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‘I just wrote the best song ever written’

AT 52, he was at the top of his game living in Hollywood in its heyday, and writing songs into the middle of the night for movie musicals and Broadway plays.

Not bad for a Jewish kid from Belarus who grew up in the tenements of New York. His one memory of his native land was watching the Cossacks burn down his family's hut one night.

He was scrappy and he worked hard. As an 18-year-old waiter in Chinatown, he made up lewd parodies of popular songs to the delight of customers. This motivated him to learn piano and soon he was writing his own songs.

Songwriters made money from sales of sheet music in those days. A printer's error credited his first song, "Marie From Sunny Italy," co-written with Mike Nicholson, to I. Berlin instead of Beilin, his real surname.

And thus Irving Berlin was born.

He did well and drew attention. When he was drafted into the Army for World War I — to put on morale boosting musicals and not to fight — the headlines read, "Berlin drafted," in a manner befitting Elvis.

Berlin also drew headlines by falling in love with Ellin Mackay, a socialite daughter of the head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Co. She was Protestant. Her father sent her to Europe to forget about Berlin.

But Berlin wrote, "Always," for her. How could she resist? When she came back home, they eloped. Her father threatened to disown her.

Berlin assigned her the rights to "Always" and other songs to her so even if they divorced, she would have no financial worries.

They remained married until her death 63 years later. Always.

He was a generous man, assigning the rights to "God Bless America" to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.

All this happened before 1940, but despite his fortune and fame, he continued to work. Berlin wrote a song each day.

And one day, he called his secretary and said, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"

The call to the secretary may be hype, but his assessment wasn't. Few songs rival "White Christmas."  

Originally, the song began, "The sun is shining, the grass is green,

"The orange and palm trees sway.

"There's never been such a day

"In Beverly Hills, L.A.

"But it's December the twenty-fourth,

"And I am longing to be up North."

It was an instant hit and when he opened the envelope to award the Oscar for the best song, he read his name.

His musical career continued with more Broadway successes, and then some flops. The tepid hit, "Mister President," in 1962 marked his final musical.

On Christmas Eve 1983, a group of carolers knocked on the door to his apartment in New York and sang, "White Christmas." The 95-year-old man was so touched that he invited them in for cocoa and this began an annual tradition. He died in 1989 at 101.

But there is one final twist to how this Russian-born Jewish waiter who sang bawdy songs in Chinatown came to write this holiday classic.

He and his wife had three daughters but also a son, Irving, who died in infancy on Christmas Day in 1928.

Despite his pain, he helped millions of people enjoy a Christian holiday that is a gift to people of all faiths.

"May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white."

Surber is an editorial writer. His email is


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