cover image Irving Berlin: New York Genius

Irving Berlin: New York Genius

James Kaplan. Yale Univ, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-300-18048-0

The mainstay of the 20th-century American Songbook unified a nation’s diverse voices, according to this sprightly biography. Biographer Kaplan (Frank: The Voice) follows Irving Berlin’s rise from being a Russian-Jewish immigrant singing for pennies in New York saloons to becoming king of musical Broadway and Hollywood, composing megahits such as the jazz fanfare “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the patriotic anthem “God Bless America,” the secular hymn “White Christmas,” and the suave love-croon “Cheek to Cheek.” There were no florid dysfunctions in Berlin’s life—he enjoyed success and acclaim from youth onward—but Kaplan excavates psychological depth beneath the blithe melodies. Berlin suffered from bouts of depression and wracking insecurity about his work (he almost discarded “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as a stinker) but persevered with a maniacal work ethic (he would tinker with some tunes for years) lit by sudden bolts of genius (he wrote “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” in a taxi). Kaplan tells the story briskly and with aplomb, adding plenty of showbiz antics, atmospheric evocations of Berlin’s New York, and shrewd critical passages that separate the musical schmaltz from the art (and find the art in the schmaltz). The result is a smart, entertaining biography of a great songwriter that will have readers humming along. Photos (Nov.)