Detailed biography of Irving Berlin written by Laurence Maslon.
On September 23, 1893, after a ten-day voyage across the Atlantic from Antwerp, the S.S. Rhynland finally churned its way through the waters of New York Harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty, an inspiring memorial to political freedom less than a decade old. At Ellis Island, the Red Star liner discharged its diverse human cargo. Among the tired, poor, and tempest-tost was a family of nine, the Beilins, who had scraped together everything they had to journey to America. Standing on the dock, the five-year-old Israel was both terrified and embarrassed by this impoverished introduction to his new home: it all seemed terribly loud, fast, and disorienting.
Few things were as disorienting in the metropolis of New York in the 1890s as its music. It came from every corner and every background: religious hymns from all denominations; silly and sentimental songs from commercial songwriters; martial marches from brass bands; ethnic souvenirs from countries left behind; and soulful spirituals from impoverished communities left behind. But there was nothing that sang of the great aspirations of the nation, nothing that articulated the breadth of the American character. The Theater District as we know it today didn’t yet exist; there was nothing that could be identified as a “Broadway show tune” because there wasn’t even a tangible territory of show business called Broadway. It was all a cacophony of multiple identities - an exhilarating one, perhaps, but a cacophony nonetheless.
More than a half-century after his arrival at the foot of the Statute of Liberty, Irving Berlin stood in front of the Imperial Theater—right next to the Music Box, a theater he co-owned - and the marquee proclaimed a brand-new Broadway musical, Miss Liberty, a celebration of that self-same monument. Berlin had not only written the music and lyrics to the new score - his sixteenth full score for Broadway - he had co-produced the show as well. Within six decades, Berlin had utterly transformed American Popular Song. Other gifted individuals had lent their immense talents to songwriting for the theater and the movies, but - as they would be the first to admit - Berlin led the way and towered above the rest. He turned songs into coherent bouquets of sentiment that expressed every kind of human emotion; he cultivated those songs so that they exploded into a popularity that set records for success that still exist to this day; and, most remarkably, his work was uniquely American, the product of a country that offered so much possibility to the young émigré, a country that was, and continues to be, astonishingly complex. It is to Berlin’s eternal credit that he found a way to express the deepest aspirations of a diverse people, a people that might be unified and uplifted - for a melodious three minutes, at least - by the words and music of Irving Berlin.
Written by Laurence Maslon - an arts professor at NYU’s Graduate Acting Program. He has written numerous books and documentaries about musical theater and edited Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer for the Library of America anthology American Musicals (1927-1969).