Irving Berlin got his songwriting start as a lyricist, not a tunesmith. (He quickly realized, however, that he wouldn’t have to share royalties if he also wrote his own melodies.) His extraordinary verbal facility was legendary–he solved “impossible” rhymes for words like “orange” and “Wednesday.”
So it’s perhaps no surprise that his eldest daughter was an accomplished writer. As a young woman she landed a job as a researcher at Time; she went on to write several novels and–the subject of this post–a memoir.
I’m about halfway through a pile of Berlin books at this point, and Mary Ellin Barrett’s Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir has made this great 20th-century songwriter come alive like no other. The outlines of the career are familiar by now, of course, but Barrett’s book makes it personal: the tension in the dry spells, the joy of the hits. She writes of going to see This Is the Army as a teenager:
Even when I went to the shows and the movies, and up there on stage or on the screen were his songs, even if my father and I were dancing to a band playing a Berlin melody, and I felt proud and embarrassed at the same time, still it didn’t quite connect. Though clearly I knew that the man I called “Daddy” was a world-famous songwriter, his celebrity was somehow a distant thing.
But that night I saw fame–and something more. I saw and felt love–love for this man, my father, for what he had done, bringing into being This Is the Army, for what he had given people his whole life, as a songwriter and as an American.
It was also a great kick to learn that Irving Berlin–a man who is so identified with the snappy rhythms of New York and Hollywood–loved to fish.