Christmas in August

Audio Recording

Our Sunday night entertainments are not meant to be a weekly obituary column, but they are, alas, in danger of becoming one, with the recent passings of Paul Sorvino and Judith Durham. Mary Ellin Barrett is not as famous as those names, but she left us in July at what one would normally regard as the grand old age of 95, were it not that she fell a few years short of her longer-lived father, Irving Berlin.

Mary Ellin wrote a trio of fine novels and a wonderful memoir of her father, Irving Berlin, that is one of the very few books in this area worth reading from start to finish. She also took part in a very memorable Steyn Christmas show a few years back. So, to mark her passing, we're reprising a special Song of the Week audio edition that includes rare material from the Steyn archive and a somewhat unseasonal live performance of "White Christmas".

On this show, I visit Mary Ellin's home to learn more about the man who gave us "God Bless America", "Blue Skies", "Easter Parade" and many more. (That's Mary Ellin with her father at top right.) We gather round Irving Berlin's old piano, the one with the special lever that enabled him to change key while still playing in F sharp, and Mary Ellin recalls childhood Christmases in the Berlin household and the mistake her mother found in the verse of "White Christmas". We also hear about the tragic events of Christmas Day 1928 and the long shadow they cast over the Berlin family. And we'll hear how Irving Berlin's great song sounds on his very own keyboard.

All that plus vintage Bing, a wartime warbling by the composer himself, other Berlin songs including the heart-rending "When I Lost You" - and a special performance by Monique Fauteux, one of the great treasures of Qu├ębec music.

To listen to this Song of the Week audio edition, simply click the link above. As I said above, I highly recommend Mary Ellin's 1994 book on her father, Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir, which I first read for a review so many years ago. In those pre-Internet days, one's appearances in distant media depended on word of mouth to draw attention, so a week or so later the postman brought a sweet note from Mary Ellin saying that "all her London friends" had telephoned to say she simply must get to an international newsstand in Manhattan to procure a copy of The Spectator. I treasure those spidery handwritten letters and regret they are now perforce over. I think you'll get a great sense of Mary Ellin's personality in this show.