Irving Berlin

American Institution and Mason: Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin, Famous Masons Medallion, 1998. Gift of Carl Chatto. 2007.007.2.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library holds ten commemorative medallions celebrating “Famous Masons” in U.S. history, issued between 1992 and 2001 by the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. Seventh in this series and pictured here is one honoring a hugely influential figure in American culture: the songwriter Irving Berlin (1888-1989).

There are many great reasons to celebrate Berlin today, at the thirtieth anniversary of his death on September 22, 1989. Of his staggering musical contributions, these are but a few: the jazz standards, “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” and “Always;” show tunes like “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better);” and the beloved holiday classics, “White Christmas” and “Happy Holiday.”

His song “God Bless America”—originally composed during his service in World War I, but not made public until Armistice Day, 1938—became so renowned that many called for it to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. But Berlin would not hear of it, saying, “There’s only one national anthem, which can never be replaced.”

It was his own roots as a Jewish immigrant that made Berlin (born Israel Beilin) feel so strongly for America. When he was five, his family fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe to the relative refuge of New York City’s Lower East Side. Their existence there was hardscrabble; Berlin busked on street corners for pennies, and climbed his way up through a combination of talent, wits, and hard work. Once he was a rich man, he credited his success to his adopted country. Over the years, he donated millions in song royalties to the Army Emergency Relief Fund and the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, in addition to other causes. He was also a staunch believer in paying his share of taxes, and once balked at his lawyers’ advice to use tax shelters, reputedly saying, “I want to pay taxes. I love this country.”

Berlin was also a devoted Mason. A member of New York City’s Munn Lodge No. 190, he became a Master Mason in 1910 and a 32° Scottish Rite Mason later the same year. In 1911 he was initiated into Mecca Shrine Temple, and by 1936 had been designated a lifetime member of both groups. True to Masonic ideals in myriad ways, Berlin worked for peace among all humankind. Among many awards he received was a 1944 honor by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict.”

Read more about SRMML’s holdings related to this admirable American Mason here.


“Irving Berlin (1888-1989).” Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, c. 1998-2019,

Jablonski, Edward. Irving Berlin: American Troubadour. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1999, 192-3.

McCorkle, Susanna. “Always: A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin." American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 49, Issue 7, November 1998. Free Republic,


Irving Berlin's "I'll See You in C-U-B-A"

We put on two exhibitions a year in our reading room, with objects primarily coming from the Library & Archives collections. Starting tomorrow (June 21), our exhibition cases will feature examples of illustrated American sheet music. The selection of sheet music in the exhibition is drawn from a gift that the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives received in 2004. The donors’ mother, Frances Schmidt Pemberton, collected them as a young woman working at a vaudeville theater in Rochester, New York, from about 1918 until 1925. "There'll Be a Hot Time in the U.S.A.": Illustrated American Sheet Music, 1917-1924 features sheet music published from the year that the U.S. entered WWI until five years after the end of that war. It's a rich moment in U.S. history, and the popular music of the time reflects various social phenomenon in sometimes surprising and entertaining ways.

Ill_see_you_in_cuba_webOne piece of sheet music that'll be on display is Irving Berlin's 1920 song I'll See You in C-U-B-A, pictured here. While it might not be obvious from either the title or the cover illustration (I'll admit that it wasn't obvious to me), the song is one that responds directly to Prohibition. Prohibition, of course, was the result of the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (later repealed by the 21st Amendment). Prohibition had a wide-ranging effect on life in the United States - something that was not lost on Tin Pan Alley's songwriters, whose ability to respond to current events is well-known. I'll See You in C-U-B-A is one of a few Prohibition-inspired songs that can be seen in the exhibition.

Through the process of looking at so many great covers while selecting only around thirty for the exhibition, I really started to want to know what some of these songs sound like. Thanks to a great project undertaken by the Department of Special Collections at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this became incredibly easy to do. I figured that our visitors might have the same reaction when they came to see the sheet music on display in the reading room too - "wonderful covers, but I wonder what some of these songs sounded like?" Because of that, we'll be loaning out mp3 players, pre-loaded with period recordings of many of the songs in the exhibition. With one exception, these recordings are all courtesy of the wonderful Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has digitized and made available thousands of Edison cylinder recordings from the early 20th century. (Interested in the copyright side of this? See UCSB's FAQ about it.)

If you can't make it in to the exhibition, we've got two of the songs that will be featured in the exhibition available over on our website - just go to the bottom of this page. I've included one of those songs in this post - a recording of Fred Hillebrand performing I'll See You in C-U-B-A on a 1920 Edison Blue Amberol recording. Click here for more info on the recording - and click on the play button below to give a listen.

Pictured above is Irving Berlin's I'll See You in C-U-B-A [Call number: 04-111sh], published by Irving Berlin, Inc., 1920. It, along with all of the other sheet music in the show, is the gift of Estelle F. Gese, Gale S. Pemberton, and Anne D. Pemberton, in memory of Frances Schmidt Pemberton.