Irving Berlin: New York genius
Yale University Press (Footprint), $49.99 hb, 424 pp
At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’
In his new biography of the songwriter, Kaplan does a nice job of describing the vertiginous progress of Berlin’s early success. Israel Beilin was born in 1888, probably in Siberia, the eighth child of Lea and Moses Beilin. The family moved to Belorussia and then to New York in 1893. The spelling of their surname was changed to Baline, and Israel quickly became known at Izzy. Moses, a peripatetic cantor in Europe, found himself mostly unemployed in New York, so the teenage Izzy, who seems to have inherited his father’s singing voice, busked and sang at tables, plugged songs for publishers, and was a ‘slide singer’ – which is to say he led cinema audiences in singalongs, the lyrics projected on slides. In bars, he would sometimes substitute his own risqué words and before long was writing original songs – first words, then words and music – his name appearing as ‘I. Berlin’. By 1910 he was Irving Berlin. He still hadn’t written anything you’ve heard of, but was sufficiently well-off to take that Palm Beach holiday.