter from Porter to his pal, the "Little Gray Mouse": "If I had my way he would have been given the Congressional Medal because . . . he is the greatest songwriter of all time - and I don't mean Stephen Foster."The Mouse eventually gets the Medal - from President Harry Truman himself. And this was "the sweetest moment in Berlin's entire career," writes Bergreen. Yes, indeed! Honor from the commander-in-chief, recognition by high authority, class at last, after the long struggle to wash away every trace of his Russian-Jewish ghetto background and to take on the cologne of a country-clubbed Regular American.
But what is really nice is that the picture of Stephen Foster, his doomed mentor and the pioneer of the song models that Berlin streamlined, remained on the wall of the boss's office at Irving Berlin Inc. Foster died broke; Berlin died a multimillionaire. But the real value of both artists is the legacy of song that they left us. They were makers of magical musical boxes which, once opened, could shoot you to heaven for a few precious moments. Berlin's dreaming was rewarded with the American Dream: monetary success.
But Berlin was one-tracked, obsessive. In about 600 fact-packed pages, Bergreen proves Berlin's madness: He was song-struck. He had no interest in anything else - not golf, not gambling, not other women. Just songs. Of course, those songs had to be commercial, but fortunately, Berlin's heart and belly were as steadfast and true as your average Jack and Jill, and so for about 40 years he kept his title as the Nation's Songwriter.
"HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC," capitalized Jerome Kern as early as 1925. But "the mob," as Berlin termed his public, could turn frigid, so you had to keep wooing. Bergreen writes that when Cole Porter confessed that he had always hated his own hit song "Rosalie," there came the Berlin order: "Never hate a song that has sold half a million copies."
Bergreen, with thoroughness and fairness, tells the whole story from the 1888 birth in Mohilev, Russia (not Temun, Siberia, as Berlin liked grandly to pretend) to his undignified final years as a misanthrope - the "gargoyle of Beekman Place" (his ritzy New York home), the Howard Hughes of Pop, making obscene phone calls to those who dared write about him, painting hideous daubs, chasing away children who crossed his path on the daily constitutional. When the barber sang as he snipped, the man who wrote "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" snapped, "Shut up!"
Berlin was best as a Tin Pan Alleyman, crafting one-off songs for the world and his wife to use in many ways: dancing, dreaming, singing in the shower. But woe-betide performers who mucked about with his carefully constructed musical money boxes!
When Benny Goodman cut a swing version of "Blue Skies," the songwriter told the jazzman: "That was the most incredible playing I've ever heard." Pause. "Never do that again!" When Elvis Presley cut "White Christmas," the Berlin staff was ordered to advise radio stations not to play the monstrosity. As for folk-rock protest songs, they were anathema to the author of "God Bless America," the alternate national anthem.