Irving Berlin: New York Genius (By the Book)

Exploring the interplay of Irving Berlin's life with the life of New York City, noted biographer James Kaplan offers a visceral narrative of Berlin as self-made man and witty, wily, tough Jewish immigrant. Enjoy this excerpt of Kaplan's book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius.

Irving Berlin: New York Genius
James Kaplan
Yale University Press
November 2019


Play a Simple Melody

Another photograph: Irving Berlin, age twenty-six, sitting at his desk in the Waterson Berlin & Snyder offices at 112 West 38th Street. His back is to a window with the firm’s name printed on it; outside, a striped awning blocks bright sunlight: it is spring or summer of 1914. Berlin is wearing a silk foulard necktie and a beautifully tailored gray silk suit, and staring directly at the camera. He holds some folded papers in his hand —probably business correspondence or contracts rather than music—and his desk is also piled with papers. He is busy, in the midst of business, and his gaze is intense and slightly forbidding. His dark hair is unruly, and a few locks fall on the side of his forehead, emphasizing his youth—and then the fact of his youth circles the viewer back to that splendid suit and tie, and his name on the window, and the pile of papers in front of him, and the fact that although he is four years from thirty, he is already two years a widower, and immensely successful and powerful.

Nineteen fourteen was a banner year for Berlin: the year the songwriting dynamo joined the fledgling American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, ASCAP, as a charter member and member of the board of directors; the year he wrote his first score for a full-length musical; and the year he left Waterson Berlin & Snyder to found his own music-publishing firm, the Irving Berlin Music Company.

Yet Berlin’s commanding gaze in the photograph also disguised a deep unease: “I was scared to death because I didn’t know if I could continue to write hits,” he recalled. And he was fretting not just about his own inventiveness but about the shrinking profit margins of selling sheet music. Tin Pan Alley, the industry that had lifted him to fame, “was suffering from its own success,” Philip Furia writes. The growth of the music industry had spawned too many publishing firms and generated “cutthroat competition,” Berlin told Theatre magazine.

The bold and seemingly counterintuitive move of hanging out his own shingle (along with his old friend and champion Max Winslow) in new offices at Broadway and 47th Street owed much to Charles Dillingham’s plans for him. The veteran Broadway producer, famous for mounting the operettas of the Irish-born, German-trained Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta), had sat enthralled in the audience of Berlin’s September 1911 stage performance at Hammerstein’s Victoria. As Dillingham wrote in an unpublished memoir, “The first time I heard Alexander’s Ragtime Band, I decided that the composer I.B. should write an entire score for me, and that was the start of ‘Watch Your Step.'”

But ten years on from Little Johnny Jones, Cohan was beginning to seem sentimental and slightly musty. Dillingham had something entirely new in mind: a freewheeling combination of legitimate theater and vaudeville, with known personalities— whether from vaudeville, the music hall, or elsewhere—performing a not too serious libretto and songs that more or less reflected the plot without advancing it too aggressively. Berlin responded enthusiastically, as both songwriter and businessman: writing the score to a musical that might propel a touring company around the country, he realized, could give his work a whole new platform.

His commercial fears notwithstanding, Berlin made an extraordinarily good deal for Watch Your Step. Though in 1914, “writers had little authority in a musical theater driven by producers and star power,” as Jeffrey Magee reminds us, “Irving Berlin was different. From the start he exerted unusual control over his role as songwriter.” It was a pattern he would maintain for his whole working life: though filled with insecurities, he drove a very tough bargain when it came to protecting his music.

And with Dillingham he was in an excellent bargaining position. The producer had come to him, Berlin had a trunkful of hits, and when all was said and done, he was the man who had written “Alexander.” The contract he negotiated placed a strict limit on the number of interpolations (songs by other composers) that would be allowed in the show, challenging a practice that had been rife throughout the history of American musical theater—and one from which Berlin himself had profited, and would continue to profit.

Yet as the deal was being finalized, he developed cold feet. “When he signed a contract with me to do a score, turning from song writer to composer,” Dillingham recalled, “he became a little frightened and asked Harry B. Smith who was doing the libretto to write the lyrics.” Twice Berlin’s age, Smith was the dean of his profession, with thirty years’ experience writing the books for operettas, musicals, and revues (including five Ziegfeld Follies), as well as the lyrics to thousands of songs. But Smith was no Berlin. The librettist recalled the young songwriter in his own memoir:

He is a genius in inventing unexpected rhymes. Most bards would think it hopeless to attempt to find a rhyme for “Wednesday”; but Mr. Berlin found one. In one of the songs in this piece [Watch Your Step], a matinee idol describes his persecution by women and alludes to the elderly worshippers who attend the afternoon performances:

There’s a matinee on Wednesday,
I call it my old hens’ day.

Smith told the youngster: “Irving Berlin, don’t let anybody ever help you with your lyrics.”

Berlin took heed. And once he got going, he barreled ahead with a fiery energy over the summer and into the fall, turning out almost thirty new songs in various styles: rags, ballads, a polka, a waltz. An orchestrator named Frank Sadler arranged the pieces for a twenty-piece orchestra, a breathtaking leap for a songwriter who’d previously been used to hearing his tunes played by, at most, a piano and ten, as a vaudeville orchestra was called.

The show was essentially a revue, a mishmash—Berlin’s score was really just a disparate collection of charming songs, and as for the libretto, the program read: “Plot (if any) by Harry B. Smith.” What counted was the spectacle of the thing. Who cared if the action shifted, with little to no explanation, from a law office to a stage door to a rural town to the Metropolitan Opera, where the angry ghost of Giuseppe Verdi appeared, berating the chorus for singing his work in syncopation?

But the show’s real gem, more or less buried amid the gaudy foolishness, began as a girl singer crooned plaintively,

Won’t you play a simple melody
Like my mother sang to me . . .

and then the boy singer went into the syncopated counterchorus:

Oh you musical demon,
Set your honey a-dreamin,’

Won’t you play me some rag?

“Simple Melody” was the first of Berlin’s great double songs —tunes consisting of two separate melodies written to be sung by two voices, successively at first, then together in counterpoint. It was an astonishing feat for a songwriter who couldn’t read or write music, and therefore had no certifiable knowledge of harmony. But for Berlin, the astonishing was commonplace: as always, the harmonies were right there in his head when he needed them. “The musical part didn’t give me any trouble,” he recalled many years later. “The difficulty was getting two lyrics so that they wouldn’t bump into each other.”

“Simple Melody,” like Watch Your Step itself, represented a clash between the old-fashioned and the newfangled that turns into sweet, contrapuntal harmony. The show opened at the lavish New Amsterdam Theatre, at 214 West 42nd Street, on December 8, 1914. The plot’s implausibilities mattered little to the

first-nighters (among whom sat Leah Berlin, next to her son and two of his sisters). What did matter was that the spectacle was fresh and new, a perfect showcase for the talents of the Castles and Berlin, but especially Berlin. When the house lights came up, someone called, “Composer! Composer!” “He walked up the aisle, mounted the stage, and acknowledged the applause,” Bergreen writes.

When the composer appeared before them, the audience drew its collective breath. He looked tiny, and although he was now a twenty-six-year-old widower, he scarcely seemed out of his teens. He made a brief speech of thanks, but his words were drowned out by the roar of approval.

Just as astonishing to Variety‘s reporter was Berlin’s behavior after the premiere. “Seldom has a successful first night occurred in New York when the one most responsible for it could not be found after the performance at the most famous Broadway restaurant, the center of a large and admiring crowd,” he wrote. But instead of basking in the admiration, Berlin got in his hired car with his mother and sisters and saw them home. And then returned to his apartment with Cliff Hess to await the reviews.

They were worth waiting for. Berlin “stands out like the Times building does in the Square,” Variety wrote. “That youthful marvel of syncopated melody is proving things in ‘Watch Your Step,’ firstly that he is not alone a rag composer, and that he is one of the greatest lyric writers America has ever produced.”

As far as the Times was concerned, Berlin was the story:

Irving Berlin’s Revue at the
New Amsterdam is
Festivity Syncopated.

But, the piece went on to insist, a revue was what it was. “So many things have been called musical comedies that ‘Watch Your Step’ might as well be called one,” the anonymous reviewer wrote.

It is really vaudeville done handsomely. . . . More than to any one else, “Watch Your Step” belongs to Irving Berlin. He is the young master of syncopation, the gifted and industrious writer of words and music for songs that have made him rich and envied. This is the first time that the author of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and the like has turned his attention to providing the music for an entire evening’s entertainment.For it, he has written a score of his mad melodies, nearly all of them of the tickling sort, born to be caught up and whistled at every street corner, and warranted to set any roomful a-dancing.

The message was mixed, but in essence it was the same as George M. Cohan’s: Berlin may have moved uptown, but he was still there with the old downtown hardshell. So what if he hadn’t reinvented musical comedy? He was a vaudevillian at heart, a writer of madly hummable hits, and what was wrong with that?

* * *

Charles Dillingham was eager to repeat the success of Watch Your Step, but by 1915, World War I had broken out, the English-born Vernon Castle had enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, and the dance team was no more. Dillingham’s solution was to build his new musical, Stop! Look! Listen!, around Irving Berlin and the French dancehall sensation Gaby Deslys.

With less than three months to write twenty-five numbers, Berlin produced a ragtag score that seemed like an assemblage of reworked castoffs from Watch Your Step—and then there was “I Love a Piano.” The comedian and dancer Harry Fox (who gave his name to the Fox Trot) introduced the number, accompanied by no fewer than six pianists (playing either six different instruments or a spectacular prop keyboard that spanned almost the entire stage; accounts vary). But no special effect was needed to assure the immortality of the song, whose tune is sheer, ringing joy and whose lyrics are among Berlin’s wittiest:

I know a fine way
To treat a Steinway. . . .
So you can keep your fiddle and your bow,
Give me a p-i-a-n-o, oh, oh—
I love to stop right
Beside an upright
Or a high-toned baby grand.

This is simplicity at its simplest—and of course its most complex: one shudders to think of the blood Berlin sweated to get it right. And the lyric, if one reads between the lines (as if the lines themselves weren’t perfect enough), is as autobiographical in its own way as “When I Lost You”: here we have intertwined the composer’s insecurity and awe in the face of the many more talented keyboard artists he has encountered with his sensuous, highly metaphoric connection to the instrument that is the source of his wealth and fame. This is a song that’s every bit as erotic about the piano (right down to that O, oh, oh!) as the many sexy tunes that would be written about cars from the 1930s through the 1960s. And a song that gives us the complete transition of the whip-smart boy who sang dirty parodies at Nigger Mike’s to full-fledged artist.

* * *

Hamstrung by Gaby Deslys’s diva behavior, Stop! Look! Listen! ran for just over two months. Yet even as the Dillingham production was closing, a musical that had opened almost simultaneously with it was settling into a long run, and its composer was helping to create a new American art form.

Very Good Eddie opened on December 23, 1915, at the Princess Theatre, a tiny bandbox of a house (299 seats) at 104–106 West 39th Street; the librettist was an English-born American named Guy Bolton, and the composer was the Manhattan-born Jerome David Kern. At thirty-one, Jerry Kern was three years older than Irving Berlin, and unlike Berlin, a refined genius rather than a primitive one, having studied piano and composition in New York and Heidelberg and having begun contributing songs to Broadway shows, and musicals in London’s West End, while still in his teens.

From a strict musical standpoint, Kern could write rings around Berlin, bringing refinement to a thirty-two-bar popular song that the younger songwriter could only dream of. As proof, there was his watershed 1914 hit “They Didn’t Believe Me,” a song that sounds timeless today because it was modern then.

“Critics tried to group them together: Kern and Berlin, the next generation of Broadway composers,” Bergreen writes. “But Berlin resisted the notion of seeing his name bracketed with anyone else’s; he wrote his own music and lyrics, published his own songs, and on occasion, performed them himself. He displayed scant interest in developing the collaborative skills required by a musical.”

Meanwhile, down on West 39th Street, Jerry Kern was making collaborative magic. Very Good Eddie was the second of the so-called Princess Theatre plays: musicals with American settings, few scenery changes (a simplicity born of necessity in the tiny theater), farcical action by Bolton, and beautiful songs by Kern. Soon P. G. Wodehouse would add his romance-spoofing lyrics to the equation, and the trio would proceed to revolutionize the American musical theater with a series of shows that were matchlessly funny, sophisticated, and character-driven.

In the meantime, Irving Berlin—who would not write a truly successful, truly integrated song-and-story musical until 1946’s Annie Get Your Gun—would go his own way. Also in the meantime, he fell in love.

* * *

To all appearances, Berlin’s chief romance since Dorothy’s death had been with his Weser Brothers transposing piano. He had moved from the Chatsworth, with its doleful associations, to an apartment on West 70th, where he lived, as well-to-do young bachelors of the era often did, with a couple in service, a Swedish cook and valet. Every night, the pair left at midnight and Irving repaired to the piano, tapping at the black keys and scratching out lyrics with his fountain pen until the sky began to lighten. Now as in the early years—the early years were all of a decade ago now—his overnight hours were dedicated to work, not play.

But were they really? He’d been a widower for four years; he worked in show business, where the temptations were many; he was young and magnetic and beautifully dressed and quite well off. And both the words and the music of his songs seem to reveal, at the very least, a healthy libido. Is it reading too much into tunes like 1914’s “If You Don’t Want My Peaches (You’d Better Stop Shaking My Tree)” and 1915’s “Take Off a Little Bit” (“A man must see/ An inch or three/ To keep him interested / An ankle now and then / Will catch the best of men/ So take off a little bit.”)—not to mention those syncopated rhythms!—is it over-imaginative to imagine that this songwriter was writing from a standpoint that wasn’t merely academic?

But in 1916, his output suffered markedly, both in quality and quantity: between the March closing of Stop! Look! Listen! and November, he published a mere seven songs, none of much interest to posterity except as curios—though that fall the eighteen-year-old George Gershwin made a piano roll of one, “I’m Down in Honolulu (Looking Them Over).”

Berlin might have been sidetracked in May by the Friars Frolic, a charity gala in which he performed, and for which he wrote both a long, rhyming speech, and a song, “The Friars’ Parade.” He was almost certainly distracted by his collaboration with Victor Herbert on the score for an upcoming Flo Ziegfeld extravaganza, The Century Girl.

And then there was eighteen-year-old Constance Talmadge.

“Dutch” Talmadge—she’d been so nicknamed as a little girl, because of her round face and blond hair—was the youngest of three daughters of a feckless, alcoholic father and a legendary stage mother. When her husband’s desertion left her destitute, Peg Talmadge got her three good-looking girls to Hollywood as fast as she could. The oldest, Norma, the tragedian of the family, was the first to go to work in the movies; Natalie, the middle sister, turned out to have little interest in acting but would later marry Buster Keaton. Dutch, a natural comedian, quickly outshone them both, snagging a role in a very serious project: D. W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance.

After Constance’s contract with Griffith ran out, her mother brought her daughters back east—the movie business was bi-coastal in those days. And one night, at a party at the Ritz Hotel, Norma Talmadge met Berlin’s old Bowery pal Joe Schenck, who fell hard for her.

Schenck and his younger brother Nicholas had recently joined Marcus Loew in the movie-theater business, and Joe aspired to run a studio. And here, in one beauteous twenty-two-year-old package, was his ticket. In Norma Talmadge Joe Schenck saw both a future wife and a Galatea, a girl he could mold into a star. He set to work on his project, deputizing his best friend Irving to sound out Norma’s feelings for him. Irving discovered that Norma liked Schenck well enough (the two would marry that October), and somewhere along the way, in the turbulent year of 1916, Irving discovered Dutch.

Long-chinned and tomboyish, Dutch Talmadge wasn’t as conventionally beautiful as her older sisters, but she compensated with a teasing vivacity that made her formidably sexy. Yet she was also still a girl, and a certain hard-hearted flightiness was part of her charm.

In 1917, Berlin would publish a song called “Whose Little Heart Are You Breaking Now?,” with the line “I wonder whose feelings you’re hurting / When he catches you flirting.” A couple of years later, his friend Anita Loos asked him to think of a title for a screenplay she’d written for Constance. Irving had it: A Virtuous Vamp. Maybe the virtue applied only where he was concerned.

James Kaplan has been writing noted biography, journalism, and fiction for more than four decades. The author of Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman, the definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, he has written more than one hundred major profiles of figures ranging from Miles Davis to Meryl Streep, from Arthur Miller to Larry David.

Excerpted from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan (footnotes omitted). Used with the Permission of Yale University Press. © Copyright 2019 Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.