IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

Conducted by telephone on May 8, 1978
First publication February 2022

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Irving Berlin, 1944 (Samuel Johnson Woolf,
National Portrait Gallery)

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I can’t find the words to thank you enough, Mr. Berlin, for taking your valuable time to talk with me today. 

You know, kid, you wrote me so many letters that you made me feel guilty! And Izzy [Irving] Caesar put this together, so here you are and here I am. Your letters have a lot of things in them about my songs, so what can I tell you that you don’t already know?

 

I was always hoping that you received the letters, and Mr. [Helmy] Kresa assured me that you did see them. Years ago, I received a very nice reply from Mr. [Abraham L.] Berman about one of your early songs. 

What did Abe say?

 

Well, I wrote to ask for permission to quote part of the chorus of “Blue Skies” in an article I was writing for my college magazine. Mr. Berman explained very tactfully the policy of your publishing company. I really treasure that letter from him. 

I’m not going to tell him that or he’ll raise his rates. Abe has been with me a long time, you know.

 

May I ask you some questions about your parents and any memories you may have of Russia and emigrating to this country?

I’m going to give you a little test first. I want to see how much you know about my early songs. Here’s my test for you: Tell me the lyrics of “Fiddle Up” [i.e., “The Ragtime Violin”].

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“Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin…”

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I think I can do that. “Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin / Lay right on it, rest your fingers on it / Doggone you better begin / To play an overture upon your violin.”

You’re close, but you made a couple mistakes. It’s “rest your chin upon it,” not “rest your fingers on it,” and it’s “Doggone you’d better begin,” not “Doggone you better begin.” But you do know the song. Here’s another test for you: give me the lyrics of both melodies in “Play a Simple Melody.” Can you do that?

 

I’ll do my best. I learned your song from the Victor record that Billy Murray and Elsie Baker made soon after you had published the song. Her part, the “simple” part, goes “Won’t you play a simple melody / Like my mother sang to me / One with good old-fashioned harmony / Play a simple melody!” His part of the duet goes, “Musical demon / Set your honey a-dreamin’ / Won’t you play me some rag / Just change that classical nag / To some sweet musical drag / If you will play from a copy / Of a tune that is choppy / You’ll get all my applause / And that is simply because / I want to listen to rag!”

Very good. Now do you know the verse to the “rag” part?

 

I think it’s “I don’t care for your long-haired musicians/ with their classic melodies / They’re all full of high-toned ambitions / but their music doesn’t please / Give me something snappy and popular / The kind that darkies play / Lots of rhythm and like all rhythm / And that’s why I say.”

You’re pretty good, kid! Of course, today you can’t use “darkies,” so when someone asks for permission to perform it, I have them use my revised lyric, which is “the kind that jazz boys play.” Now let me ask you a question. Is Izzy [Irving Caesar] on the line, or are we talking privately here?

 

I’m in his office, but he’s not here at the moment, so we’re talking privately. 

I hope to hell you don’t share his politics! Izzy is a goddamned Socialist, you know. [Eugene V.] Debs would have been President if Izzy had had his way. I like him and I talk to him about ASCAP business, but never about politics! Now, what were you asking me about coming to this country?

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Irving Caesar (right) with Gus Haenschen in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

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I’m interested to know whether you have any memories of Russia and of crossing the Atlantic in steerage. 

I was only about five years old when we came here, so I don’t really remember anything about Russia. And the only thing I remember about the ocean crossing is that it took forever. And there was a guy who was in the bunk above me who was carrying a pocket knife. It fell out of his pocket when he was asleep, and it hit me on my forehead. The blade wasn’t open, but that knife left a little scar that I still have. 

 

Do you remember anything about the town in which you were born in Russia?

No. I was too young, and all I wanted to do was to get to America. Well, I can’t really say that because I was just doing what my father had our family doing, which was to get out of Russia.

 

Do you remember anything about Ellis Island and the processing your family was put through?

Not really, except that there were long lines and that they changed the spelling of our family’s name. They spelled it “Baline,” but my father always spelled it “Beilin.”

 

When did “Baline” become “Berlin”?

I did that—I changed it when I started working for [music publisher] Ted Snyder. If you look at the cover of “Marie from Sunny Italy,” my first published song, the cover says “I. Berlin.” I still went by my real name, which is Isidore, in those early days. I changed it to “Irving” because of Washington Irving. I loved his stories.

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“I.” Berlin’s first published song (1907)

 

If I may ask you about “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” did you write it specifically for Emma Carus?

No, I didn’t write it for anybody in particular, but I plugged it to her and she put it over in vaudeville. But any of those big-voiced singers, ones like Nora Bayes or Sophie Tucker, could have put it over. You know, it still amazes me how fast that song went coast-to-coast.

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Emma Carus, from The Columbia Record for April 1904
(Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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In those years, Sophie Tucker was billed as a “coon shouter.” Was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” a “coon song,” as many songs were then called?

No. Those “coon songs” were dead before I wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It isn’t a ragtime song either. It’s a song about ragtime, or a ragtime band, but it’s not a ragtime song like “Maple Leaf Rag” or one of those other [Scott] Joplin rags.

 

I’m sure you know that music historians have analyzed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the point of exhaustion, trying to show that it’s a coon song. 

These so-called “historians” don’t know a goddamned thing about my music, or anybody else’s for that matter. They’re like that fucking “tune detective” [Sigmund Spaeth] who was always trying to prove that Jerry Kern, or Cole Porter, or me or whoever, were stealing from classical composers. Some of them even said that about Stephen Foster! They can all go to hell!

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Although use of the term “coon song” was declining by the time “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published, Edison appended it to its version. Victor and Columbia did not.

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No one can dispute that the greatest American songwriter is Irving Berlin. After all, when Mr. [Jerome] Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music, Irving Berlin is American music,” that said everything.

He was a great songwriter, a great friend, and a great man. You know that Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein talked me into doing “Annie Get Your Gun” after Jerry died. He was supposed to write it.

 

Recently, Robert Russell Bennett was asked to name the greatest American songwriter of this century, and he promptly answered “Irving Berlin.” He said that no other composer has written so many totally different songs, over such a lengthy period of time, and with no musical training.

He’s a hell of an arranger, Robert Russell Bennett. And his Victory at Sea is a masterpiece.

 

I know this is a difficult question, but are there songwriters whom you especially admire?

Of the ones before the First World War, Victor Herbert was the one I would put at the top. After the Second World War, Dick Rodgers belongs at the top. Between the wars, I would put Cole Porter at the top.

 

Is it true that you personally persuaded Cole Porter to come to New York so that you would finally have some “competition,” so to speak,” from a songwriter who wrote both the words and the music of his songs?

No, no—I would never have done that. I couldn’t have done that because he was very independent. He could afford to be because he came from a rich family. He came to New York because his family, I think it was his mother, encouraged him to become a songwriter because that’s what he wanted to do.

 

So there’s nothing true at all about you wanting him to come to New York because you wanted a “competitor”?

That’s such crap! Who told you that stuff?

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Cole Porter, Audrey Hepburn, and Irving Berlin

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Kitty Carlisle is the one who told me that you not only wanted but relished the competition with Cole Porter.

Well, I don’t know where she got that but it’s just plain crap. She’s another rich kid, you know. Her father, whose name was Kahn but changed it to “Conn,” was a big-shot doctor or lawyer or something, and she wanted to be an opera singer. She’s a pretty girl—a pretty face and a nice figure, and a pretty tall girl too—and she was in the same circles that Cole was, but I’m sure he never told her anything about me wanting some “competition.” I had all I could handle from all the songwriters that were around back then.

 

She said that you and Cole Porter did kid each other about each other’s songs. Is that true?

Well, yes, but it was all in fun because Cole and I were good friends. I will say that I used to ride him about settling for a word that just didn’t seem right for a line.

 

Can you give me an example?

The one I really rode him about was in the lyrics of “Night and Day,” which is a great, great song, a very sophisticated song. If you know [the song], you’ll know that the bridge goes “Night and day, under the hide of me / There’s an oh so yearning burning inside of me.” Well, “under the hide of me” just doesn’t fit that song and I rode him about it because I thought he just got lazy and threw in “hide” because he needed a rhyme for “inside.” People don’t have “hide,” cows have hide.

I did ride him another time about that same word when his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” got to be a big hit. I called him and said, “Cole, there’s a mistake in the sheet music for that song. Shouldn’t it be ‘I’ve Got You Under My Hide?'” He got a laugh out of that. Now, that too is a very sophisticated song. It doesn’t follow the pattern of most popular songs, any more than “Night and Day” does. Of course, Cole also wrote what I’d call “lighter” songs, ones like “You’re the Top” and “Anything Goes.” It’s sad to think about what happened to him—that terrible horse-riding accident, and how it crippled him for the rest of his life.

 

Robert Russell Bennett points out that Cole Porter was a Yale graduate and a formally trained pianist but that you graduated from Hester Street, and you taught yourself to play the piano. Did you teach yourself when you were a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in the Bowery?

Basically, yes. And I say “basically” because Mike Salter, who owned the Pelham, played by ear on the black keys. After-hours, around 4:00 in the morning, I started picking out notes on the black keys too, first with one finger and then one hand and then I picked up some basic chords with the left hand. But I can only play in the key of F-sharp unless I use a transposing piano. Do you what a transposing piano is?

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Mike Salter’s Pelham Café in the early 1900s
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I didn’t until I watched you demonstrate how one of those pianos work on the Tony Martin television show. You showed the audience how it worked, and you sang “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon.”

You saw that, did you? That wasn’t my own piano but it was similar to the ones I had. My first one had a wheel instead of a lever to shift the keys.

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Irving Berlin at his Weser transposing piano

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Is it true that you named your reproducing piano “the Buick”?

Yes. I drove a Buick at that time. The lever that shifted the keyboard was like the gearshift in that Buick. 

 

When you opened the Music Box Theater, there was a lot of skepticism in the newspapers about whether it would succeed. Is it fair to say that you had a lot at risk when you built the theater?

I had a hell of a lot at risk! The newspaper men said there were already too many theaters on Broadway, and that the Music Box would never attract much of an audience. But I put on four revues there, a new one each year, and they were all big hits. I also had the confidence of George [M.] Cohan, and I always trusted his opinions. George knew Broadway like nobody else.

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The Music Box in the 1950s

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Where would you place George M. Cohan among songwriters?

He wasn’t just a songwriter, he was a Broadway star, so you have to take that into consideration. He did everything—he was a dancer, a singer, and a songwriter. He didn’t write that many songs, all in all, but the ones he wrote were hits. Who doesn’t know “Give My Regards to Broadway”? Who doesn’t know “Over There?” That song helped us win the First World War!

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George M. Cohan, from the September 1910 Victor catalog
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

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There are some singers to whom you have given songs that are among the best-loved songs in all of American music. I’d like to ask you about the songs and the singers. Kate Smith will be forever associated with “God Bless America.” Did you write it expressly for her?

No, I didn’t write it for her, but I picked her to introduce it because she was just right for it. She has a big, gorgeous voice, and she sings songs—my songs, anyway—exactly as they’re written. She doesn’t take liberties with the music like so many singers tend to do. Anything that Kate sings, everybody in the balcony is going to hear every word because she has the best diction, and the most natural voice.

 

You wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” expressly for Ethel Merman, isn’t that correct?

Well, yes, the whole part of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun was [written] for Ethel. She was a veteran by then, of course—she had done Girl Crazy, among other shows, and I had known her for a long time. Like Kate [Smith], when you give Ethel a song, everybody in the theater is going to hear every word. She’s always been one of the hardest working performers in show business..

 
Original cast album of Annie Get Your Gun

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People don’t know this about Ethel, but she’s very, very organized. Ethel is a compulsive “lister.” She used to be a secretary, I think, or did some kind of office work where she learned how to write in that special code that secretaries write. I can’t think of the word for it right now.

 

Perhaps you’re thinking of “shorthand”?

Yes, that’s it, shorthand. She makes lists of everything she needs to do every day, and she crosses them off one at a time until she’s done. She learns lyrics that same way—she writes them out, over and over, until she learns them.

 

Just as “God Bless America” will always be associated with Kate Smith, “White Christmas” will be forever associated with Bing Crosby.

Yes, but with Rosemary Clooney too, since they sang it together in that movie [Holiday Inn].

 

Do you think that the fact “White Christmas” is not a traditional carol—that is, not a religious but a secular song—is one of the reasons why it’s so popular?

I can’t say. To me, being Jewish, I never thought of Christmas in religious terms. I think of it as an American holiday, and I wrote “White Christmas” as a holiday song. The same with Easter. Of course, Easter is a very important time for Christians, just as Passover is for Jews. But when I wrote “Easter Parade,” I was writing about an American holiday, just like I wrote “White Christmas” about a holiday.

 

Is Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” your personal favorite?

Well, it’s the one most everybody knows. What I don’t like about it is that he didn’t sing my verse. I worked goddamned hard on that verse. Judy Garland always did [the verse] when she sang “White Christmas.” But Crosby certainly did well by me with “White Christmas.”

 

Is it true that you didn’t think “White Christmas” would be the hit that it became?

I had another song in that same revue that I thought would be the hit: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” I really thought that would be the bigger hit.

 

Which brings me to the next singer I want to ask you about: Fred Astaire.

A lot of people don’t think of Fred as a singer because it’s his dancing that he’s famous for. He has always been kidded about his voice being too light, not big enough and such. When he and his sister [Adele] were in vaudeville—and they were in big-time vaudeville—nobody had any trouble hearing Fred. What I like the most about him is that he sings a song exactly the way it’s written, and he has great diction. You hear every word of the verse and the refrain when Fred sings one of your songs.

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Irving Berlin with Fred Astaire, 1948

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If I may ask, there are said to be singers—not just singers but instrumental performers too—whom you have had trouble with because unlike Fred Astaire they didn’t stay with the song as you wrote it and added some “flourishes” of their own. Is that true at all?

Why don’t you tell me if I had trouble with any singers or any other performers? Which ones did I have trouble with supposedly?

 

One was the theater organist Jesse Crawford. From what I’ve heard, you were very displeased with his recording of “Remember” because he made a change to a song that was very personal to you because you wrote it for Mrs. [Ellin] Berlin.

That’s half-true. The part that’s true is that he changed a chord in the song—the chord for the word “said” in “the night you said ‘remember.'” He played the wrong chord, and he did it because he preferred the chord he played rather than the chord I wrote. I called the guy who was running Victor at that time—his name was Shilkret, Nat Shilkret—and I raised hell about that change but Victor didn’t make Crawford do the record over again with the right chord. But I have to say, though, that Crawford made some fine records of my songs. I remember “At Peace with the World” in particular. I like the way he played it.

 

You said the story was only half-true. What was the half the wasn’t true, if I may ask?

Oh—yes, I forgot to finish what I was saying. The part that isn’t true is that I wrote “Remember” for Ellin. I wrote some waltzes for her that I’m very proud of, but “Remember” wasn’t one of them. I mean, I didn’t write it for her personally.

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Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay c. 1929

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Another performer whom you’re said to have had trouble with is Rudy Vallée over “Say It Isn’t So,” which you gave him to introduce on radio.

Yeah, I did, because when he sang it the first time he made a change in the melody. Instead of singing the line “say it isn’t so” the way I had written it, he sang the word “isn’t” two notes higher, which ruined the effect of the song. After that, I had a little talk with him and he never did that again. He did well by me, especially in the score for the movie “Second Fiddle,” and except for that one incident with “Say It Isn’t So,” he sang my songs exactly the way I wrote them.

 

On his [Columbia] recording of “Say It Isn’t So,” he sings the verse you wrote, which to me gives the refrain its full meaning in my opinion.

Let me hear you do the verse.

 

Well, I can’t sing it, but I can recite it: “You can’t stop people from talking / And they’re talking, I hear / And the things they’re saying / Fill my heart with fear / Now, I could never believe them / When they say you’re untrue / I know that they’re mistaken / But I want to hear it from you.”

You know why I gave it to him? He had just gone through a very bad divorce from his first wife [Faye Webb], who had left him for somebody else. So it was a perfect fit for the situation he was in—and he made it a hit.

 

Do you have a favorite version of “How Deep Is the Ocean”?

There have been so many, but the one I like the most is the one Kate Smith did in her [1963] concert at Carnegie Hall.

 

There have been hit recordings of many of your songs in which the singer or the bandleader turned the song into something very different, I suspect, from what you had in mind. I’m thinking of the recording of “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey.

I hate that goddamned record, and I told off that stupid fucking Dorsey about it! I put that in the same trash can with that son of a bitch Presley ruining “White Christmas”! Oh, don’t get me started on Presley and that rock-and-roll shit!

 

Did you write “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” especially for John Steel? And was his performance like the one Dennis Morgan sang in The Great Ziegfeld?

That song was interpolated in the Follies, and John Steel was the one who sang it, but I didn’t write it for him. In the actual Follies, the song was set on a large staircase—staircases were a Ziegfeld trademark—but it wasn’t on the scale of the [staircase] in that movie. But Dennis Morgan did the song very well in that film. I take that back—he mimed the song that Allan Jones did for the soundtrack. Dennis Morgan was a baritone, not a tenor, so he couldn’t sing it like John Steel did.

 

Eddie Cantor sang several of your songs. Were you pleased with the way he performed them?

He didn’t do that many of my songs. Well, some in the Follies, but not that many. He was a good showman, and he learned it from the best: Gus Edwards. Do you know who he was?

 

Yes, because of his children’s revues and his eye for budding talent like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Price and Georgie Jessel for his “newboys” shows.

Gus and Will [D.] Cobb wrote some great songs for those kids. You never know how a youngster will turn out as a performer when they get older, but Cantor and Georgie Price and some of the girls in Gus’s shows did well when they got older.

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Georgie Price (left) and Eddie Cantor (right) were among the headliners who got their start in Gus Edwards’ “kid” shows. (Photos from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you include Georgie Jessel among the Gus Edwards “newsboys” who did well as an adult performer?

I don’t like to say bad things about anybody in this business but I don’t know—and I’m not the only one who will say this—I don’t know how Jessel has kept his name before the public. He was in Yiddish theater as a comedian but he was never a big name. All he did were those routines with the telephone calling his mother, but that had been done long before he was doing it. He only had one song that made money—”My Mother’s Eyes”—but it’s such a corny song. It was corny when it first came out.

 

I notice that whenever he’s on television on one of the “talk shows,” he talks about show business as if he was there at the start of it. Mr. Caesar says of him that Jessel trades on nostalgia and that he was nostalgic when he was four years old.

That’s a pretty good line. And I have to say I agree.

 

I have a favorite recording of your great songs, and I believe you personally authorized it. The album is called “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy: The Best of Irving Berlin,” by Jay Blackton’s orchestra and chorus.

I didn’t “authorize” it, but Jay conducted the orchestra for “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” and “Miss Liberty,” so he knows what I listen for when I hear my songs performed. So I like that album very much. It’s also the first recording of my song “Colors,” which I wrote a couple years before that album came out.

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Jay Blackton’s “Best of Irving Berlin” LP

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If I may ask you about another of your contemporaries, George Gershwin, there’s a story that he applied for a job at your publishing company, to work as a transcriber and a song plugger. Is that true?

I don’t have any memory of it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but if it did, I don’t remember it. Years later, of course, George and I were very close friends. We were in Hollywood together only a couple of years before he died. Of course, I knew about him when he was working under Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, when he wrote “Swanee” with Izzy [Irving Caesar]. Buddy DeSilva, you know, got [Al] Jolson to listen to “Swanee,” and as soon as Al started singing it, George had a big hit on his hands.

 

You have been quoted as saying that George Gershwin is the only songwriter who became a composer.

Yes, and I meant it. It’s a long way from “Swanee” to “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Who knows how far he would have gone as a serious composer if he had lived?

 

One question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times is whether the melody or the lyrics come to you first.

There’s really no answer to that. Sometimes I get the melody, and at other times I get a phrase and then the phrase becomes the lyric, and the lyric inspires the melody.

 

Do you ever use what I’ve heard other songwriters refer to as “dummy lyrics” to serve as place-holders until you work out the melody?

I’ve never used “dummy lyrics.” Some songwriters do, and occasionally they become the permanent lyric. Victor Herbert wrote a “dummy lyric” for “Kiss Me Again,” and when he looked at it again, he decided to keep it: “Sweet summer breeze / Whispering trees”—that was a “dummy lyric.” Izzy [Irving Caesar] probably has the most famous of all “dummy lyrics” in “Tea For Two” to Vincent Youmans’ melody—“Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two, and two for tea.”

 

Do many songs come to you fully formed?

No—none of them. I’ve sweated my way through all of them. That’s just the way I work. Some songwriters work from noodling on the piano until they get something. Gershwin did that because he was a hell of a pianist, and he was an educated musician. But I don’t have any training, and I can’t always play what I hear in my head.

 

Mr. [Robert Russell] Bennett told us that you hear the chords in your mind, and that he would play variations on a chord until you told him that he had played the one you were hearing in your mind.

That’s right. That’s especially true of “Remember.” In my mind, I could hear the chords I wanted for the melody, but I couldn’t play them myself, so he played variations on the chords until I heard the ones that were in my mind. That’s why the change that [Jesse] Crawford made on that record bothered me so much.

 

So much has been written about you, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s biography of you in 1925. Do you regard his book, The Story of Irving Berlin, as the definite account of your life?

Up to that year, yes, but there are parts of it that are a little exaggerated.

 

You have never considered an autobiography?

Every publisher in New York has offered me big money, really big money, to write an account of my life, but I wouldn’t do it then or now for any amount of money. I like to let my music speak for my life.

 

If you were to choose a biographer today, who would be among the top contenders from your standpoint?

The only one I would count on is Ed Jablonski. Ed is one of my long-time “telephone friends.” Miles Krueger says he wants to write a book about me, and so do others, but they’ll want to psychoanalyze me, and I can’t stand that kind of a book.

 

Do you recall the feature article called “Blue Skies to You, Irving Berlin,” by Tom Prideaux in Life Magazine?

Yes—that was a very nice article. Tom is another one of my “telephone friends.”

 

That article was published a week before your 80th birthday, which was celebrated on television on the Ed Sullivan show. Were you pleased with that telecast?

That was quite a night, and Ellin [Berlin] and I and our daughters and their families were very happy with the cast and the songs that were performed on the show.

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Ed Sullivan celebrates Irving Berlin’s 80th birthday

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The story of your courtship of the lovely lady who became Mrs. Irving Berlin has been told and re-told, and there are parts of the re-telling that I’d like to ask you about but I’m very reluctant to intrude into that part of the past. But may I ask one question that concerns your music?

If it’s about my music, go ahead and ask me.

 

The great waltzes that you wrote during that period—“All By Myself,” All Alone,” “Remember,” “What’ll I Do?” and of course “Always”—are interpreted as musical reflections of what was going through your mind and heart while the two of you were being kept apart. Is that true?

[Author’s note: Regarding “All By Myself,” I was waiting for him to say, “Kid, it’s a fox trot, not a waltz!” or something harsher after I realized I had made a mistake—yet he let it pass.]

You already asked me about “Remember,” and I told you I didn’t write that one for her. The others you mentioned I would say are yes and no. “All By Myself” was before Ellin—I wrote it for one of the Music Box Revues. In that one, as I’ve had to do with one or two other songs, I had to update the lyrics. Originally, I wrote “I sit alone in my cozy Morris chair / So lonely there, playing solitaire.” But when Morris chairs went out of fashion, I changed that line to “I sit alone with a table and a chair / so lonely there, playing solitaire.”

 

Am I correct that you also updated some of the lyrics of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?

Yeah, that’s another one. It was set in Harlem, so I wrote, “Have you seen the well to do / Up on Lennox Avenue,” but when Fred Astaire did it I changed “Lennox Avenue” to “Park Avenue.”

 

Returning to the songs you wrote when you were courting Mrs. Berlin, was “What’ll I Do” one of them?

No, “What’ll I Do” was before I met her. In fact, when I did meet her, which was at a party that a woman named Frances Wellman, a friend of mine who happened to be a friend of hers, [Ellin] said to me that she loved my song “What Shall I Do.” I had to tell her that the name of the song was really “What’ll I Do.” You see, she’s very educated—she went to all the best private schools—so to her the title of the song had to be “What Shall I Do.”

But all the others you mentioned, and especially “Always,” which was my wedding gift to her, were written about her. But I wasn’t in some kind of love-sick depression during that time. Between 1922 and 1925, I wrote a lot of songs that did well and they had nothing to do with my life. They were for revues, for shows.

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Marriage certificate for Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay,
January 1926

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Back to the Ed Sullivan telecast of your 80th birthday, did you have any input in the musical selections he chose for the program?

Ed asked me for my opinion about the songs and some of the arrangements that [orchestra conductor] Ray Bloch used. And Ed asked me what I would like to have as a finale, so I chose “God Bless America” and I sang it myself, with a chorus of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They get the royalties from that song, you know.

 

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but at the very end of the show, when you were in a close-up with Mr. Sullivan and he was paying tribute to you on your birthday, you made a wonderful comment.

Yeah? What did I say?

 

When that huge birthday cake was wheeled onto the stage, Mr. Sullivan said that the entire program was one of the most memorable in all his years on the air. You said, “Well, Ed, you’ve got to admit that I’ve given you some pretty good material to work with.” That was a priceless understatement! And speaking of birthdays, today is May 8, and three days from now will be your birthday. May we close with wishing you a very, very happy birthday!

I wish I had written “Happy Birthday.” Can you imagine the royalties I’d have? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve done pretty well.

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Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Conclusion)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 3 (Conclusion)
James A. Drake

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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One of the more famous Met broadcasts was the performance of Aida on February 26, 1938, in which Martinelli became ill and had to be replaced.  What are your recollections of that broadcast?

They’re not very pleasant, for several reasons.  I had no idea that backstage before the performance, Martinelli had told [general manager] Edward Johnson that he was not feeling well, and was worried that he would become ill in the midst of the performance.  Which is exactly what happened.  All of a sudden, almost at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Martinelli seemed to cough, or so I thought—but actually, he vomited, and turned away from the audience as best he could.

As I remember it, the orchestra completed the rest of “Celeste Aida,” when suddenly the curtain was rung down.  This was all happening “live” on the air, of course, and I had no idea what was happening backstage.  What I did was what announcers do when something goes awry:  they keep talking while trying to give the impression of composure, of business as usual, hoping all the while that whatever has gone wrong will be fixed and that the show will go on.

So I kept on talking—and talking, and talking, and more talking.  I always kept a copy of the Victor Book of the Opera with me in the box that we used as our broadcasting booth.  Over the years, there were several editions of that book.  Although it was written for sales purposes, the Victor Book of the Opera contained summaries of all of the great Italian, French and German operas.  That afternoon, while all the hubbub was going on backstage and I was stuck with an open microphone and time to fill, I read aloud several pages of the Victor Book of the Opera.

Then someone slipped me a handwritten note that said, “G. M. sick, canned crabmeat and too much beer last p.m.”  Stupidly, at least in retrospect, I said on the air, “I have just been handed a note saying that Mr. Martinelli owes his indisposition to a night of eating canned crabmeat and drinking beer.”  In the meantime, as I recall, Mr. [Edward] Johnson managed to track down Frederick Jagel, who arrived in a cab and was quickly put into costume, and the broadcast was underway again.

By the end of that performance, as I was told afterward, lawyers from several breweries and distilleries, and also from an organization that represented the seafood business, had telephoned or had sent telegrams to the Met, threatening to file suit on the basis of what I had said on the air.  Somehow or other, the threats never turned into actual lawsuits.  I learned the hard way to weigh my words very carefully if a broadcast is interrupted for any reason.

 

There was another interruption in a broadcast—in this case, it was a 1953 broadcast of Tristan und Isolde in 1953.  What led to that interruption?

Yes, that one was planned, as opposed to the interruption in the Aida broadcast.  At the beginning of the second act of a Tristan und Isolde broadcast, while the orchestra was playing, I read a script that had been handed to me before we went on the air.  The script was an appeal for donations to the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  It was a rather standard appeal, asking listeners to send in contributions.

Although I read the script as fast as I could without overly rushing it, the audience in the theater grew very impatient, and they began booing loudly.  Although some listeners did send in donations, they were outweighed by nasty telephone calls, letters, and telegrams from other listeners.  The on-the-air appeal was well intentioned, but turned out to be a fiasco.

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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A few weeks after that fiasco, there was another fundraising appeal that became very successful.  This was the “Jamboree” broadcast from the Ritz Theater in Manhattan.  It was the first telecast of a Metropolitan Opera event, if I recall correctly.

It was mainly broadcast on radio, although the network [ABC] did televise part of the performance through several stations along the East Coast.  This wasn’t a Met broadcast per se, but rather a special fundraising event.  It was a ninety-minute program, and was meant to be “lighter fare” in order to attract more donations.

 

Among the many “firsts” you are credited with is the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which you were chosen to oversee as well as to announce.  Do you have lingering memories about those “Auditions of the Air”?

Yes—I think all of us who were associated were the “Auditions of the Air” will remember Leonard Warren’s audition.  Under Edward Johnson’s management, [conductor] Wilfrid Pelletier was more or less in charge of the “Auditions of the Air.”  Almost always, Pelletier had already heard the singers who were going to perform in the “Auditions”—but he had never heard Warren until we did what we call a “level check,” which is when the audio engineers test the volume of the sound coming from the stage.

I was in the booth with Pelletier and a couple of the audio men when Warren’s voice came through the speaker that was mounted next to the control board.  Warren was singing the “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto.  The sound of that voice was just unbelievable!  In my mind’s eye I can still see Pelletier looking through the glass window in the booth while Warren was singing on the stage.  Pelletier would look at Warren, then look at the audio fellows and me, and then look down at the stage again.

After a few moments, he said to us, “Who put that record on?”  He thought that the audio boys had played a prank on him by having the fellow on the stage—Leonard Warren—pretend to be singing while mouthing the words to a recording by Riccardo Stracciari.  That’s how refined Warren’s singing was when he auditioned on the air.

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

No, thankfully, I wasn’t there.  I believe that happened on a Friday evening [March 4, 1960], in the second act of Forza del destino.  From what I heard about it, Warren and Tucker had sung “Solenne in quest’ora,” then Warren sang the recitative and aria, “Urna fatale,” and suddenly he collapsed onto the floor of the stage.  I was at home that evening, preparing for the broadcast the next afternoon, which was Der Fliegende Holländer with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [Thomas] Schippers, who had conducted that fatal Forza performance, also conducted the Holländer performance.  When we went on the air, I relayed to the radio audience what had happened the previous evening, and the tragic news about Leonard Warren, and that in his memory the orchestra would perform the prelude to the third act of La Traviata.  I believe that [Rudolf] Bing and Schippers had chosen that prelude because Germont was one of Warren’s many great roles.

 

Warren had sung the role of Paolo Albiani to the Simon Boccanegra of Lawrence Tibbett in a number of performances.  Do you recall those performances?

Yes, there were several with Tibbett in the title role, Elisabeth Rethberg as Amelia, Martinelli as Gabriele Adorno, and Warren as Albiani—but I don’t remember much about Warren in them.  Yet I remember very clearly the first time I heard Tibbett.

 

That was at his debut?  

No, it was in a special program in 1924.  I don’t think it was called a “gala,” but it was a special program in which scenes from three or maybe four different operas were presented.  I went because Maria Jeritza was scheduled to sing a scene from Thaїs.   I had been fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Met premiere of Thaїs, with Farrar and Amato [as Athanaёl] in 1917, and I was eager to hear Jeritza in a scene from Thaїs.  One of the other operas from which a scene was performed was Carmen, and Lawrence Tibbett was the Escamillo.

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Are there other “Auditions of the Air” that stand out in your memory?

Yes, Richard Tucker’s audition was another memorable one.  Pelletier had “discovered” Tucker through Paul Althouse, whom Tucker was studying with.  Pelletier told all of us that Tucker, who was a cantor at the time, would win the “Auditions of the Air” just as easily Leonard Warren had won two or three years earlier.  During the audition, Tucker sang well—but he didn’t win.  He lost to another tenor, Elwood Gary, who sang the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier in the audition, and sang it in several performances that season.  But Tucker made up for lost time, didn’t he!

 

Perhaps because they’re related by marriage, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are often linked in discussions about American tenors at the Met.  What are your assessment of them?

Well, I’ll always remember Jan Peerce’s debut not only because it was a broadcast [performance], but also because of the circumstances under which it took place that day.  As was always my habit, I arrived at the opera house at 11:00 a.m., so that I could relax a little while getting ready to go on the air.  The broadcast that day was Traviata, and Peerce was to make his debut as Alfredo with Tibbett as the elder Germont and Jarmila Novotna as Violetta.  Gennaro Papi was to conduct the performance.

About fifteen minutes or so before the curtain was to go up, Papi had a seizure of some type—a heart attack, or maybe a stroke—and he was rushed to the hospital.  Either he died in the ambulance, or was already gone when the ambulance came—I don’t remember which it was, but Mr. [Edward] Johnson was there, of course, and he had to make a decision on the spot about what to do.

He managed to locate [conductor Ettore] Panizza at his home, and Panizza said he would rush to the Met immediately.  But the curtain was ready to go up, and we were ready to go on the air, so Mr. Johnson had Frank St. Leger conduct the orchestra until Panizza arrived.  In the meantime, [Johnson] told the cast members what had happened—I think he told them that Papi had been taken ill, not that he had died—and he reassured them that the performance would be fine.

 

What instructions did Edward Johnson give you about what to say to the radio audience as regards Papi’s condition and Panizza stepping in to conduct the performance?

He told me to proceed as if nothing had happened, but to say “Ettore Panizza” instead of “Gennaro Papi” when I mentioned the conductor during the broadcast.  A few minutes before the curtain went up and we went on the air, Mr. Johnson walked onto the stage in front of the curtain and told the audience that Panizza would be conducting the performance.  He didn’t give any explanation, just that brief announcement.

 

Did you detect any nervousness or uncertainty on Jan Peerce’s part, given those extraordinary circumstances?

None at all.  He was extraordinarily composed, and he sang the entire performance beautifully.  I’m sure that the suddenness of what had happened was in the back of his mind, but Peerce was a trouper and, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  Looking back, I was probably more rattled in the broadcast booth than Jan Peerce was on the stage.

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Was the offstage animosity between Peerce and Tucker generally known among their colleagues and also within the Met administration?

There was a general awareness of it, yes—but neither of them ever showed it publicly, at least not that I can recall.  When the Met went on tour every year, they and their wives were always on the train with us, and there was no evident strain between the two men professionally.  And both men were very well liked by the other singers in the company.

They were also very generous.  I remember a broadcast during which Tucker had a handwritten note delivered to me from his dressing room.  He had received a number of letters from the mother or father of a young girl who was blind, who never missed a Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  Evidently, the young girl was quite a Richard Tucker fan.  Shortly before the curtain went up, as he was waiting in his dressing room, he wrote me a note asking me to please mention that he was dedicating the performance to this young girl.

 

You have heard approximately three generations of great singers during your tenure at the microphone for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  In your opinion, how have American singers fared during those many years?

Well, there have always been great opera singers who were American-born.  One of the first great Wagnerian bass-baritones was an American, Putnam Griswold.  Another was David Bispham—those were the days of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, which was before my time.  Then there were the American tenors we spoke about—and I want to mention others such as Eugene Conley, Barry Morell, and John Alexander, who were excellent tenors in the roles that they sang.

Although Peerce is retired now, Tucker seems to get better with age.  He has also become a credible actor, especially in Pagliacci.  Last year [1973], they [i.e., the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Broadcasting System] filmed a double-bill “Cav and Pag” for television, with Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Tucker as Canio.  Teresa Stratas was Nedda, and MacNeil sang Tonio.  Tucker was on fire in Pagliacci!  I know that he hopes to sing Eléazar in La Juive, which is like singing Otello.  And speaking of American singers, James McCracken is superb in Otello.  His timbre is not to everyone’s liking, but he has put a firm stamp on the role of Otello.

The same with baritones—Tibbett, Warren, Richard Bonelli, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherill Milnes—and bass-baritones like James Morris and Spiro Malas, and bassos like Jerome Hines or, in an earlier time, Herbert Witherspoon and Clarence Whitehill, whom I was very fortunate to hear.

Among mezzo-sopranos, in my opinion, Louise Homer was the equal of the best European mezzos, just as Margaret Harshaw and Nan Merriman were, and Rosalind Elias and Marilyn Horne are today.  With sopranos, the list is very long, from Clara Louise Kellogg during the era of Jenny Lind, and a bit later Lillian Blauvelt and Farrar, and Helen Jepson and Grace Moore, just to name a few from the past.  After the [Second World] War, we had Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, and Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters among the coloraturas.  And we are so fortunate to have Leontyne Price!  She is a real “national treasure.”

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

I don’t recall her debut, which was in Ballo in maschera, but I remember the broadcast of Ballo in 1955, which was just a short time after her actual debut.  Incidentally, both Peerce and Tucker were cast in that production of Ballo.  The cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Merrill as Renato, Marian Anderson as Ulrica, Roberta Peters as Oscar, and with Peerce and Tucker alternating in the role of Riccardo.  I think it’s fair to point out that Marian Anderson was past her prime when she came to the Met.  Although I met her, I can’t say that I knew her personally.

 

On the topic of fairness, It would be quite unfair, but also quite irresistible, to ask you to name your favorites among those American singers.

Well, I’m not supposed to have “favorites” as an announcer.  But as an opera lover and an American citizen, I have the right to have my favorites among those of my countrymen—and countrywomen—who are professional opera singers.  Among the women, my all-time favorites are, were, and always will be Rosa Ponselle and Geraldine Farrar.

 

What about Maria Callas, since she is American-born?

She was born here, yes—but I don’t think she is regarded as an “American” in the sense that, say, Rosa Ponselle is.  My recollection is that [Callas’s] parents had emigrated from Greece, and that she was only in her teens when her mother took her back there to live.  I remember her first broadcast performance, which was a Lucia with Giuseppe Campora as Edgardo in 1956.

And I remember when she came back to the Met [in March 1965] two sing two performances of Tosca.  They were just a few days apart—one was with Corelli, and the other with Tucker as Cavaradossi—but neither performance was a broadcast.  I don’t know why she was engaged only for two performances of one role.  She was a “superstar” by then.  Incidentally, I find “superstar” an amusing word.  Today, it isn’t enough to be a star.  You have to be a “superstar”!

 

Who is on your personal list of favorite American male singers?

The finest all-around American tenor, in my judgment, was [Richard] Crooks.  He was unsurpassed in the lyric repertoire, especially the French roles.  I had the privilege of broadcasting his debut, as Des Grieux in Manon, in 1933.  He was the epitome of elegance, onstage and offstage.  In the heavier tenor roles, I would pick Tucker, especially in Fanciulla, Manon Lescaut, and Pagliacci.

Among baritones, although I admired Warren very much, and I admire Sherill Milnes today, it was Lawrence Tibbett whom I thought was the finest baritone we [Americans] have ever produced.  Tibbett could—and did—sing everything.  His Iago, with Martinelli as Otello and Rethberg as Desdemona, was amazing.  To me, he was on a par with Ponselle—and there is no peak higher than that.

 

There are four American singers who are primarily thought of as “light-opera singers”:  Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, John Charles Thomas, and Mario Lanza.  Did you hear any of them in person?

Yes, three of them—John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald—were guest artists on the RCA Magic Key radio program, which I hosted on NBC.  I had heard John Charles Thomas in operetta in the early days of his career.  I remember him in Maytime and Naughty Marietta—and I remember his first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, which was as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg and Martinelli. [2]

It is now fashionable to label John Charles Thomas and the other singers you mentioned as “movie singers,” as opposed to “real” singers.  But all of them had sung in opera, and had done so very credibly even though they went on to radio, recordings, and the movies.  Nelson Eddy, for example, had been a fine Silvio in Pagliacci.  John Charles Thomas was an excellent Germont—and vocally [he was] every bit as good as Tibbett.  He was not the artist that Tibbett was, but he had a big, bold, absolutely natural sound that was thoroughly American.

Jeanette MacDonald, in the later years of her career, sang several roles with opera companies.  The same is true of Mario Lanza.  He sang a couple of [operatic] roles, as I recall, and he coached with Sergei Koussevitsy during the time that Leonard Bernstein, George London, and Frances Yeend were with Koussevitsy.  I met Lanza when I was in Los Angeles, as I mentioned earlier, and he was at the RCA Victor studios recording the selections that were used in the film “The Great Caruso.”  Very generously, he asked me if I’d like to sit in on one of the recording sessions.

Take my word for it, Mario Lanza had a first-rate tenor voice!  As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the fact that Mario Lanza became a movie star shouldn’t be used against him.  It works the other way around, too.  Tibbett sang popular music quite frequently, just as Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce have.  So it’s all a matter of circumstances.

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[2] The Metropolitan Opera Annals indicate that Frederick Jagel, rather than Giovanni Martinelli, sang the role of Radamès in the performance to which Cross is referring, which took place on Saturday, January 25, 1936.

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Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) and Smithsonian Institution photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

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