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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born in Manhattan, where she was to live the whole of her life, she was the oldest of three daughters of Ellin Mackay, a noted novelist and Israel Beilin.

He was an immigrant from Russia who came to the USA when he was just five, in 1893. When he started song writing in 1907, he changed his name to Irving Berlin.

Mary had two younger sisters, Linda and Elizabeth. What she didn’t know for years was that she had a brother, Irving Junior, who died on Christmas Day 1928, when she was just two. She was too young to remember him.

She remembered Christmas as, “the single most beautiful and exciting day of the year.” Her parents went out of their way to make it special for the girls. Mary never realised the sadness that lay behind the day – “It was all show.”

And of course, her father wrote the famous song ‘White Christmas’, made famous by Bing Crosby.

Bing (courtesy You Tube)

And he wrote other classic songs such as ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)’, ‘Puttin’ on The Ritz’ and ‘God Bless America’, often cited as the alternative American national anthem. It is estimated between the 1920s and 1960s, he wrote 1500 songs.

But he was portrayed as an arrogant, difficult and unpleasant man by the media. He refused interviews with them and was seen as being not only a recluse but a miser.

Mary was very close to Irving and admitted she craved his attention. They liked to compare similarities between father and daughter. She had a scar close to her eye from when she fell off a swing. He had an identical scar in the same place, caused by someone dropping a knife on him from a great height on the boat he was emigrating in.

Mary nearly drowned when she was eight. Irving had also nearly drowned at the same age. After a day selling newspapers, he had fallen in the East River. When pulled out, he was still clutching the pennies he had earned that day.

Mary remembered many dinner parties in the family’s plush apartment. They entertained people like the Astaires, the Goldwyns, the Capras etc. Her father was great friends with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers – and many other celebrities.

Jackie Kennedy with Irving Berlin (courtesy Pinterest)

She remembered the writer W. Somerset Maugham and his party piece. He would lie on the floor and balance a full glass of water on his forehead. Then he would stand up – and not spill a drop.

As well as New York, the family had homes in California and in the Catskill Mountains.

After school, Mary went to Barnard College in New York where she graduated in Music.

Then, she went to work as a researcher at Time Magazine. It was there she met author and journalist Marvin Barrett. The two of them were married in Mexico in 1952.

They were to have four children, Katherine, Mary, Elizabeth and Irving – the same names stayed in the family.

Mary went on to work for both ‘Glamour’ and ‘Vogue’ magazines and then became a reviewer for ‘Cosmopolitan’. She worked for other magazines as well and shared an arts column with Marvin in ‘Good Housekeeping’.

And she wrote three novels, ‘American Beauty’, ‘An Accident of Love’ and ‘Ugly Castle’.

Irving Berlin died in 1989 aged 101. Shortly afterwards, in 1994, Mary decided to write a memoir about her father. It was called ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’. She said it was not a biography because it was not a full account of his life, but a portrait of him as a father.

In the book, she sought to correct some of the public image her father had, but also she portrayed his flaws. She said it was a way of, “Presenting the father I knew to the world.

She admitted Irving was a perfectionist, eccentric and tough. She put the toughness down to him surviving the ghetto in his childhood. He was not a brawler or physical fighter but was dogged and determined – “as if his back was against the wall.”

She also called him “an inexplicable genius”, but said he was never comfortable or relaxed. He was a bundle of nervous energy, “a shaky, uncertain man”, always drumming his fingers, scrunching up balls of paper, jumping whenever the telephone rang, chewing, smoking and playing hours of aimless piano.

It became a highly regarded book. The Times said it was, “A touching, wise, gracefully written memoir”, and quickly became the accepted version of Irving Berlin’s story.

One critic claimed she reconciled Berlin the artist with Berlin the man.

Her husband Marvin died in 2006. She was also predeceased by her sister Elizabeth (Peters), who was also a writer.

In her old age Mary loved the opera, books and films. She dabbled in the worlds of art and politics and had a mass of friends.

Mary was a trustee of the Juilliard Music school in New York, which has produced many noted musicians.

She died in New York.

The Juilliard school said she was, “a person of exceptional intellect and exquisite taste who possessed a true sense for how the performing arts should be taught.”

RIP – Revealing Irving’s Personality

Mary Ellin Barrett (courtesy Everything Old Is New Again)
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