Irving Berlin

On this date in 1888, Irving Berlin (né Israel Baline) was born in Russia. He immigrated with his family to New York City at age 5. After his first wife died, Berlin, at 37, eloped with 22-year-old Ellin Mackay, a socialite and Roman Catholic, in a secular, civil ceremony. Her father disinherited her for marrying outside the faith. All three of their children shared “our father’s agnosticism and sidestep our husband’s faiths,” his daughter Mary Ellin Bennett wrote in her book, Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir.

The celebrated composer of 1,500 popular songs wrote “God Bless America” as a show tune in 1918 for the musical ” Yip, Yip Yaphank,” but discarded it. He later revived and revised it when Kate Smith was looking for a peace anthem to sing in 1938. His daughter wrote that her father was “not a religious person” and opposed the drive to turn “God Bless America” into the national anthem.

As Thousands Cheer biographer Laurence Bergreen wrote: ” ‘God Bless America’ revealed that patriotism was Irving Berlin’s true religion. It evoked the same emotional response in him that conventional religious belief summoned in others; it was his rock.” One of Berlin’s lesser-known songs reveals his irreverent side, the rollicking “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades.” D. 1989.

Freedom From Religion Foundation