Brother Irving Berlin:

1888 was a year filled with many historical firsts…

  • Washington Monument opens for public admittance
  • National Geographic magazine publishes for 1st time
  • George Eastman patents 1st roll-film camera and registers “Kodak”
  • Congress creates Department of Labor
  • Great Blizzard of 1888 leaves largest snowfall in New York City history (21″)
  • Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president

Other notable world events:

  • Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh cuts off his left ear
  • “Jack the Ripper” butchers 2 more women
  • Wilhelm II becomes emperor of Germany

Among these (in)famous headlines, a little known event also happened. On May 11, 1888 Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Eastern Russia, near the Siberian border in the Russian village of Tyumen. He was one of eight children born to Leah and Moses Baline. His father was Shochet – (shoykhet in Yiddish)one who kills kosher animals as prescribed by Jewish religious laws. He was also the cantor in their Ashkenazi Synagogue. His family moved to New York in 1893 to escape the pogroms in Russia. At the age of five, Israel (Izzy) Baline’s American success story began when he stepped onto Ellis Island in 1893, on his way to Gotham’s teeming Lower East Side, “the eyesore of New York and perhaps the filthiest place on the continent,” according to the New York Times of the era. However dirty and poor, this Jewish ghetto was incubating an American renaissance that would produce gangsters, legislators, merchants, professionals of all stripes— and Munn Lodge’s Very Own, Brother Irving Berlin: one of the most prolific songwriters in history and a man who would change the music business forever…

A Brief History of one of Munn Lodge’s Most Famous Members:

So many articles have been written about this very famous Freemason, I couldn’t even imagine scratching the surface of his accomplishments — in such a short article. However, I have learned so much (in doing the research for this article) there are many things I found were missing in other articles about Brother Berlin. I believe, to truly understand the character of this remarkable man, I feel it’s important to understand his environment. In a moment I will paint a picture of NYC at the turn of the 20th Century; I will then illustrate Irving Berlin through his own words and actions as a Man, a patriot, a father, a Freemason, and through some of his peers…

Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life.                                               ~Irving Berlin

The East Side of Manhattan is where it all began for generations of immigrants from around the world. Originally, “Lower East Side” referred to the area alongside the East River from about theManhattan Bridge and Canal Street up to 14th Street, and roughly bounded on the west by Broadway. It also (then) included areas known today as East VillageAlphabet City and NoLIta.

 

Irving Berlins Lower East Side Songbook The character of this neighborhood began to evolve more than three hundred years ago, when extended families from around the world squeezed their hungry families into the tall tenement buildings that filled lower Manhattan. This area was formerly known as Corlaer’s Hook and was notorious for streetwalkers, who were dubbed hookers. There were several overlapping neighborhoods in East Side’s “Five Corners” district: Chinatown, Little Italy, Bowery, Germantown and Jewtown (mostly of Eastern European: Russiain, Polish & Ukrainian descent) – these were among the largest ethnic enclaves – between the Williamsburg & Manhattan Bridges.  In search of opportunity, turn-of-the-century newcomers quickly hit the streets selling their wares out of potato sacks slung over their shoulders, becoming the Lower East Side’s first business owners. Not stopping there, many successful business owners expanded their inventory and purchased pushcarts, and eventually storefronts, making the Lower East Side one of the busiest commercial districts in the world.As with their Italian counterparts, many Jewish gangs (dubbed:Kosher Nostra) – specializing in extortion – began operating in the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Sidemost prominently the so-called Yiddish Black Handheaded by Jacob Levinsky, and later byMeyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.

 

Amidst all of this negativity the young Izzy (Irving Berlin) Baline steered clear of illegal activities and instead developed a quick whit, a strong work ethic, a talent for singing and an ear for music.

Talent is only the starting point… Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it!                                                                      ~Irving Berlin

During his youngest days, Israel lived a relatively wild and unsupervised life belonging to a gang and playing street games with his pals. Berlin’s family was too poor to provide piano lessons, let alone a piano; Berlin would remain musically illiterate. He took to the Streets of Jewtown on the Lower East Side of New York City to help support his family. To supplement the family’s meager income, Israel, more fluent in English than his parents and five older siblings, haggled with a nearby junk shop. “I used to go there selling bits and pieces of an old samovar that my mother had brought from Russia and kept under the bed,” he once recalled. “I’d get five and ten cents for the pieces and kept selling them until the entire samovar disappeared.”

As with many immigrant families, times were tough and even the kids had to pitch in and earn money. Berlin understood the value of hard-earned money from early on. Hawking papers as a “Newsie” on a downtown pier in 1901, a 13-year-old Israel had just sold his fifth copy of the New York Evening Journal when a loading crane swung into his path, knocking him into the East River. Fished out just in time, he was given artificial respiration and carted off to Gouverneur’s Hospital. An hour later, as the young newsie slept, a nurse pried open his clenched hand. In it: five copper coins. He remained tight-fisted for the rest of his 101 years.

In 1896, Moses died and 15yr old Israel ran away from home.

Young Israel was determined to find an easier way to make money. He began his show business career earning money for himself first as a street singer beginning as a companion to an unsavory singing beggar. Israel began singing too and hung around some popular cafés and restaurants in the Bowery.

He Joined Munn Lodge in 1910 at the age of 22.

In the early 1900s Berlin found worked as a singing waiter in many restaurants including Pastors Music Hall (The birthplace of Vaudeville) and the Pelham Café — this is also where he began writing songs. According to Parlorsongs.com: “[He] became quite popular entertaining customers with parodies of current popular songs. Baline became well known and even was mentioned in the papers thus becoming better known. Two waiters at a rival café had written an Italian song and had it published. Not to be outdone, Pelham asked their pianist, “Nick” Nicholson to write a song and tapped Baline to write lyrics. The two wrote Marie Of Sunny Italy (MIDI, Lyrics) and Berlin introduced the song himself and often sung it while at work. The song was quite popular with the clientèle and when Stern picked it up to publish, a printer’s error on the cover gave him the name, Irving Berlin. Not one to tempt fate, the newly named Berlin stuck with the name for the rest of his life. Berlin made a total of 37¢ in royalties from the song.”

There’s No Business Like Show Business……no business, I know!                                                        ~Irving Berlin


I'll See You In CUBA      

 

Irving Berlin went on to write more than 3000 songs, 19 musicals and the scores of 18 movies. He once wrote:

A fiddler can speak with his fiddle, A singer can speak with his voice, An actor can speak — With his tongue in his cheek, but a songwriter has no choice…  Whatever his rights or his wrongs, he can only speak through his songs.

This was his theme. As mentioned above, his first published hit was “Marie From Sunny Italy.” His successes continued through the years. Some of his songs that have become classics include “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Easter Parade,” and “White Christmas.” He was the top money maker among songwriters in America.

In 1924, fellow songwriter Jerome Kern said “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.”

Irving Berlin’s 1920 song I’ll See You in C-U-B-A, pictured here above. This song is one that responds directly to Prohibition. Click the QuickTime Control (below)to hear the song…

He was equally at home writing for Broadway and Hollywood. He wrote 17 complete scores for Broadway musicals and revues, and contributed material to six more. Among the shows featuring all-Berlin scores were The Coconuts, As Thousands Cheer, Louisiana Purchase, Miss Liberty, Mr. President, Call Me Madam, and the phenomenally successful Annie Get Your Gun.

Among the Hollywood musical classics with scores by Bro. Irving Berlin are Top Hat, Follow The Fleet, On the Avenue, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Holiday Inn, This ls the Army, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, White Christmas, and There’s No Business Like Show Business. His songs have provided memorable moments in dozens of other films, from The Jazz
Singer (1927) to Home Alone (1991). Among his many awards were a Your Newsletter special Tony Award (1963) and the Academy Award for Best Song of the Year for “White Christmas” in 1942.

Never hate a song that has sold more than a half a million copies.
~Irving Berlin

An intuitive businessman, Bro. Irving Berlin was a co-founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), founder of his own music publishing company, and, with producer Sam Harris, built his own Broadway theater, The Music Box.

Click to enlargeIn 1918, this (30yr old) Munn Lodge Brother made history when he scribbled a most beautiful series of simple words onto a piece of paper — while at boot camp in Long Island, NY. The song was God Bless America and he became immensely wealthy from it. It wasn’t until 20 years later – on Nov 10, 1938 those famous words were sung live on the radio by the #1 songstress in the nation – Kate Smith to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I (later to become Veteran’s Day).

The lyrics were inserted into the Congressional Record, and there was even a movement to make the song our national anthem.

Although it was recorded by Bing Crosby, Barry Wood, Gene Autry, and Horace Heidt’s orchestra at the time, it was destined to be associated with Kate Smith forever, giving her a certain immortality, as well as a guaranteed standing ovation at all of her concerts. [Hear Kate's Version]

A patriotic song is an emotion and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they will hate your guts…”                              ~Irving Berlin

In 1940, in true Masonic spirit, Irving Berlin established the God Bless America Foundation, with all royalties from its performance earned by either Berlin or Miss Smith going to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. To date, Tens of Millions of Dollars have gone to these children via this foundation.     

Brother Irving Berlin, the Free & Accepted Mason, received the first of his Three Degrees of Freemasonry in Munn Lodge, New York City on May 12, May 26 and June 3, 1910, becoming a life member of the Lodge on December 12, 1935. Berlin received the 32° Scottish Rite (Northern Masonic Jurisdiction) on December 23, 1910 and was also initiated as a Shriner into Mecca Shrine Temple on January 30, 1911, becoming a life member of the Shrine in December 1936. 

 

You’re not sick, brother, you’re just in love.
~Irving Berlin

Berlin was married twice. His first wife, singer Dorothy Goetz, sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz, contracted pneumonia and typhoid fever on their honeymoon to Cuba, and died five months after their wedding in 1912 at the age of twenty. Her death inspired Berlin’s song “When I Lost You”, which became one of his earliest hits. Curiously, a year before Dorothy Berlin’s death, Irving Berlin, E. Ray Goetz, and Ted Snyder co-wrote a song called “There’s a Girl in Havana”.

His second wife was Ellin Mackay, a devout Irish-American Catholic and heiress to the Comstock Lode mining fortune, as well as an avant-garde writer who had been published in The New Yorker. They were married in 1926, against the wishes of both his family, who objected to religious intermarriage, and her father, Clarence Mackay, a prominent Roman Catholic layman, who disinherited her.

Without a dispensation from the Church, the two were joined in a civil ceremony on January 4, 1926, and were immediately snubbed by society: Ellin was immediately dis-invited from the wedding of her friend Consuelo Vanderbilt, although Vanderbilt was not a Catholic. Finances were not a problem, however: Berlin assigned her the rights to his song “Always” which yielded her a huge and steady income.

The couple had three daughters—Mary Ellin Barrett (oldest daughter, was born on November 25, 1926.), Linda Emmett, and Elizabeth Peters — and a son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died as an infant on Christmas Day. Irving and Ellin remained married for the rest of their lives.

 

After you get everything you want,
you find you don’t want everything.               ~Irving Berlin

 

As a Freemason, Berlin supported many charities and organizations and is responsible for generating hundreds of millions of dollars to worthwhile causes. For this ha had received many honors, accolades, and awards. In 1944, he was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict.” His actions were also acknowledged with such accolades as the Army’s Medal of Merit from President and Bro. Harry Truman, in 1945, also a Congressional Gold Medal for “God Bless America”. Five years later, he was honored by the New York YMHA as one of “12 outstanding Americans of the Jewish faith.” On February 18, 1955, President Eisenhower presented him with a gold medal in recognition of his services in composing many patriotic songs for the country. Earlier, Berlin assigned the copyright for “God Bless America” to the God Bless America Fund, which has raised many millions of dollars for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Berlin’s World War I dough-boy uniform and many of his original patriotic scores are on display in the Jewish War Veterans Museum in Washington, D.C. He also received the Freedom Medal from President and Bro. Gerald Ford in 1977.

The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success. ~Irving Berlin

During the Vietnam Era, Berlin proposed a new verse for his famous song:

 


        

    God bless America,
    Land I enjoy,
    No discussions with Russians
    Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi. . . .
    God bless America
    When skies are dark,
    God bless America,
    My Noah’s ark.
Berlin often said: “There are really only six tunes in the world.” But from those six tunes he fashioned, according to his catalog, thousands of songs – and nobody knows how many more he may have stored somewhere.When someone admired one of his melodies, Mr. Berlin was quick to say: ”I like it, too. I’ve used it lots of times.” — Marilyn BergerFollowing a gala 100th birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall (which Berlin did not attend but gave his blessing), Morton Gould, president of ASCAP, said that “Irving Berlin’s music will last not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but for always.”      

As per the New York Times, Berlin’s earning capacity seems remarkably undiminished from the time of his unimaginable fame. The 2004 annual Forbes.com list of the rich and deceased claims that Berlin’s works earned $7 million from ASCAP — 15 years after his death (tying two others among the departed, Johnny Cash and George Harrison).

Not bad for a poor immigrant who had only two years of formal schooling and who never learned to read or write music!

In a NY Times interview (published: May 15, 1988) on Irving Berlin’s 100th Birthday a reporter asked another famous musician — What makes an Irving Berlin song special?
What makes an Irving Berlin song special? The answer is quite simple: Irving Berlin! And that’s ”not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.” In a world where many make sausages, Irving made beauty. ‘ ~ Frank Sinatra
Israel Baline ~ One of Munn Lodge’s Most Famous Brothers…

I got lost but look what I found!
~Irving Berlin

Bro. Irving Berlin died in his sleep an immensely wealthy man on September 22, 1989, at the epic age of 101. He was survived by his 3000 songs, 17 Broadway Musicals, 3 daughters, 9 grandchildren, 2 great-grandchildren and 1 incredible story.

In his Obituary in the New York Times, many of his peers commented about his long and illustrious career. Songwriter Sammy Cahn once said Mr. Berlin: If a man, in a lifetime of 50 years, can point to six songs that are immediately identifiable, he has achieved something. Irving Berlin can sing 60 that are immediately identifiable. Somebody once said you couldn’t have a holiday without his permission.

Born penniless, steering clear of the many potholes in the “Streets of New York”, joining Munn Lodge and going on to become one of the most notable Freemasons of the 20th century: Brother Irving Berlin is a shining example of “A Good Man Made Better”. His body of work, legacy and Masonic benevolence will imortalize him. He is one of the reasons I joined this Lodge. I can only pray that following in his footsteps, walking the same halls, following the same rituals & sitting in the same seats as this most famous brother – a man whom I wish I could have gotten to know personally – will help to shape my own future. Maybe this article will persuade another young Brother to do the same…

“Our attitudes control our lives. Attitudes are a secret power working twenty-four hours a day, for good or bad. It is of paramount importance that we know how to harness and control this great force.”
~Irving Berlin
 

 

SOURCES: In-line references and links are made for Wikipedia.Com and New York Magazine (NyMag.com), CityJournal.ORG - , Also, the Jewish-American Hall of Fame – Jewish Museum in Cyberspace, and Irving Berlin’s Obituary in The New York Times


First Published on MunnLodge.ORG — for Irving Berlin’s Masonic Mother Lodge