Irving Berlin’s music is so much a part of American history that it can be difficult to remember he was a real person.
With songs like “White Christmas” and “Cheek to Cheek,” the composer, born on this day in 1888, cemented his legacy. But Berlin’s life as a Russian-born Jew in America was as fraught as many American lives. Case in point: his interfaith marriage to debutante Ellin Mackay, which in the 1920s set tongues wagging.
In 1925, Susana Raga explains for Mental Floss, Berlin met, and fell in love with, a debutante named Ellin Mackay. Mackay was a writer who had published several short stories in The New Yorker; she was also Roman Catholic. Even though Berlin was a respectable artist who clearly had money, Ellin's multimillionaire father Clarence Mackay "disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish," she writes. "Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926."
Blame Alexander Woolcott, a contemporaneous biographer of Berlin whose colorful portrayal, published in the early 1920s, wasn’t totally true to life. Clarence Mackay “was said to have acquired a copy,” writes biographer Laurence Bergreen, “but what he read in its pages could only have confirmed his doubts about the songwriter, for Woollcott’s tale emphasized Berlin’s immigrant background, impoverished Lower East Side youth and exotic Jewishness: all traits that the reactionary magnate found repugnant.”
Naturally, gossip papers jumped on the salacious story of the famous songwriter of Orthodox Jewish background and the multimillionaire’s Roman Catholic daughter, telling the story in minute detail. "The composer had planned to arrange a meeting with Miss Mackay during the day...Instead, after a few minutes' conversation, he suggested that they get married at once," The New York Times wrote, breathlessly describing the couple's clothing, how they filled out the marriage license, even the cost of their honeymoon plans. "The question of religion in connection with the marriage, said Berlin, would be considered later, if at all," the paper added.
It didn't appear to be an issue. The couple remained married 62 years, until Ellin died in 1988, and they had three children together. According to one biographer, Raga writes, the couple raised their children in the Protestant faith because it was a kind of middle ground between Berlin’s Jewish faith and Mackay’s Catholicism. Clarence Mackay eventually patched things up with his daughter, and Berlin, of course, wrote both "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."
The couple’s New York Times obituaries tell the story of a shared life: Ellin McKay, who took her husband’s last name on marriage, continued writing novels and stories and mingled with the new “cafe society” in preference to the company of other high-society figures. In one New Yorker story, published not long before her marriage to Berlin, she wrote “Modern girls are conscious of their identity and they marry whom they choose, satisfied to satisfy themselves.” She also continued to attend St. Patrick’s Cathedral to worship throughout her life, according to her obituary.
Irving Berlin, wrote several songs that his obituary reports were specifically for his wife, including “Always,” which he gave her as a wedding gift.