Irving Berlin


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New York Genius

James Kaplan

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From the prizewinning Jewish Lives series: a fast‑moving, musically astute portrait of Irving Berlin, arguably the greatest composer of American popular music

"An extensively researched, entertaining, and nuanced account that contextualizes Berlin’s story and achievements within the scope of Jewish immigrant New York and modern American popular culture."—Library Journal

Irving Berlin (1888–1989) has been called—by George Gershwin, among others—the greatest songwriter of the golden age of the American popular song. “Berlin has no place in American music,” legendary composer Jerome Kern wrote; “he is American music.” In a career that spanned an astonishing nine decades, Berlin wrote some fifteen hundred tunes, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “God Bless America,” and “White Christmas.” From ragtime to the rock era, Berlin’s work has endured in the very fiber of American national identity.
Exploring the interplay of Berlin’s life with the life of New York City, noted biographer James Kaplan offers a visceral narrative of Berlin as self‑made man and witty, wily, tough Jewish immigrant. This fast‑paced, musically opinionated biography uncovers Berlin’s unique brilliance as a composer of music and lyrics. Masterfully written and psychologically penetrating, Kaplan’s book underscores Berlin’s continued relevance in American popular culture.

About Jewish Lives:

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.

In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.

More praise for Jewish Lives:

“Excellent.” – New York times

“Exemplary.” – Wall St. Journal

“Distinguished.” – New Yorker

“Superb.” – The Guardian

James Kaplan has been writing noted biography, journalism, and fiction for more than four decades. The author of Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman, the definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, he has written more than one hundred major profiles of figures ranging from Miles Davis to Meryl Streep, from Arthur Miller to Larry David.

“James Kaplan’s Irving Berlin is just like its subject: taut, vibrant, and thrumming with the irresistible words and music of America’s songwriter laureate. It’s by turns a buoyant and poignant trip across the tumultuous 20th century, through the eyes of an artist who helped define its popular taste. Kaplan reclaims the proud Jewish identity of the patriotic immigrant who knew that his country was blessed, because he had been.”—Todd S. Purdum, author of Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution

“This is biography at its very best—the story of a fascinating character brought to life as never before through superb writing, impeccable research and penetrating insight. It is a terrific book.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, on Frank: The Voice

"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."—Publishers Weekly

"Robust and richly rewarding. . . . Kaplan . . . brings his deep knowledge and wise insight to Berlin’s life story so that even his most classic songs like 'White Christmas' feel like a new discovery."—National Book Review

“Empathic. . . . As long as there are hearts to swell, 'Always' and 'How Deep Is the Ocean' will swell them.”—Eric Grode, New York Times Book Review

"Kaplan’s book is well-documented and written in an enjoyable, conversational style. One senses on every page Kaplan’s enthusiasm for his subject as well as his deep knowledge. This is the best introduction to Berlin’s life and work."—NY Journal of Books

"Propulsive and appealing."—Brad Leithauser, Wall Street Journal

"Kaplan was aided by the assistance of Berlin’s two elder daughters, and that makes this biography particularly valuable. . . . A good introduction to the composer for the general reader."—Benjamin Sears, Arts Fuse

"An extensively researched, entertaining, and nuanced account that contextualizes Berlin’s story and achievements within the scope of Jewish immigrant New York and modern American popular culture. . . . An excellent addition to the Berlin biographical bookshelf and a mandatory acquisition for all American music and popular culture collections."—Barry X. Miller, Library Journal

"Artfully merges the life and music of Berlin. . . . An intimate portrait."—David Steinberg, Albuquerque Journal

"A most fascinating book."—Aaron Leibel, Washington Jewish Week

"Kaplan’s sharp analy­sis of Berlin’s lyrics reveals their decep­tive sim­plic­i­ty, under­ly­ing sophis­ti­ca­tion and Berlin’s ear for the right word or melody in the right place."—Maron L. Waxman, Jewish Book Council
ISBN: 9780300180480
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
424 pages, 5 3/4 x 8 1/4
1 b/w illus.
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