Irving Berlin was the undisputed king of Tin Pan Alley. Over his career — which lasted from 1907 well into the 1960s — he composed roughly 1,250 iconic toe-tappers, 25 of which were No. 1 pop-chart smashes. Although he was a self-taught musician, his hits “White Christmas,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “God Bless America” are staples of the Great American Songbook. Fellow songwriter Jerome Kern once remarked that Berlin simply “is American music.”
Now, a vital but lesser-known piece of Berlin’s legacy — one that may well have saved his career — has traded hands on the East Side of Manhattan for the first time in nearly two decades. The duplex apartment that Berlin called home from 1931 until 1938 at 130 East End Ave. sold to an anonymous buyer this month. The three-bedroom, four-bathroom co-op in a noteworthy building by Art Deco starchitect Emery Roth was listed for just $2.3 million with Warburg Realty, but had originally hit the market asking $7.9 million.
While the apartment has been heavily renovated since Berlin’s time, the new owner is nevertheless cashing in on a mammoth amount of music history.
“Cheek to Cheek,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade” and Berlin’s most enduring number, “God Bless America,” were all penned while he resided there.
But his move to this famously quiet dead-end street also reflects a darker chapter in the composer’s life.
“This was a low point in Berlin’s career,” said James Kaplan, author of “Irving Berlin: New York Genius.”
Berlin and his wife, Ellin, moved to the apartment after a failed attempt at making it in Hollywood. The couple was also still recovering from the loss of their infant son, Irving Jr., who’d died on Christmas Day 1928. Irving was suffering the longest dry spell of his career.
“[Berlin] thought he’d never write again,” Kaplan said.
Born Israel (“Izzy”) Baline in Russia in 1888, Berlin’s family came to America when he was 5 years old. Young Izzy grew up in a Cherry Street tenement, surrounded by the cacophony of construction from the nearby Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. As a teen, he took up singing, first as a busker, then as a singing waiter at a saloon called the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, where he co-wrote his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy.”
When the sheet music was published, it named the lyricist as “I. Berlin.” Whether this was a mistake or Izzy’s chance to remake himself is unclear, but from that point forward, he was songwriter Irving Berlin.
Berlin scored his first mega-hit in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” A year later, when his first wife, Dorothy, died of typhoid just six months after their wedding, he penned “When I Lost You,” an enduring tale of heartache that was later recorded by everyone from Jimmy Durante to Frank Sinatra.
In the 1920s, the hits seemed effortless, including “Blue Skies” (performed by Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” and decades later a huge hit for Willie Nelson), “The Song Is Ended” and “Always,” which he wrote for his second wife, socialite Ellin Mackay. The romance between the Catholic Mackay — heir to a mining fortune — and the Jewish Berlin caused a scandal, and Ellin’s father disinherited her.
By the time they purchased 130 East End Ave. in the midst of the Great Depression, Berlin was also battling a “really severe depression” of his own, Kaplan said.
According to Brown Harris Stevens broker Fritzi Kallop, who has represented other homes at the address, the “sun-flooded sanctuary” with wood-burning fireplaces and herringbone hardwood floors might have been a mood-lifter.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, author of “The Algonquin Round Table New York,” said that the Berlins’ remote neighborhood certainly shielded them from the worst sights of the city’s economic downturn, such as the “Hoovervilles that had been built on the Great Lawn and the shantytowns of the West Side.” The location also put them closer to his Round Table pals, including Dorothy Parker, critic Alexander Woollcott, publisher Ralph Pulitzer and his wife Margaret Leech.
The duplex is also where Berlin first connected with Broadway director and playwright Moss Hart, which gave his career a much-needed shot of adrenaline, according to Kaplan.
Together they wrote the musical revues “Face the Music” and “As Thousands Cheer,” which helped him to once again score Hollywood blockbusters such as the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle “Top Hat.”
But by far the biggest hit penned there was “God Bless America,” a revision of a song Berlin had written during World War I. The singer Kate Smith introduced it to a wide radio audience on Nov. 11, 1938, which was Armistice Day and the day Americans awoke to stories of the atrocities of the Kristallnacht in Germany.
Although Berlin felt the song encapsulated his love of his adopted country and it was a huge success, Kaplan pointed out that it also prompted a “backlash from those who couldn’t fathom that a Jewish immigrant had had the effrontery to write such a patriotic tune.”
While Berlin kept banging out new ditties on the penthouse piano, the area’s sense of quiet seclusion had disappeared with the construction of Robert Moses’ East River Drive underneath Carl Schurz Park — now the FDR Drive.
The hubbub likely drove the Berlins to seek a quieter locale. In 1938, they decamped for rented twin townhouses on East 78th Street, returning briefly to nearby 1 Gracie Square during World War II before ultimately purchasing the townhouse at 17 Beekman Place where he and Ellin would live out the rest of their lives.
Berlin may have said, “Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life,” but even he couldn’t stand the noise.