Irving Berlin, one of the most famous songwriters in American history, was born Israel Baline in Western Siberia, in what is now part of the Russian Federation. Berlin’s daughter, Mary Ellin Berlin Barrett, writes in her book, Irving Berlin, a Daughter’s Memoir (1994) that her sister researched the Baline family origins. While the family originated in what is now Belarus, Irving was almost certainly born in Western Siberia, where his father, an itinerant cantor, had sought work.
Berlin’s father didn’t work as a cantor when the family moved to America. He scratched out some sort of living cutting kosher meat and giving Hebrew lessons.
His father’s death when Berlin was 8 forced him to find work–like singing on the streets of Manhattan–just so he and his family could eat.
Berlin’s early dire poverty fits the stereotype of the successful Jewish American songwriter–but not quite the reality. Most top Jewish American songwriters, especially those who worked in the Broadway theater, were from families that fit in an income range from upper working class to upper middle class. Also, most Jewish Broadway composers were American-born and not immigrants.
Berlin certainly never hid the fact that he was Jewish, even though he changed his name. He adopted “Berlin” because that was how his last name, Baline, was misspelled on the cover of the sheet music for his first published song.
Berlin’s first wife, who died tragically young, was not Jewish. In 1924, the young widower and already mega-famous songwriter met Ellin McKay, a beautiful socialite. Her grandfather, John McKay, a poor Irish Catholic immigrant, became incredibly wealthy as one of the discoverers and owners of the Nevada Comstock Lode, the largest silver strike in world history.
Ellin’s father, the very wealthy Clarence McKay, was a Catholic. Ellin’s mother was a Protestant and Ellin was raised in that faith until her mother left her father for another man and divorced her father. Thereafter, Clarence had custody of his daughter and raised her as a Catholic. (Mary Ellin Berlin Barrett describes both her parents as agnostics.)
The romance between a famous immigrant Jewish songwriter from the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a Catholic, New York high society heiress was “tabloid gold” and their courtship was in all the papers.
McKay did what he could to stop their marriage. He hired detectives to find “dirt” on Berlin (they found none) and he got his daughter to agree to take a long trip to think about her attraction to the Jewish songwriter.
Berlin’s Jewishness was a major problem for McKay, but he was tactful enough to not make it his central objection to his daughter’s suitor.
Nothing McKay tried worked and, in 1926, the couple married at New York’s City Hall. Ellin posited a wedding ceremony before a Catholic priest to mollify her father, but Berlin wouldn’t consent to this.
Clarence McKay cut his daughter out of his will when she married Irving Berlin. However, he could not stop her from having access to a trust fund her grandfather had left her (Ellin, however, didn’t know about not losing access to the trust until after her wedding. She thought if she married Berlin she would be left without a penny in her own name).
The trust came in handy when Berlin lost all his savings in the 1929 stock market crash. It cushioned things for a few years until Berlin re-made his fortune with songs for the new talking movie industry.
As is often the case, father and son-in-law reconciled over time. It took about five years, but as children came, and the Berlin/McKay marriage flourished, Clarence McKay came back into his daughter’s life. Berlin didn’t hold a grudge and he and his father-in-law got on amicably until McKay died in 1938.
Berlin celebrated Christmas with his wife and their four daughters when the girls were young, but he and Ellin were always sad on that day. The tragedy of Berlin/McKay’s otherwise happy marriage was the death of their only boy, Irving Berlin, Jr., on Christmas day, 1928. He was just three weeks old.
After the girls were grown, Irving and Ellin really didn’t celebrate Christmas.
When she was a child, Barrett writes, her father would tell the same story each year on Christmas day. He would explain that when he was a boy, he would sneak out of his Orthodox Jewish household on Christmas Eve. He would gawk at his neighbor’s Christmas tree and share in their festivities.
While Irving Berlin penned Christian holiday standards (like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”), Ellin McKay Berlin returned the favor by acquainting her children with their father’s Jewish heritage. She joined a Manhattan Reform Jewish temple and took the children to Passover seders and Yom Kippur services at this temple. She also informally instructed her children in the basics of Christianity and left a choice of religion, if any, up to them.
Ellin Berlin’s high society upbringing meant that she had to navigate an unfamiliar world as the wife of a Jew in the 1930s. Most of the country clubs which formerly welcomed her were now closed to her because she was married to a Jew. It was always touch and go whether the “half Jewish” Berlin girls would be blackballed from this or that high society dance.
Mary Ellin Barrett writes that her parents were both terrified by the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s and supported those politicians, like Franklin Roosevelt, who tried to steer America on a course of active intervention to stop Germany. Barrett goes on to say that in 1941, as Hitler’s armies seemed unstoppable, her mother and father pondered a hellish future in which the Nazis invaded America. Barrett says that her parents asked themselves these dire questions: “How would they protect their half-Jewish children? Would they have to flee to South America?”
Irving Berlin singing God Bless America
If you are aware of this context, you can understand that Berlin’s famous tune, “God Bless America,” released in 1938, was not just a song, it was a prayer for the safety of America, and the safety of the Berlin family, in a dire time.It was also a sincere statement of Berlin’s patriotism. (The royalties from “God Bless America” have always gone to the Boys and Girls Scouts.)
The release of “White Christmas” (1942) during WWII was a huge shot of morale for the fighting troops and reminded many of them of what they were fighting for.
Ellin McKay died in July, 1988, age 85. She and Irving Berlin were married for 62 years. Irving Berlin, age 101, died ten months after his wife.