NEW YORK -- Composer Irving Berlin, revered for his incomparable songs that set America's dreams to dance music, died in his sleep Friday. He was 101.
His unforgettable 'White Christmas' and inspirational 'God Bless America' lightened the hearts of his adopted countrymen -- he was born in Russia -- through two world wars and the Depression.
Berlin composed some 900 songs over half a century for the nation's most popular singers, from Bing Crosby to Fred Astaire, earning formal honors that included a Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor and, in 1977, the Medal of Freedom.
But the songwriting giant, who marked his 101st birthday May 11, never learned to read or write music, despite composing the scores for 19 Broadway show and 18 Hollywood films.
Berlin died about 5:30 p.m. Friday at his Beekman Place home on Manhattan's Upper East Side, miles from the Lower East Side streetcorners where he sang for pennies as a child, according to his son-in-law, Alton Peters.
'He died very, very peacefully,' Peters, the secretary of the Metropolitan Opera Association, said.
'Irving Berlin has no place in American music,' composer Jerome Kern once said. 'He is American music.'
Long after he retired, Berlin was honored at the 1978 presentation of the Antoinette Perry awards, receiving a special Tony 'for distinguished lifetime work in the theater.'
A small, slender man with lively brown eyes, heavy-rimmed glasses and abundant black hair, Berlin kept youthful looking long after most of his colleagues were dead.
Berlin's wife, author Ellin Berlin, died at a New York hospital July 29, 1988, following a series of strokes. She was 85. The couple had marked their 62nd wedding anniversary in January 1988.
For the last decade of his life Berlin lived as a virtual recluse, communicating with old friends by telephone. He left his East Side Manhattan home infrequently for auto excursions, walks, or a visit to his office in the Broadway theater district.
By the time he turned 99, in 1987, Berlin had outlived the copyright on some of his most popular works, including 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.'
The copyright law providing protection to authors and composers for 56 years, plus an extension of 19 years granted in 1978, began to put his earlier works into the public domain, depriving him of some royalties.
Fellow composer Jule Styne, one of Berlin's oldest friends, called the songwriter, 'One of a kind.'
'Nobody will ever write songs as great as Irving Berlin,' said the 84-year-old Styne. 'He was a truly great American melodist.'
Styne praised Berlin for his work with the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers, the composers union which he founded.
'He set the tone and the protection for all the songwriters,' Styne said. 'Songwriters used to be cheated all the time. He fought against that.'
Berlin was born Israel Baline in the village of Temoyun, Kirgizia, near Russia's Siberian border, on May 11, 1888, the first of eight children of Rabbi Moses Baline and his wife Leah Lipkin. It was a time of pogroms. When the boy was 4 his ramshackle house was burned to ashes.
The Balines together with their children -- there were then four - emigrated to New York City the following year and moved into a crowded tenement on Cherry Street in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side. Berlin's childhood was poor in material things but provided him a rich of knowledge of human nature. He later said: 'Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life.'
The rabbi worked as a cantor in the most impoverished section of the slums. He sang in the synagogue on High Holy Days, and taught Irving and his brothers the hymns of the Jewish faith.
Berlin was 8 when his father died, and the boy started singing on corners for pennies. When he was 14, he ran away from home -- as far as four blocks west to the Bowery, where he became an assistant to an itinerant street singer and occasionally sang himself. He slept in flophouses and sometimes sang in cafes.
Roaming through Chinatown, he met Mike Salter, owner of the Pelham Cafe on Pell Street, who hired him as a singing waiter. It was at this time that he changed his name to Irving Berlin. He had powerful vocal chords and belted out his songs with enthusiasm. Over the years, his voice diminished greatly in volume, so much so that a Hollywood wit remarked: 'You've got to hug Irving to hear him.'
When Berlin wasn't hauling steins of beer to customers, he sat at the cafe piano, pounding out popular airs of the early 1900's, playing everything in the key of F-sharp. He composed all of his songs in F-sharp throughout his career, explaining, 'It's the only key I can play.'
The Pelham had a pianist named M. Nicholson, and Berlin began writing words to tunes that Nicholson had composed. Another pianist-singing waiter team in a nearby cafe produced an Italian dialect song called 'My Mariucci Taka Da Steamboat.' The ditty swept the beer halls, and inspired the Berlin-Nicholson team to compete.
Neither man knew enough formal music to transcribe their melody on paper. A local fiddler volunteered to do the job. The pair took their song to Joseph Stern's publishing house in 1907. It appeared under the title 'Marie from Sunny Italy' and netted its creators a profit of 37 cents. The future Emperor of Tin Pan Alley was on his way.
The 19-year-old youth did not make fast headway with his new career. One song followed another but caused few ripples.
Then he was offered $10 by an actor for some verses in praise of Dorando, an Italian marathon winner and idol of the day. The performer, who had planned to use the piece as a recitation in a vaudeville show, never turned up to collect it. So Berlin improvised a melody that an arranger transcribed, and 'Dorando' became a topical song of minor popularity.
It gained Berlin official acceptance into the world of Tin Pan Alley. The Snyder Publishing Co. put him to work at $25 a week -- against future royalties. Soon he produced his first real hit, 'Sadie Salome, Go Home.'
The tune was published at the moment when ragtime, a distinctive popular musical style, had become the national fad. Berlin accommodated himself to the new beat and came out in 1911 with 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' Within a few months a million copies had been sold.
Before World War I began, Berlin finished the complete scores for two Broadway shows. The first, 'Watch Your Step' in 1914, starred the world famous dancing team, Vernon and Irene Castle.
Berlin entered the Army in 1917 as a draftee and went to Camp Upton, N.Y., where he wrote a soldiers' show. It played for 32 performances at Manhattan's Century Theater under the title 'Yip, Yip, Yaphank' and created a sensation with its rip-off of army reveille, 'Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.'
Berlin contributed songs to various editions of the Ziegfeld Follies including 'A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,' which became the Follies' theme song. After the war, in 1920, he wrote the entire score for a new edition of the famed Follies.
Berlin was now one of the most prominent figures in show business. In 1921 he joined hands with Sam H. Harris and Joseph Schenck to build the Music Box Theater for intimate musical revues. He wrote 'Say It With Music' for the opening production at the theater, which remains a Broadway favorite.
A long string of scores for musical comedies followed. One of the most famous was his score for the 1925 Marx Brothers show, 'The Coconuts.' Other notable successes included scores for 'Face the Music' in 1932, 'As Thousands Cheer' in 1933, 'Louisiana Purchase' in 1940, 'This Is the Army' in 1942, 'Annie Get Your Gun' in 1946, 'Miss Liberty' in 1949, and 'Call Me Madam' in 1950. 'Annie Get Your Gun' became his longest running hit.
One of Berlin's failures was a song titled 'Smile and Show Your Dimple.' He wrote a new set of lyrics to the tune in the 1930s and it became 'Easter Parade.'
Besides writing the score for the movie 'Easter Parade,' starring Fred Astaire, Berlin provided scores for three Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie musicals, 'Top Hat' in 1935, 'Follow the Fleet' in 1936 and 'Carefree' in 1938.
He also supplied music and lyrics for the movies 'Top Hat,' 'Follow the Fleet,' 'Second Fiddle,' 'Holiday Inn,' 'Blue Skies' and 'There's No Business Like Show Business.'
'Holiday Inn' featured Bing Crosby singing 'White Christmas' and it became a holiday perennial.
Berlin's more than 900 songs included complete scores for 18 musicals. Among his many popular hits were 'When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam,' 'Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee,' 'Cheek to Cheek,' 'How Deep is the Ocean?' 'All Alone,' 'Marie,' 'Remember,' 'What'll I Do?' 'Always,' 'Blue Skies,' 'You're Just In Love' and 'They Say that Falling in Love is Wonderful.'
In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, who died of typhoid fever five months later.
In 1926, in the midst of his successes, he married writer Ellin Mackay, a Roman Catholic and the daughter of Clarence H. Mackay, the millionaire president of the Postal Telegraph Co. Mackay bitterly opposed the match, and newspapers reveled in the story of a onetime singing waiter wed to the daughter of a blue-blood family. The couple had three daughters. Their only son died in infancy.
In 1942, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War II, Berlin wrote a show called 'This is the Army.' The production toured for three and a half years and earned $10 million for Army Emergency Relief. Berlin himself appeared in person throughout the long run.
Berlin absented himself from Broadway for 12 years beginning in 1950. He tried a comeback in 1962 with the score for the musical comedy 'Mr. President.' When the opening night curtain fell, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
While critics panned the show, even the harshest of them expressed respect for the man whom Jerome Kern once called 'the nearest thing to a native folk singer since Stephen Foster.'
Amid the opulence of his quarters on Manhattan's fashionable upper East Side, Berlin reflected on the experiences of his impoverished boyhood.
'Most of my life I've lived near the East River downtown,' he once said. 'I'm a little farther uptown, but we see the same tugboats and ships.'
Berlin and his wife marked their 62th wedding anniversary Jan. 4, 1988.
Berlin was survived by three daughters, two in New York and one in Paris. He had nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.