In the East River, near Mary Ellin’s penthouse home, her father had once, at age 8, nearly drowned; when he was rescued, he was found still holding the pennies he had earned that day selling newspapers.
He often seemed like a ‘shaky, uncertain man’, Ms Barrett wrote – drumming her fingers, molding the insides of buns into tight balls, smoking too many cigarettes, chewing too much gum, jumping when the phone rang, gambling with his piano.
Yet he came out of it blow after blow after blow; between his 20s and his 60s, he wrote around 1,500 songs.
Ms. Barrett came to see her father’s drive as the product of the anxiety and tenacity that lingered from a childhood in a ghetto. He was “the street fighter”, she writes, “not loud and feisty but quiet, stubborn”, never shaking the feeling that he was acting “with his back against the wall, writing, composing, negotiating his way out of a corner”.
Mary Ellin Berlin, born November 25, 1926 in Manhattan, grew up in a different world. His childhood memories included dinners with the Astaires, the Goldwyns, the Capras, and Somerset Maugham, who, lying on the floor, placed a glass of water on his forehead and stood up without spilling a drop.
Although she sometimes had to shoo her father away for attention and felt alienated by her parents’ fame – her mother, Ellin Mackay, was an heiress and popular novelist – Mary Ellin felt less resentment than enchantment with his good fortune. When she relentlessly invited people to family theater seats for her father’s 1946 Broadway smash hit, “Annie Get Your Gun,” an annoyed friend told her to stop.