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Irving Berlin’s America, Part II

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. For more than forty years, this was the home of Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest popular composers. Not bad for a little Jewish immigrant boy who came from Russia at the age of five in Eighteen Ninety-three. He was called ‘The Ragtime King,’ ‘the Broadway Troubadour,’ and his songs defined the music of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood. Who was Irving Berlin and what does his music say about America? Welcome to Irving Berlin, Part Two.

To find out about Irving Berlin, Think Tank is joined this week by Linda Emmet, the second of Irving Berlin’s three daughters and music historian, Robert Kimball, co-editors of the just-published book, The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, and Philip Furia, Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of Irving Berlin, A Life in Song. The topic before the house, Irving Berlin’s America, Part Two, this week on Think Tank.

Fully half of Irving Berlin’s eight hundred and ninety-nine published tunes went on to become hits. Two hundred and eighty-two reached the top ten on the popular charts; thirty-five hit number one. Irving Berlin was one of few composers at the time who actually owned the rights to his own work. As a co-founder of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers he carefully controlled the use in publication of his songs, preserving their integrity. Berlin’s music reflects an almost instinctive understanding of the culture and the early events of what has been called ‘the American century.’ They capture the heart of small town America and the brass of Broadway. This summer, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a commemorative stamp in honor of Irving Berlin and the songs that still stir and unite Americans.

Ben Wattenberg: Linda, Phil, Robert, welcome for the second part of our Irving Berlin program which we got going with uh, and it became so interesting we decided to do a second program on it. So let’s pick up where we left off. Linda, how did your parents meet?
Linda Emmett: My parents met at a dinner party given by a mutual friend. And my mother charmed my father because the first thing that she said to him was, “Oh, Mister Berlin, I do so like your song, ‘What Shall I Do?’” And the song, of course, is ‘What’ll I do.’ And so my father made some remark about his grammar not being nearly as good as hers. They took an instant liking to each other and then they started to see each other and when my grandfather got wind of it he disapproved and sent my mother abroad to get over Irving Berlin
Ben Wattenberg: She comes from a very wealthy family.
Linda Emmett: That’s right.
Ben Wattenberg: And she’s how old?
Linda Emmett: And she was twenty, a little older than, perhaps nearly twenty-one and he was uh, thirty-five. So there was a big age difference and a big cultural difference between them. And then when my mother came back, there were problems and they decided that it wasn’t gonna work out for them. And she had more or less given him up and, on the Fourth of January, the telephone rang and it was my father and he said, uh, “We’re getting married. Meet me at City Hall.” And so she had on a dress, she said, that needed to go to the cleaners but she didn’t care.
Ben Wattenberg: What year was it?
Linda Emmett: She’d been on her – in Nineteen, in January Nineteen Twenty-six.
Ben Wattenberg: Uh, huh.
Linda Emmett: And then they got down to City Hall and so my father was there with an old friend, Max Winslow, and his wife as witnesses. And nobody had money for the marriage license. And well, my mother did but she said she would, wasn’t going to pay for her wedding. So then they had to dig up whatever the fee was for the marriage license.
Philip Furia: The Berlin-Mackey courtship made all the newspapers. I mean it was a big story like the Lindberg story. I mean, that little boy from the Lower East Side marries the high society girl and they, reporters, hounded them everywhere.
Robert Kimball: They were pursued. In fact, Mister Berlin years later said that, “We had so much press attention during that time in our lives that when I got out of the public eye,” he said, “I didn’t want any more of it,” because it was so intense during the time of the courtship.
Ben Wattenberg: Did you and your sisters feel it?
Linda Emmett: Not at all because I think our parents sheltered us because of their experience and also because my father was extremely reserved, in the sense that he didn’t seek publicity and therefore, he never, never talked about his personal life in any interview.
Ben Wattenberg: And then we have another war.
Robert Kimball: And at that time, the Munich Conference is taking place and the future of Czechoslovakia is being decided.
Ben Wattenberg: And for forty days and nights that’s in the news every day.
Robert Kimball: Everything. And he’s going back on the ship to America and he remembers back to a song that he had written in World War I for the finale of Yip, Yip, Yaphank, a song called, ‘God Bless America,’ which he did not include in the show because he just didn’t feel right about it at that time. But that sentiment surfaced again in Nineteen Thirty-eight and he returned to it, and at the same time he gets back to New York and he gets a request from Kate Smith to write a song for Armistice Day and he writes this song which I don’t have to say anything more about. To him the most important song of his entire career.
Ben Wattenberg: And he describes it as a peace song, not a war song.
Linda Emmett: Yes, he changed two lines of the song which he felt were not appropriate to the moment. But I would interpret his saying it’s a peace song that it was a song of hope. And I think that’s why it took on such importance after September Eleventh.
Ben Wattenberg: Phil, I was just reading in your book, that song, ‘God Bless America,’ of all songs becomes itself controversial, doesn’t it?
Philip Furia: People begin asking that it be the national anthem. Now you have to remember that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ wasn’t always our national anthem. It was declared the national anthem, I think, in Nineteen Thirty-one, just at the end of the Hoover administration. And I believe even Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Why can’t it be ‘God Bless America’?” I mean it’s, who can sing the national anthem? You know, it has such a broad range musically. ‘God Bless America’ is a song that is perfectly typical of Berlin – beautiful in its simplicity, direct in its emotional expression, and it’s a song that can be sung by a large group very easily, and has all the hallmarks of what a national anthem should be. But when people began suggesting that and even singing it in place of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the old kind of establishment in America lashed back and there were denunciations that this Jewish immigrant, you know, how dare he presume to write – Berlin never made the suggestion.
Ben Wattenberg: No, he said it should not be.
Philip Furia: Yeah, he himself said it should not be. We have one national anthem and that’s it.
Robert Kimball: He was never for it being our national anthem.
Ben Wattenberg: And proceeds for, the royalties for ‘God Bless America,’ go…
Linda Emmett: Go to the Boy and Girl Scouts. He wanted to give it, I think, to young people. To the, what he considered, to be the future of the country.
Ben Wattenberg: Phil, he hangs out with the literatti and the glitterati at the Algonquian round table, which, you know, you think of the songs he wrote, I mean, ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘God Bless America,’ things like that which sound so homespun and Main Street and yet he’s hanging out with who?
Philip Furia: And he could write songs of great sophistication, too. Yeah, he wrote, I think it was ‘All Alone,’ at a party that Dorothy Parker and Alexander Wolcott and he was very much a part of the round table, and George S. Kaufmann and all these wonderful wits and creative people.
Ben Wattenberg: Now he does a show about World War II.
Robert Kimball: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Called ‘This is the Army.’
Linda Emmett: He was thinking that he wanted to do a show and then he got a letter from somebody in Washington asking him if he might do a revival of Yip Yap Bank to raise money for Army relief. And he decided to write an entirely new show. And the most, I believe, the most important thing about that show is that he insisted that it be an integrated show. He says, “It’s impossible, we have too much black talent. It’s impossible, I will not do this show without black performers.”
Linda Emmett: Then after the show played Broadway and it went on a national tour and a film was made, then it went to London and General Eisenhower came to see a matinee and he was so impressed with the show that he wrote to General Marshall who was in charge of the American troops asking that the show be sent overseas. And so my father first went to Italy and the show was very close to the front lines, very close to the Fifth Army and he would play hospitals. I think it must have been very, very hard, very distressing to him. He would play shows to soldiers who were dying, who were very badly wounded and he could hear the firing going on.
Ben Wattenberg: I’m already sort of about twelve or thirteen I guess when some of this was going on – and I remember he also takes a very personalistic view of it rather than a globe, is it “This is the Army Mister Jones, no private room or telephones.”

Robert Kimball (and all): “You had your breakfast in bed before but you won’t have it there anymore.”
Ben Wattenberg: All right, so World War II ends and then he really does some great musical comedies, which are, I mean Annie Get Your Gun, I guess is one of the great pieces of American popular music.
Philip Furia: While he’s been, yeah, while he’s been touring the musical play, rather than the musical comedy, really gets going with Oklahoma. There’ve been some before this, it would go all the way back to Showboat. But Oklahoma really defines a new kind of musical. Rogers and Hammerstein are going to produce it, a musical about Annie Oakley. And the songs are gonna be written by Jerome Kern and the lyricist-libretist Dorothy Fields, who’s another of the great songwriters, really great woman among that group. And Jerome Kern comes back to Hollywood, to New York to work on the show and he dies of a heart attack. And they’re desperately trying to figure out, after the funeral, who to go to and Richard Rogers says, “Let’s ask Irving.” And Dorothy Fields, who was gonna do the lyrics, says, “Well that will mean I won’t write the lyrics but that’s okay.” The whole thing was her idea but this was the Broadway, pull together spirit. And they asked Berlin and I think he was very skeptical at first because there was this new kind of musical and he said, “This is a situation show.” And they gave him the script for Act One, I think, and over one weekend he wrote, ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,’ ‘They Say It’s Wonderful,’ ‘I Got the Sun in the Morning,’ and maybe ‘Doing What Comes Naturally.’ And he brings these in the next week…
Ben Wattenberg: In…in one weekend?
Philip Furia: Yeah, and they said, “Well, we think you’re gonna be fine with this kind of a show.”
Robert Kimball: Yes.
Philip Furia: I mean, you know, one of the things he realized that is it was basically a musical about show business.
Philip Furia: Even a great song like, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ which really is the anthem of the theater, Berlin had this lifelong insecurity about his work. He was always afraid, as he said, that “I’m going to reach up and it’s not going to be there.”
Ben Wattenberg: And that is followed by his other sort of wonderful musical ‘Call Me Madam’ and here (Linda: Yes) here we are.
Philip Furia: Right here, right in this building. He wrote it here.
Linda Emmett: Yes, he wrote much of it here.
Philip Furia: Right here.
Ben Wattenberg: Which is now, ironically the Consulate of Luxembourg.
Linda Emmett: Of Luxembourg.
Ben Wattenberg: And the UN mission.
Linda Emmett: And it was based on Perle Mesta who was ambassador to Luxembourg.
Philip Furia: And again it generated hit songs. I can remember as a kid growing up in the early Fifties, I listened to music a lot. And a lot of popular songs of the early Fifties that were coming out of Tin Pan Alley were pretty awful stuff by then and had gotten pretty watered down. And but I, you know, I liked it anyway. And then one day I heard this song – another one of those double songs –
Robert Kimball: ‘You’re Just in Love.’
Philip Furia: Yeah, ‘You’re Just in Love,’ and I thought, wait a minute this is different. This is a lot better song. I could tell that at what, age ten, eleven, I mean it just was riveting. But he would still have that ability to write songs that were successfully integrated into the show but could then go on to become popular.
Robert Kimball: Here it is Nineteen Fifty, for forty years he has been at the top of his profession. Can you imagine a popular songwriter today lasting for ten years at the top of his profession? Irving Berlin dominated American music for four decades.
Ben Wattenberg: And then where in the Nineteen Fifties there’s a song called “Rock Around the Clock.’ Is that right?
Philip Furia: Nineteen Fifty-four.
Ben Wattenberg: And your dad never catches up with rock and roll, does he?
Linda Emmett: No. He realized that that, he was, he couldn’t do that.
Robert Kimball:. It didn’t happen right away ‘cause he kept writing into the Fifties and he finally had one last Broadway show, Mister President in Nineteen Sixty-two. But he did tell me that at the time, by the Beatles in the early Sixties, he loved Elvis Presley by the way, admired him very much.
Linda Emmett: Uh, huh, and the Beatles also.
Robert Kimball: And the Beatles also.
Linda Emmett: Yes.
Robert Kimball: And, but by the Sixties, America going through these convulsions of the Sixties, the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, the campus unrest, all that happening and the music changing dramatically. And what he said to me, which I’ll never forget, was that he felt very much as if he were like a storekeeper who had a store and tried to sell goods and the people were no longer interested in buying what he had to sell. And he decided at that time, he said, to close down the store.
Ben Wattenberg: But he has a, does he write a song that the Republicans then use for their theme song, ‘I Like Ike.’ Is that…
Linda Emmett: That was in ‘Call Me Madam.’
Robert Kimball: That was in ‘Call Me Madam,’ that goes back into the early Fifties and he’s writing, and he rewrites then does different songs for Ike in the Fifties.
Linda Emmett: When he wrote occasional songs, he wrote a song called ‘Sayonara’
Robert Kimball: In Fifty-seven.
Linda Emmett: In Fifty-seven.
Ben Wattenberg: So when, but it’s done on the political note. Was he a Republican?
Linda Emmett: No. I think he was a Republican for Eisenhower but he was not a Republican.
Ben Wattenberg: I see. And then, at the end of his life, I mean the word that you hear again and again was ‘bitter.’
Robert Kimball: No, no.
Linda Emmett: Well I don’t, I think it’s more complicated than that.
Robert Kimball: Yes, more complicated.
Linda Emmett: Because if, he wrote lyrics until a little less than two years before he died.
Ben Wattenberg: Age ninety-nine.
Linda Emmett: And he wrote funny lyrics and incisive lyrics. And I think he suffered from depression and I think he became reclusive.
Ben Wattenberg: Your mom does her best to keep his spirits up but it doesn’t quite work?
Linda Emmett: I think in the end she also became quite reclusive. But I wouldn’t say he was bitter. I think he was frustrated because he was too old to work and yet he continued to write lyrics. He had cataracts and I think part of it was also the fact that he was slowly going blind because he was a voracious reader. It wasn’t that he was bitter; I think he was unhappy.
Robert Kimball: And Mister Berlin, when he knew I was working on lyricists like Larry Hart or Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, he would talk to me about them and how great they were. He would speak to me as if I needed to be convinced and he was passionate, enthusiastic and he had great insights into their work. He once gave me a good five minute lecture on the greatness of ‘A Foggy Day’ by Ira Gershwin. I remember him telling me about ‘My Funny Valentine’ and how special that was. And Phil is now working on Johnny Mercer and he loved Johnny Mercer’s work. He was superbly enthusiastic about other people’s work
Ben Wattenberg: That was really the era, I don’t know probably a twenty, thirty year period, when American music.
Philip Furia: The golden age of American song, probably from around World War I into the Fifties, maybe. We could argue over the parameters of it. But it, what all the, the great, great songwriters – Kern, Berlin, Gershwins, Porter, Rogers and Hart, Rogers – later Rogers and Hammerstein, Umans, Arlin, Fields and McCue, I could go on. This was a period when these great, great songs were performed wonderfully, they became jazz standards, they’ve now become cabaret standards. But this body of work is one of the greatest contributions this, of this nation.
Ben Wattenberg: Right, I’m going to just end on a note that Phil Furia ends his book on, it’s a, I guess a send up of his, parody of his own song, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ And as you say, “he does it as a heavenly roll call of songs by his brilliant contemporaries.” And it goes like this, “Gershwin and Kern, Jerry Herman and Moore, Romberg, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, the list is long with every song there’s a new chance to begin and three or four or maybe more written by the great Berlin.” And on that note, thank you very much, Linda Emmet, Phil Furia, Robert Kimball. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
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