Jill Krementz Photo Journal: Remembering Irving Berlin

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In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.
I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade.

On the avenue, fifth avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet,
And of the girl I’m taking to the Easter parade.

I photographed our country’s greatest songwriter on September 5, 1974. We began our session in his office on the Avenue of the Americas where first he played the piano for me (legend has it that he only played on the black keys when in fact he played in the key of f-sharp which has two white notes).

In this photo, Mr. Berlin is stretched out on his office sofa reading a book called Dancing in the Dark by Howard Dietz, a friend of his since the early ’30s.

We went downstairs and his chauffeur drove us over to his large house on Beekman Place where I took some more pictures of him engaged in his favorite hobby, painting. (He had once tried golf and “hated it.”)

He wore a light blue smock and worked on the top floor in a studio containing his easel, a drawing table, and a piano. Mr. Berlin was fond of saying “as a painter I’m a pretty good song writer.” He gave his paintings to his children and to many of his pals including Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time with Mr. Berlin because I was working that day on assignment for Life magazine’s upcoming special issue of “A Day in the Life of America” and I had to rush off to take pictures of Alvin Ailey rehearsing with his dancers. (I photographed fourteen people that day, beginning at 5 AM with Barbara Walters eating breakfast, a chocolate brownie, and coffee, at her kitchen table before she left her apartment to the Today Show.)

How, you may ask, did I manage to photograph the reclusive Mr. Berlin? I had been wanting to photograph him for years and finally got this great opportunity through the kindness of his daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, my former boss at Glamour Magazine, who has remained one of my closest friends. I was also able to promise that I would take no more than an hour, which under the circumstances, was an easy promise to keep. Mary Ellin has told me that these were the last formal photographs taken of her father.

Mr. Berlin lived to be 101. His songs will live forever.

Recommended reading: Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir by Mary Ellin Barrett (paperback edition still available, published by Limelight Press) and The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet (Alfred A. Knopf).

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