Mary Ellin Barrett, Daughter and Defender of Irving Berlin, Dies at 95

The songwriter Irving Berlin defined a very American style of sunniness. “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” delighted in competition. “Puttin’ On the Ritz” made social mobility silly. “White Christmas” exalted innocence. With “God Bless America,” Berlin, a Russian immigrant, wrote the unofficial second national anthem of his adopted home.

Yet by the time he died at 101 in 1989, after years of avoiding the spotlight and restricting the use of his music, many puzzled over an apparent gap between Berlin’s art and his character.

“The man who wrote such wonderfully romantic songs as ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ ‘Always’ and ‘What’ll I Do?’ appears to have been an egotist and a boor,” the book critic Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote in 1990 in a review of a biography. In a news article the same year, The Times reported that people in the theater and music businesses described Berlin as a “recluse” and “miser.”

In 1994, Mary Ellin Barrett, one of Berlin’s three daughters, disputed the criticisms of her father in an interview with The Times and announced a mission: “Presenting the father I knew to the world.” She said she was writing a book.

“Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir” was published later that year. In it, Ms. Barrett offered a new portrait of her father: droll, self-effacing, with an unspoken perfectionism that would doom him to bitterness in old age but that for four decades of maturity pushed him to dazzling artistic achievements, along with attentiveness to his family.

That has become a definitive insider’s view of Irving Berlin. The Times theater, movie and music critic Stephen Holden credited Ms. Barrett with the ability to balance affection for her father with awareness of his flaws, and he called her book a “touching, wise, gracefully written memoir.”

Ms. Barrett died on July 16 in Manhattan. She was 95. Her daughter Katherine Swett confirmed the death.

Ms. Barrett’s account of family life helped reconcile Irving Berlin the artist and Irving Berlin the man.

Ms. Barrett did not take the position of a biographer, giving a full account of Berlin’s life, or the position of a critic, translating to prose the power of his music and the sources of his creativity. (She instead called him an “inexplicable genius.”)

But her account of family life helped reconcile Berlin the artist and Berlin the man.

She recalled her father making head-spinning comparisons between their childhoods. Young Mary Ellin got a scar from falling off a swing; young Israel Beilin, as he was then known, got a scar in the berth of the ship he took to America when someone dropped a penknife on him, almost hitting his eye.

In the East River, near Mary Ellin’s penthouse home, her father had once, at 8 years old, nearly drowned; when rescued, he was found still clutching the pennies he had earned that day selling newspapers.

He often seemed a “shaky, uncertain man,” Ms. Barrett wrote — drumming his fingers, molding the inside of dinner rolls into compact balls, smoking too many cigarettes, chewing too much gum, jumping when the telephone rang, fiddling with his piano.

Yet out came hit after hit after hit; between his 20s and his 60s, he wrote about 1,500 songs.

Ms. Barrett came to see her father’s drive as the product of anxiety and toughness that lingered from a ghetto childhood. He was “the street fighter,” she wrote, “not noisy and brawling but quiet, dogged,” never shaking the sense that he acted “with his back against the wall, writing, composing, negotiating his way out of a corner.”

Mary Ellin Berlin, who was born on Nov. 25, 1926, in Manhattan, grew up in a different universe. Her girlhood memories included dinner parties with the Astaires, the Goldwyns, the Capras and Somerset Maugham, who once lay on the floor, balanced a glass of water on his forehead and stood up without spilling a drop.

Though she sometimes had to chase her father for attention and felt alienated by the fame of her parents — her mother, Ellin Mackay, was an heiress and a popular novelist — Mary Ellin felt less resentment than enchantment with her good fortune. When she relentlessly invited people to the family’s house seats for her father’s 1946 Broadway megahit, “Annie Get Your Gun,” one annoyed friend told her to knock it off.

She graduated from Barnard College in 1949 with a degree in music, and worked as an editorial trainee at Times Magazine, where she met the author and journalist Marvin Barrett. They married in 1952; he died in 2006. Later in her career, Ms. Barrett worked at Glamour and Vogue magazines and wrote book reviews for Cosmopolitan. She published three novels in addition to the book about her father.

Ms. Barrett, right, with her sisters Elizabeth Peters, left, and Linda Emmet at Town Hall in New York in 2016, attending a performance of the one-man show “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.”Credit…Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

Ms. Barrett’s sister Elizabeth Peters died in 2017. In addition to her daughter Ms. Swett, Ms. Barrett is survived by another sister, Linda Emmet; two other daughters, Elizabeth Matson and Mary Ellin Lerner; a son, Irving Barrett; five grandsons; and a great-grandson.

When she was 2 years old, Ms. Barret’s infant brother, Irving Jr., died on Christmas Day. Although her father was the author of the nation’s best-loved Christmas tune, her parents came to “hate” the holiday, Ms. Barrett’s mother told her when she was an adult.

As a girl, Mary Ellin did not know she had ever had a brother. At the time, she considered Christmas “the single most beautiful and exciting day of the year,” she wrote. She saw a revealing parallel looking back at the celebrations of her youth.

“The tree was trimmed behind closed doors and revealed to the children in full splendor, with all the presents beneath it, on Christmas morning,” she wrote. “So it was with a show.”

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