From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Irving and Ellin for Always

(Irving and Ellin)
The introduction to Irving Berlin’s song Always sounds very much like a description of some key events in his past:  Everything went wrong, and the whole day long I’d feel so blue…

What primarily went wrong during Berlin’s life was anti-Semitism.  He retained only one clear memory from his early childhood in pogrom-ridden Russia (now Belarus), and that was of his home being burnt to the ground during a Cossack rampage sanctioned by Tsar Nicholas II.  The wooden hut with its straw beds must have burned quickly, right down to the dirt floor.  Since all the other homes in this Jewish ghetto were similar Berlin’s, he was unaware at the time of growing up in abject poverty.

Fiddler on the Roof notwithstanding, Wikipedia reports that Berlin’s home town was nothing to sing about.  Wild pigs would sometimes invade the muddy or dusty streets (depending upon the season) and bite young children to death.  Berlin’s father sang anyway.  He was a cantor in the synagogue there, and would bring his family along to participate in his melodious readings of the Talmud.

The Baline (Berlin’s original name) family eventually escaped to the Lower East Side of New York City, where life wasn’t all that much easier.  Now they were living in a windowless basement flat.  Berlin’s father
died soon afterwards, and eight-year-old Irving (then Israel Isidore or “Izzy”) began hawking newspapers
on the streets in order to help his family to survive.  As he passed by the open doors of restaurants and
saloons, he would no doubt hear the strains of musical hits.  It wasn’t very long before Berlin discovered that singing these hits to his own customers yielded more money. 

Years later, anti-Semitism would again play a pivotal role within Berlin’s destiny.  His first wife, Dorothy  Goetz, had died tragically six months into their marriage (from typhoid fever she had contracted while on their
Havana honeymoon).  Berlin was devastated, and wrote the song When I Lost You in her honor.  After much time had elapsed, he then met Ellin Mackay, a Catholic heiress.

Mackay’s father was adamantly opposed to the prospect of a Jewish son-in-law.  He repeatedly tried to break up their romance until the couple eloped.  After that, he cut Ellin out of his will.  Eventually, Mackay and Berlin reconciled.  Berlin went on to author Christian classics such as White Christmas and Easter Parade, and Ellin joined a Jewish Temple.  The children were taken to Passover seders and Yom Kippur services.  Christmas was celebrated as a family.

Sixty-three years passed happily and intimately.  Ellin died at age 85 in 1988, and Irving died at age 101 ten
months afterwards.  Thus ends the song:  Not just for an hour, not just for a day, not just for a year, but


Copyright May 11, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment