Inspirations: The Two Berlins- Irving or Isaiah?


     A little tune, a little thinking…..?

              Irving Berlin


                    Isaiah Berlin?








A couple of weeks ago I went to see Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, hot on the heels of his Top Hat. At the same time I was reading Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity.   So different……

Yet the two Berlins were both Russian Jewish migrants of the twentieth century – taking very different paths. One left the deep poverty of Tsarist Russia and went to the States to become a populist song writer. The other left his comfy life destroyed by Bolshevik rule to become an elitist philosopher. Both spiralled to the top of their respected very different fields. There is a funny and celebrated little story of how the two were mistaken by Winston  Churchill! (see below).

Irving Berlin is one of America’s greatest and prolific songwriters. With over 1, 500 songs, 19 shows, and 18 films behind him- he was a populist of the first order.  Much of his music seeped into me in my childhood – both songs and through films.


Isaiah Berlin is one of the twentieth century’s greatest liberal thinkers. His basic ideas of the plurality and incompatibility of human values (value pluralism), as well as the importance of both positive and negative liberty  have been important to me. He is the kind of liberal you can like – and certainly not a neo-liberal!

The negative concept of liberty attempts to answer the question “What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?”

The positive concept attempts to answer the question “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (1969, pp. 121–22).



– This is the transcript from Desert Island Discs of the encounter. Isaiah Berlin is on the programme and this is his story:

Radio 4, 19 April 1992

Copyright (c) The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 1998  (click for text)


… this occurred in the spring of 1944 – I should say February or March. What happened actually was this.

Mrs Churchill said to Winston:
Irving Berlin is in town, he has been very generous to us
– he’d given a large sum of money to – a war charity, I don’t know which, with which she was connected.
If you meet him, do tell him we are very pleased with him.”
Mr Churchill said,
I want him to come to lunch.”
She said,
No, no, no, I did not mean that. I mean, if you meet him in the Churchill Club,”
she said,
just pat him on the shoulder and say we are very grateful to him.”
I want him to come to lunch,” he said, but she couldn’t understand why.

Well, Irving Berlin sat next to Winston Churchill, who said to him,
“Mr Berlin, what is the most important piece of work you have done for us lately, in your opinion?

Poor Berlin obviously couldn’t quite make out what this man had said. After some hesitation,”
I don’t know, it should be A White Christmas, I guess.”
And Winston said
Are you an American?“- there was this thick American accent.
Berlin said,
What? Why? Why? Yes.”
Then Winston again turned to Mr Berlin and he said,
Do you think Roosevelt will be re-elected this year?
Irving said,
Well, in the past I have voted for him myself, this year I am not so sure.”
At this point Mr Churchill became rather gloomy, he couldn’t understand who he was dealing with. He still thought it was me. Obviously my despatches were quite coherent, but he obviously had an idiot before him.

Finally Winston said,
Mr Berlin, when do you think the European War is going to end?
Berlin said,
Sir, I shall never forget this moment. When I go back to my own country I shall tell my children and my
        children’s children that in the spring of 1944 the Prime Minister of Great Britain asked me when the
        European War was going to end.

Winston was very displeased about this: he really more or less lost his temper, got up – lunch was over.

Poor Irving Berlin went off to the Savoy, where he was sharing rooms with Sir Alexander Korda, and he said to Korda,

“You know, Mr Churchill is probably the greatest man in England, or in the world maybe, but I don’t know what it was, I somehow felt we did not click. I don’t know what it was. Now she is a wonderful woman, I could talk to her always. With him, I don’t know, something, something – I just can’t make it out


Winston immediately went to a Cabinet meeting, after lunch, told them the story with the greatest pleasure.

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