The Life of Irving Berlin

By Laurence Bergreen

Viking. 658 pp. $24.95

LAURENCE BERGREEN seems to be making a career of writing sober, responsible biographies that nonetheless arouse indignation among the keepers of his subjects' flames. His previous book, a life of James Agee, provoked a loud if unpersuasive outcry among persons claiming a keener knowledge of the intimate particulars of Agee's life; now, even before the publication of his biography of Irving Berlin, the songwriter's heirs have complained that his portrait is inaccurate and have begun to look for an official biographer who presumably will paint the official portrait.

But it is difficult, on the evidence of As Thousands Cheer, to see what the grumbling is all about. To be sure the Irving Berlin who emerges in these pages is an imperfect creature, especially in his irascible old age; but the flaws of artistic men and women are usually as pronounced as their gifts, and to say that Berlin was no exception is hardly to dismiss him as an evil or contemptible person. Quite to the contrary, Bergreen's depiction is deeply sympathetic; he interprets Berlin as a paradigmatically American figure, "an ideal candidate for musical man of the people" who not merely won election to that honorary office but held it for nearly three-quarters of a century.

His legend is as American as, well, "God Bless America" and "White Christmas": "the impoverished boyhood, the apprenticeship as a singing waiter, and the peculiar fact that ragtime's best-known exponent could neither read nor write music." He rose from the Russian-Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side -- his name was Israel Baline -- to earn millions upon millions and to marry the daughter of old money and social position. On Broadway he was magic; even late in life, long after his powers had deserted him, his name on the marquee ensured a huge advance sale for an inferior musical called "Mr. President." In time he became an ardent patriot, grateful beyond measure for the riches his adopted country had heaped upon him, and repaid his debt not merely with stirring (if simplistic) songs about America but by giving it years of selfless service during the Second World War.

He was a complicated fellow. "The real Berlin -- Izzy Baline -- remained aloof, shy and insecure about his place in the real musical landscape" -- even after his success had been earned many times over. In a business that rewarded bonhomie, he "was not given to late-night parties, casual liaisons or other unsettling forms of behavior -- except for his by now ingrained habit of working through the night." He was barely educated and retained to the end of his life "an impenetrable core of intellectual naivete." He was a man apart: "The endlessly apologetic tone of his correspondence suggests that he wanted to be liked, to cultivate his circle of admirers, but the gift of friendship was one that he finally lacked."

He knew remarkably little about music, but he had a head full of tunes and, more to the point, he had a visceral sense of how "to capture the essence of popular feeling by exploring emotions that simmer below the surface rather than by exploiting obvious trends." He was a songwriter rather than a composer -- the best music of Gershwin and Kern, Arlen and Rodgers, is far superior to the best of Berlin -- but he had a keener feeling for popular sentiment than any of his contemporaries. He was heavily influenced by Stephen Foster and George M. Cohan, the first a writer of "deceptively simple" folk melodies and the second a chronicler of the American-immigrant experience; he combined the two, stirred in a heady measure of his own genius, and "without intending to, he became a prominent exponent of the nativist movement in American music."

His career was so long -- his first song was published in 1907, his last in 1966, and he died in 1989 at the age of 101 -- and he wrote so many immensely popular songs that we tend now to look back on his life as one long succession of triumphs. But the truth is that, quite apart from his penchant for unwarranted self-doubt, he had numerous ups and downs. The most prolonged and serious of these began in 1927, when "he embarked on a biblical span of seven lean years." Up to then he had been little more than a songwriter, albeit an uncommonly successful one; not until he mastered first Broadway and then Hollywood -- the latter with a big helping hand from Fred Astaire -- did he assume the pre-eminent place in American music and popular culture that, by the time of his death, had been taken for granted for decades.

Important people passed through his life, as well as unknown people who were important to him, but it is no reflection on any of them to say that the only one who really mattered was himself. He was not introspective -- indeed Bergreen says this was "a mental habit he despised" -- but he mistrusted most others, especially in business matters, and therefore put most of his trust in himself and his instincts. Eventually, as he grew older, he drifted more and more into himself, further and further away from the larger world. By the 1950s he was pretty well out of touch, though it was not until the 1960s that he retreated into the seclusion that became ever more impenetrable with the years.

This last was, Bergreen writes, "the most bizarre phase of an already remarkable life." His "vituperative behavior" was directed at almost anyone, often it seemed at random, and sometimes bruised its targets deeply: "But for all the misery he brought to others, none was more tormented than Berlin himself, who was trapped in a maelstrom of insecurity -- perennially afraid that friends, family and business associates were all liable to take advantage of his wealth and fame. At the same time, he felt more removed from the action with each passing year, more likely to be forgotten, closer to the oblivion that had claimed the reputations of so many other popular songwriters. And his obsession with preserving his musical legacy made him a victim of his own success, a prisoner of himself."

Though the explanation for this may lie in large part in Berlin's particular character and personality, it must also be laid to mere longevity. Extended life may be a blessing, but surely it is a mixed one. Living beyond one's time, beyond the duration of one's powers, can be a curse; certainly it seems to have been Irving Berlin's.

Bergreen gives this sad finale its due, but he does not dwell on it morbidly. He knows that the real story is in the years of work and fame, and he tells that story well. Now as in his Agee biography he is something less than a masterful prose stylist, but he gets the job done -- well enough, in fact, that the next Berlin biographer, whether official or not, will face daunting competition. Bergreen has got down what seems to be the whole story, and he tells it fairly and compassionately. As one of Berlin's contemporaries put it: Who could ask for anything more?