WHEN UNCLE AL WORKED FOR IRVING BERLIN

Thomas Mahon

I had an uncle, Al Kane, who grew up in Hasting, Minn in a family of five kids (including my mother). In his late teens, the father died and left my grandmother with five children. Al was ‘farmed out’ to relatives in New Jersey.

Al was a magnificent singer and used to make the congregation at Guardian Angels Church in Hastings weep when he sang the liturgy.

Now living near New York in the early 1920s, Al was fascinated by Broadway and by vaudeville. I suppose he frequently auditioned for shows, and I don’t know how the connection was made, but in the mid-1920s he got a job as Office Manager for Irving Berlin.

One day he was late returning from lunch. The Secretary asked where he had been. She said the boss was looking for Al to be his Best Man at his sudden wedding that afternoon.

So Al was close to, but not part of, one the most celebrated weddings of the time. The backstory is fascinating: Mr Berlin was engaged to Ellin Mackay, the daughter of a very prosperous Irish Catholic businessman. The father, Clarence Mackay, was determined not to let her marry a Jew so he sent her on a round-the-world cruise that they would forget each other. The separation only strengthened the bond. Mr Berlin and Ellen wrote every day and he composed songs for her.

When her ship returned to New York, Mr Berlin hastened to the dock (with Uncle Al back back at the office) and they rushed to get married before Clarence could stop them.

Fearing the old man would, as he threatened, cut her out of his will, that afternoon Irving Berlin wrote a note that from that day on, Ellin Mackay Berlin would receive all the royalties from one of his most popular song which he wrote for her while she was at sea. You may know it, “Always.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXsIAY7fIc0

They remained married for 63 years until she died in 1988. He died the next year.

Uncle Al eventually moved to San Francisco where he worked at the front desk at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. When WW2 started he joined the Merchant Marine and for the next 40 years he traveled around the world many times over.

Every year he would return to Minnesota for a week to visit his mother and his sister. And he would tell me and my younger brother, Tim, of all the amazing things he had seen the past year. I was hooked. From age 12 whenever I was in downtown St Paul I would stop by the Greyhound Bus Terminal on Seventh Street and check for the next bus to Frisco. It took another eleven years to make my get-away, and I counted the minutes.

Photo of the Berlins by Cecil Beaton

Mrs and Mr Irving Berlin

© 2021, Thomas Mahon