11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.

1. HE WAS RUSSIAN BY BIRTH, NOT GERMAN.

Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.

2. AFTER HIS FATHER DIED, HE QUIT SCHOOL AND BEGAN SINGING ON THE STREET.

Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.

3. HE EARNED A HANDFUL OF COINS FOR HIS FIRST SONG.

In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.

4. HIS RAGTIME SONG INSPIRED A TRENDY DANCE.

Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.

5. “WHEN I LOST YOU” WAS ABOUT THE DEATH OF HIS NEW WIFE.

In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.

6. HE WROTE PATRIOTIC SONGS IN WWI AND WWII.

In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.

During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.

7. HE BOUGHT TRANSPOSING PIANOS DUE TO HIS LACK OF MUSICAL TRAINING.

Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.

8. HIS INTERFAITH MARRIAGE GENERATED CONTROVERSY.


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In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.

9. HE GAVE ALL ROYALTIES FOR “GOD BLESS AMERICA” TO THE BOY AND GIRL SCOUTS.

Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.

He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.

10. HE COMPOSED ANNIE GET YOUR GUN AFTER HIS FRIEND’S SUDDEN DEATH.

In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.

11. ALTHOUGH “WHITE CHRISTMAS” IS HIS BIGGEST HIT, CHRISTMAS WAS A TRAGIC TIME FOR BERLIN.

“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Be honest: You’ve watched a YouTube video or two in an attempt to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Whether it was through tabs or simply copying whatever you saw on the screen, the fun always ends when friends start throwing out requests for songs you have no idea how to play. So how about you actually learn how to play guitar for real this time?

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The strumming course will teach you how to count beats and rests to turn your hands and fingers into the perfect accompaniment for your own voice or other musicians. Then, you can take things a step further and learn advanced jamming and soloing to riff anytime, anywhere. This course will teach you to improvise across various chords and progressions so you can jump into any jam with something original. You’ll also have the chance to dive deep into the major guitar genres of bluegrass, blues, and jazz. Lessons in jam etiquette, genre history, and how to read music will separate you from a novice player.

This bundle also includes courses in ear training so you can properly identify any relative note, interval, or pitch. That way, you can play along with any song when it comes on, or even understand how to modify it into the key you’d prefer. And when the time comes to perform, be prepared with skilled hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, trills, vibrato, and fret-tapping. Not only will you learn the basic foundations of guitar, you’ll ultimately be able to develop your own style with the help of these lessons.

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10 Chance Meetings That Changed the World

John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) from The Beatles.
John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) from The Beatles.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some call it fate. Others call it destiny. And some just brush it off as coincidence. But however you view it, life has a funny way of bringing people together at just the right place and time. Check out some of the most random historical encounters we could find—meetings that, had they not happened, would have resulted in a very different world today.

1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with Susan B. Anthony.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right).
Wikimedia//Public Domain

The suffrage movement would have looked very different had Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony not met on a street corner in 1851. Although both Stanton and Anthony were fierce abolitionists, Stanton got involved in suffrage earlier. She launched the First Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 as a reaction to being denied a seat at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention because she was a woman. Similarly, Anthony, who was born into a family of abolitionists, turned her sights toward suffrage after being unable to speak at a temperance convention. Still, their meeting was entirely coincidental.

After Anthony traveled to Seneca Falls, New York—where Stanton lived—for an antislavery meeting, she and her friend Amelia Bloomer ran into Stanton on the street. Bloomer, a mutual friend of both, introduced them, and the two formed a near-immediate friendship. Because Stanton was a busy wife and mother, she needed someone to be the voice of the suffrage movement and to deliver her speeches on the road. That person became Susan B. Anthony. Together, this powerful duo would go on to launch a suffrage newspaper called The Revolution, found the National American Women Suffrage Association, and more—all because they happened to go for a walk at the same time.

2. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald.
F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You would think that the most iconic couple of the 1920s would have met in a speakeasy, or, at the very least, been introduced by some famous author friends. But instead, the couple that embodied the Roaring Twenties met in a pretty ordinary way: At a dance. In July 1918, 21-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald, then a soldier, was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, awaiting orders to fight overseas in World War I. Sick of having only his fellow soldiers for company, he decided to attend a nearby country club dance to blow off some steam. It was there he met Zelda Sayre for the first time.

Zelda was already the crown jewel of Montgomery society by that point and wasn’t initially interested in Fitzgerald, an aspiring writer. Still, Fitzgerald pursued the fiercely independent Zelda for two years, and finally convinced her to marry him after his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was picked up by Scribner in 1920. Though their marriage was famously tumultuous, they did inspire each other's work. F. Scott would even wind up lifting lines from Zelda's personal diary and including them in The Great Gatsby

3. Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google founders Sergey Brin (left) and Larry Page (right).
Michael Nagle/Getty Images News

College tours aren’t normally life-changing—but in the case of Google’s founders, a walk around Stanford ended up changing the course of their careers (and had a pretty big impact on the rest of us). In 1995, Sergey Brin, then a second-year grad student in computer science, volunteered to be a tour guide for prospective students who had just been admitted to the school. By pure chance, Larry Page, an engineering major from the University of Michigan, ended up in his group.

Although the pair didn’t exactly start off as friends (they clashed during the tour and found each other “obnoxious”) it was a meaningful first impression. Several months later, when Page’s dissertation on the World Wide Web turned into a much bigger project involving a prototype search engine, he needed help building the system—which was originally named BackRub but, thankfully, was renamed to Google. The person he chose for the job? Someone who he had come to respect: his former tour guide.

4. Bob Woodward and Mark Felt (a.k.a. Deep Throat)

It turned out to be a simple package that helped turn Bob Woodward from a run-of-the-mill journalist into one of the men responsible for uncovering the most infamous scandal in presidential history. In 1970, Woodward was a lieutenant in his final year of Naval service, and one of his regular duties was to work as a courier delivering packages to the White House. One night, after spending a considerable amount of time in a waiting room for someone to come sign for a package, an older man came out to meet him. Woodward struck up a conversation with the man, and eventually learned that he was Mark Felt, an assistant director of the FBI.

Woodward, eager to advance in his career, asked for Felt’s phone number so that they could stay in touch. He reached out often while he transitioned from a military man to a journalist, with Felt acting as mentor and occasional anonymous source for Woodward's stories. Eventually, Felt would feed Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, the information that helped uncover the Watergate scandal, which would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.

5. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison

An engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, was the largest abolitionist publication of its time—and Frederick Douglass just so happened to be a loyal reader. When Douglass heard that Garrison was going to give a speech at an antislavery convention in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841, he decided to attend. But while he was there, a friend coaxed the shy Douglass to give a speech on his life story as a runaway slave in front of the attendees, which he reluctantly agreed to. Garrison, deeply moved by the unexpected speech, realized that Douglass not only had an incredible story—but a talent for speaking, as well.

Douglass's unlikely speech turned into another one two days later at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s convention in Nantucket, and Garrison took it upon himself to land Douglass a gig as a lecturer at the Society. He soon became Douglass’s mentor, introducing him to other influential abolitionists and later helping him to get his book published. Although the pair eventually became estranged due to differing interpretations of the Constitution, their early partnership helped Douglass ascend to national recognition, eventually leading to his fateful meeting with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. Not an honor often afforded to former slaves, Douglass spoke with the president about the unfair treatment of black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, leading to a sometimes strained but always respectful relationship between the two until Lincoln's death.

6. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

A photograph of Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right), the co-founders of Apple Computer Inc. xz
Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right), the co-founders of Apple Computer, Inc.
Tom Munnecke, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

iPhones, Macbooks, Apple watches, and more possibly wouldn’t exist if it wasn't for ... Bill Fernandez?

Fernandez was a mutual friend of Steve Jobs—whom he'd known since they attended Cupertino Junior High School—and Steve Wozniak, who lived on Fernandez's block. He thought they'd naturally hit it off.

Jobs was visiting Fernandez one day in 1971, and as they took a walk around the block, Fernandez saw Wozniak outside washing his car. He introduced the pair, and pretty soon, Jobs and Wozniak were fast friends themselves.

Jobs and Wozniak began hanging out and eventually started working on projects together. The first was blue boxes for phone phreakers (devices that people used to “hack” phones and make free calls). They quickly moved on to more respectable work, though, after joining the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon Valley-based club for computer hobbyists looking to make their own machines. From there, Wozniak built the Apple I in 1976—his first computer kit—and had Jobs help with the marketing. Soon after, the pair would work on the Apple II and formed Apple Computer, Inc. Fernandez would be one of the company's first employees.

7. John Lennon and Paul McCartney

A photograph of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at London Airport in 1968.
John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) at London Airport in 1968.
Stroud/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 6, 1957, a 15-year-old McCartney attended the annual Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete—not because he was a particularly active member of the church community, but because he hoped to find a girl there. With no girls to be found, he decided to listen to the music instead.

A high school band called The Quarrymen had just managed to squeeze themselves onto the schedule of events that day, and McCartney was immediately impressed by their sound. Once the set was over, McCartney had a mutual friend introduce him to the lead singer, John Lennon, so he could show off his stuff. After seeing McCartney’s (very impressive) guitar skills, Lennon invited him to join the band. And half of the Beatles was born.

8. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison

A photograph of Thomas Edison (right) and Henry Ford (left) examining Edison's incandescent lightbulb.
Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right).
Henry Guttmann Collection, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Edison was Henry Ford’s personal hero, but he never dreamed that they would become great friends. That all changed in 1896, however, when Ford attended the convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in Brooklyn, New York. Edison was making his rounds at the event, and, much to Ford’s delight, had a brief conversation with him about his recently invented quadricycle, the first automobile Ford ever designed. (Ford was working at one of Edison's subsidiary companies at this time and had idolized the inventor since he was a boy.)

According to legend, Edison, fascinated by Ford's ingenuity, told him: “You have the thing. Keep at it.” Twelve years later, Ford—who would single out the chance meeting as an important inspiration for his career—introduced the Model T, and he and Edison eventually formed a deep friendship that would last the rest of their lives.

9. Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward

A photograph of The Duke of Windsor with Wallis Simpson their wedding day at Château de Condé in France.
Wallis Simpson with the Duke of Windsor on their wedding day at Château de Condé in France.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Who knew that a weekend getaway would cause one of the most scandalous relationships in Great Britain’s history? Wallis Simpson, an American expat who came to England in the 1920s, was a social climber eager to rub elbows with only the most elite of British society. Previously married to a navy pilot, she and her second husband, Ernest Simpson, rose quickly through the ranks of the upper crust, and in 1931, they were invited to an exclusive hunting weekend at their friend Lady Thelma Furness’s home.

Lady Furness, who was Prince Edward VIII’s mistress at the time, could never have imagined that introducing Wallis and Prince Edward would doom her own relationship—and all because he and Wallis had a dull conversation about central heating. When Wallis allegedly called him out for essentially being a bore (a social crime of the highest degree), the prince was so enchanted by her feisty cheek that he (eventually) deemed it worthy of abdicating a throne for.

10. Sacagawea and Lewis & Clark

Sacagawea with Lewis and Clark.
Sacagawea acted as a guide for Lewis and Clark.
Edgar Samuel Paxson, Wikimedia//Public Domain

Sacagawea is well-known as explorer Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s translator during their Corps of Discovery Expedition, which explored the new Louisana Purchase, but the story of how she actually came to join the expedition is even more incredible. A member of the Shoshone tribe, she was kidnapped by a rival tribe, the Hidatsa, when she was a teenager and was brought to their settlement in South Dakota. She was then sold to a French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, who already lived with the Hidatsa. She was made to become one of his two wives and soon became pregnant with his child (polygamy was a Hidatsa tradition Charbonneau readily adopted, according to History.com).

By the time Lewis and Clark reached Hidatsa territory in November 1804 and began building their own settlement after establishing friendly contact with the tribe, Sacagawea was six months pregnant. Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and Charbonneau during their stay and immediately recognized her value as a travel companion—she could speak both Hidatsa and Shoshone, and they could use her language skills to purchase much-needed horses from the Shoshone for the expedition. (She would translate Shoshone into Hidatsa and communicate that to Charbonneau, who would translate the Hidatsa into French and communicate that to a French- and English-speaking member of the Corps.) They waited for Sacagawea to give birth before continuing on their journey, and in 1805, the Corps of Discovery—which now included Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their newborn son—departed. With Sacagawea's help, they would make it to the Pacific Coast and back with maps, specimens, and important information about the Louisiana Purchase.