Irving Berlin: New York genius by James Kaplan

Reviewed by
May 2020, no. 421
Andrew Ford reviews 'Irving Berlin: New York genius' by James Kaplan

Irving Berlin: New York genius

by James Kaplan

Yale University Press (Footprint), $49.99 hb, 424 pp

Irving Berlin: New York genius by James Kaplan

Reviewed by
May 2020, no. 421

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.

Andrew Ford reviews 'Irving Berlin: New York genius' by James Kaplan

Irving Berlin: New York genius

by James Kaplan

Yale University Press (Footprint), $49.99 hb, 424 pp

From the New Issue

You May Also Like

Leave a comment

If you are an ABR subscriber, you will need to sign in to post a comment.

If you have forgotten your sign in details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to ABR Comments. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.