August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

by Laurence Bergreen

While there were few predictable things about the late composer Irving Berlin, we can be fairly certain how he would have felt about this book: He would have hated it. Not because it is unflattering—though its recounting of his bursts of temper, competitiveness and callousness would hardly have pleased him—but because it exists. A near total recluse the last 20 years of his 101-year life, Berlin refused to appear at celebrations of his life and denied use of his astonishing array of hit songs, which included “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade,’ ” to just about everyone, even Steven Spielberg, who wanted the rights to “Always.” That a 600-page book on him could be written without his cooperation would no doubt have infuriated the man Bergreen paints as the greatest control freak of his age.

Yet if Bergreen, author of the acclaimed 1984 biography James Agee: A Life, had trouble researching this book, you couldn’t tell from its wealth of detail and anecdote. As a child, Berlin emigrated from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side, later changing his name from the Jewish Israel Baline to the American Irving Berlin and marrying non-Jewish socialite/journalist Ellin Mackay against her father’s wishes.

In covering this familiar ground, Bergreen has turned up some new tales: In London during World War II, for example, Berlin was invited to lunch with Winston Churchill, and found his encounter with the Prime Minister—who kept grilling him about politics—uncomfortable. It turned out Churchill had been expecting his guest to be political commentator Isaiah Berlin.

A strength of the book is its attention to people involved with Berlin. Bergreen, by discussing Florenz Ziegfeld, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Ethel Merman (among others), has written a book that is as much 20th-century entertainment history as biography. And by chronicling Berlin’s failures—such as his 1962 musical Mr. President—as well as the successes, he gives us a complete portrait of a career.

As for Berlin the man, Bergreen writes, the composer could be generous—he donated the royalties of “God Bless America” to the Boy and Girl Scouts; he also could be cheap, refusing even to buy his wife a car. (“Tell her to buy it herself.” he snapped. “She has her own goddamned money.”)

Famously fastidious—he dressed nattily and was a prude about friends’ extramarital affairs (he apparently had none)—Berlin used language so foul as to offend even his admirers. Achingly insecure, he feared performing in public and forbade his barber to hum non-Berlin tunes. Yet he called “White Christmas” not only his best song but “the best song anybody ever wrote.”

No, Berlin wouldn’t have liked this book. But then, he might have been relieved that Bergreen is not of the overanalyzing school of biographers. (A good thing, too: When the author tries to explain Berlin’s personality, his prose gets forced.) Mostly Bergreen lays out the facts of a long life. Perhaps Berlin—who always said he wanted to write simple songs in plain language for everyday people—would have understood after all. (Viking, $24.95)

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