A Jazz Age Love Story

Ellin Mackay and Irving Berlin. Photo: Library of Congress

By Michael Burke, Contributor

Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay put aside their differences in culture, background, and age to form one of the best-known, enduring and loving relationships in New York social history. At the same time, the stories of the Berlin and Mackay families, which both started with brave immigrants taking a chance in America, are not so different as they first appear.


Their whirlwind romance caused a media feeding frenzy on both coasts and extended as far as Europe, keeping the paparazzi in flashbulbs for over a year. Their semi-clandestine affair was aided by several unlikely sources, from the bride’s estranged mother to the Prince of Wales. They evaded the ever-present press by eloping to New York’s City Hall on January 4, 1926, not using his chauffeured Minerva limousine, which was constantly followed, but by taking the subway – a first for the young heiress. Their 10-minute wedding ceremony led to years of controversy for the couple, who ultimately became one of the great love and success stories of the twentieth century. Their love endured for 62 years, ending only in 1988 with the death of Ellin Mackay, wife of Irving Berlin.

Many parallels can be found in the widely differing histories of the Mackay and Berlin families, especially between those of Irving Berlin and John Mackay, Ellin’s grandfather. Both started out in similar circumstances, in abject poverty in 19th-century Europe. John Mackay was born on November 28, 1831, a product of the slums of Dublin, Ireland, about as humble a beginning as one could imagine at the time. Approximately sixty years later, in a very different but equally impoverished part of Europe, six-year-old Irving Berlin (then called Israel Baline) watched the only home he had ever known, located in the Jewish ghetto, burn to the ground at the hands of the Russian Cossacks. The Baline family: father, mother, and seven children fled with only the clothes on their backs. They miraculously wound their way through Europe and finally landed in New York City. In 1840, at age nine, John Mackay also immigrated with his parents and a sister to New York City. Mackay pére died shortly thereafter, plunging the remaining family members into extreme poverty.

As a child, John Mackay sold newspapers to help support his mother and sister. As soon as he was old enough to work, he got a job in a shipyard, but at age twenty he left for California to try his luck in gold mining. Similarly, Irving Berlin lost his father, a cantor, at a young age. As the oldest boy in the family he also first sold newspapers but then left school and took a job as a singing waiter at Mike Salter’s Chinatown bar to support his mother and siblings. There he co-wrote, with another singing waiter, his first song – “Marie From Sunny Italy.”

Out West, John Mackay struggled in vain to find gold. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, he found very little and soon left for Virginia City, Nevada. There he teamed up with three other Irishmen (James Graham Fair, James C. Flood, and William S. O’Brien) to form a mining corporation. The partners did achieve initial success in gold and silver, enough to make them all millionaires. But their 1873 discovery of the single largest lode of silver ore in the world, eventually known as the Comstock Lode, earned them the name The Silver Kings. They found it by digging down over a thousand feet in the Virginia Range, at Mackay’s insistence. The amount of silver was later described by a journalist as equal to the size of New York’s City Hall Park (8.8 acres) and rising 120 feet. Although estimates vary, by the time the ore was exhausted it had yielded at least $190,000,000 worth of silver. It made Mackay wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

Irving Berlin had his own version of the Comstock Lode with the song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which catapulted him into a lifetime of artistic and financial success. With his first surge in income he bought a house in the Bronx (then a fashionable suburb of New York City) for his mother. Although he never learned to read or write music, Berlin found his niche in writing popular songs – he would compose the melody by ear and hire someone to write it out for him. While Irving achieved success early in his career, he continually struggled to stay on top. Although the term was not coined in his day, he could be described as a classic workaholic. His work habits were unusual in that he would stay up all night working and then sleep until noon. This led to one of his most popular songs, describing his experience in the army in World War I: “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in The Morning.”

John Mackay was a quiet, polite, hardworking man, who sometimes spoke with a slight stutter. The statue of him in front of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada, by sculptor Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame, depicts a sinewy, muscular man in miner’s clothes. He was a liberally minded Roman Catholic, and also a member of the Freemasons. This membership led indirectly to his marriage. Louise Antoinette Hungerford was born in New York City but came out West as a child with her parents, who were searching for a way out of their own poverty.  At sixteen she married a doctor and the future looked promising until he succumbed to alcoholism and drug abuse and died at a young age. Since the doctor was a member of the same Masonic Lodge as John Mackay, he and two others visited the widow after her husband’s death, bringing with them a gift of money to tide her over during the difficult time. Louise politely declined their offer on the grounds that she could not accept charity and that, although she had a young daughter, she was determined to somehow manage on her own. John felt he could not let a beautiful woman with that kind of character get away. On November 27, 1866 John William Mackay and Louise Antoinette Hungerford Bryant were married in Virginia City, Nevada by the Rev. Father Manogue, a personal friend of both.

Louise moved into a much more comfortable existence than she had ever known. John proved to be extremely generous with his newfound wealth and treated his little stepdaughter as if she were his own, eventually legally adopting her. The Mackays moved into a comfortable house in San Francisco, where their first son, John William, Jr. was born in 1870. They lived quietly and happily in San Francisco, with John gradually becoming more of a corporate miner, although he still often supervised his mining operations personally. He also expanded into banking. When the big silver was struck, their lives changed forever. They were soon one of the richest families in America. John became the Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg of his day. He turned to philanthropy, founding a Catholic orphanage in Virginia City and the Opera House in San Francisco, among many other works.

Louise wanted to return to her native New York City and enter society, but their ethnicity and religion – moreso than their nouveau riche status – stood in their way. Louise could be reluctantly accepted as a Catholic since she was of French and English descent, but social status for the wife of an Irish Catholic was out of the question. In Silver Platter, her biography of her grandmother, Ellin Mackay Berlin quotes one of the New York snobs as saying: “Mackay? Oh Irish, of course. They don’t even pronounce it properly.” (John pronounced his name MACK-ee as opposed to the Scottish pronunciation of mac-KAY.)  Furious at the treatment accorded his wife, John packed up his family and moved to Paris where he bought one of the city’s largest mansions, and Louise soon became one of the most popular hostesses in Parisian society. They then rented a second house in London and became friends with the upper echelons of English society. John would leave his family in Paris or London and commute across the Atlantic to take care of his now-expanding business empire.

Despite his wealth and success, John never lost his grit or moral compass. At one point, one of the infamous London tabloids tried to dig up dirt on the Mackays, targeting Louise in particular, accusing her of being a former “washer woman.” Though a seamstress and embroiderer in her youth she never actually took in wash, although neither honest occupation is anything to be ashamed of. John hired detectives to find the source of the rumor and when he located the cad, an unsuccessful businessman, in one of the banks of which Mackay was a director, he confronted him. Although several years the man’s senior, the still muscular fifty-nine year old Mackay punched him twice in the face. He then challenged him to a fistfight, which the hapless slanderer wisely declined from his position on the floor. The Mackays sued the tabloid, won a large financial settlement, and donated it all to charity. In a later unfortunate incident, a failed miner unreasonably blamed John for his bad luck and shot him. The bullet  went into his chest and out his back, but John survived.

John William, Jr. was slated to take over his father’s enterprises, which grew to include the Postal Telegraph Company following one of his fathers major accomplishments: the laying of the second Atlantic Cable, by which he drastically reduced the price of telegraphic communications between the United States and Europe. However, tragedy stuck when young John was killed in a horse racing accident. His parents wanted him laid to rest in New York City and began the construction of what was, and still is, one of the most elaborate mausoleums in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. It is the only one built with electricity and a heating system so that the priests who prayed for John, Jr. (and ultimately the rest of the family) would be comfortable. A fund, which survives to this day, was set up to cover the costs.

Back in New York with second son Clarence set to take over the vast Mackay empire, they bought a townhouse at 3 East 75th Street in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When Clarence met and fell in love with a beautiful society heiress named Katherine Duer, John built them a 50-room mansion on Long Island’s North Shore as a wedding present. Named Harbor Hill and designed by the famous architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White, it became one of the social centers of New York High Society, which now welcomed the Mackays. Among their many guests were the Cole Porters (Mrs. Porter, the former Linda Lee, was an old friend of the family’s), the F. Scott Fitzgeralds, the Charles Lindberghs and the Prince of Wales.

Clarence always maintained that he was a devout Catholic, but that did not prevent him from marrying a Protestant. However, their differing religious views caused conflict throughout their marriage. After having three children with Katherine, Clarence developed throat cancer and was treated by the brilliant society doctor Joseph Blake. Upon his recovery, however, Clarence’s wife left him to marry Dr. Blake, abandoning her children in the process.

Clarence was left to raise his three children by himself (assisted, of course, by numerous servants) and Katherine went on to have four children with Joseph Blake. She then developed cancer of the eye, which her husband removed and replaced with a glass one. During her recovery her husband left her for her nurse. Clarence’s strict Catholicism forbade him from marrying again but somehow did not prevent him from having a long-standing affair with the opera singer Anna Case. Later, Katherine’s cancer returned, this time in her liver. During her illness she and Clarence became close again, which seemed to suggest that a remarriage might well be in store, until Katherine suddenly died in 1931. Her death freed him to marry Anna Case, who became the second Mrs. Mackay.

Ellin Mackay, Clarence and Katherine’s middle child (her sister, Katherine, was older and her brother, John William, younger), grew up a pampered heiress; independent, headstrong, and not a little flirtatious. She was enjoying the good life of a New York debutante when, at 21 years of age, she attended a dinner party and met the already famous Irving Berlin. After that, nothing was to be quite the same. Irving, a widower 15 years her senior, and Ellin soon became an item and the darlings of the press.  Clarence, unaccustomed to defiance from anyone, was furious. He refused to speak of the affair. He considered Irving totally out of the question as a son-in-law, being, first of all, far older than his daughter and in the shady world of “show business,” not to mention Jewish. When talk of an imminent wedding surfaced Clarence’s only comment was “Over my dead body.” The wedding did occur, and rather than dying he disinherited the defiant Ellin.

By the time Ellin and Irving wed, Berlin had long enjoyed success as a prosperous composer and songwriter. He owned the building in Manhattan where he lived and had his business offices, and was part owner of a Broadway theatre, the Music Box. In response to Clarence’s action, he immediately went to his attorney and signed over music rights to his wife. While Irving was not as wealthy as Clarence, far from it, the Berlins were hardly uncomfortable. Ellin never went one day in her life without at least one maid. While she had inherited money of her own, probably through her grandfather’s will, it was estimated that the marriage cost her nine million dollars. This was soon to prove a paper loss only. Clarence was considered an astute businessman, managing the vast Mackay enterprises. He completed the laying of the first Pacific cable, a project started by his father before his death in 1902.

However, he later managed to make one of the most colossal financial blunders of the twentieth century. He sold his major holding, and source of income, The Postal Telegraph Company, to the newly formed conglomerate International Telephone and Telegraph Company, not for cash but for an enormous amount of stock, shortly before the market crash that led to the Great Depression. Clarence, who probably planned to live the rest of his life in retirement or at least semi-retirement, was now practically wiped out. He still had his 50-room mansion but could now no longer pay his vast army of servants and had to move into his own gatehouse. Irving Berlin, also heavily invested in the stock market, was financially hurt. He continued to work, however, and soon recouped his wealth. He also relied temporarily on his wife’s trust fund, which was conservatively invested and was practically unaffected by the market crash.

The Berlins sailed through the Great Depression mostly unscathed. In fact, the music and movies created by such composers as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter became even more popular, and profitable, during that time as people sought relief from their worries and troubles by escaping into the fantasy lives of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among others. Clarence managed to make a bit of a comeback, partially from the sale of his vast art and antiques collection. After he married Anna Case they lived together happily for a few years until his cancer returned. This time, however, even the best doctors could do nothing and Clarence died in 1938. His funeral at a packed St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a major, traffic-stopping event, with music by the New York Philharmonic, of which he had once been Chairman of the Board.

All during this time Irving Berlin’s career continued to thrive, leaving an indelible mark on American culture. Ellin also distinguished herself as a writer, publishing three novels and the biography of her grandmother, Louise Mackay, in addition to many articles and short stories, especially for The New Yorker. Their daughter Mary Ellin Barrett also became a writer, turning out several books, including Irving Berlin, A Daughter’s Memoir, both a loving and an unbiased account. During his long career Irving Berlin became the most successful and beloved songwriter of the 20th century. Like his wife’s grandfather, his generosity was unparalleled: among other things, he donated the proceeds from his second most popular song, “God Bless America,” to the Boy and Girl Scouts Fund. He was especially generous during World War II, with the profits of one of his most popular plays, This Is The Army, going to the Army Emergency Relief Fund, which assisted soldiers’ families. This show was extremely well received, playing on Broadway, touring throughout the country, playing in London and touring Britain and other Allied countries in Europe and the Pacific. This led to recognition from General Eisenhower, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Winston Churchill and even King George VI.

Clarence eventually warmed up to Irving and Ellin. Unfortunately, this change of heart was precipitated by a tragedy. The couple’s only son, Irving, Jr., born on December 1, 1928, was found dead in his crib on Christmas Day. Ellin was devastated and Irving, equally distraught, did everything he could to console her. Clarence’s hostility cooled somewhat at the news of his daughter’s loss and he visited the couple, which later resulted in a complete reconciliation. Ellin and Irving were guests at Clarence and Anna’s wedding and the subsequent reception at Harbor Hill. During the entire time of Clarence’s hostility toward him Irving never retaliated nor showed any signs of bitterness, embracing their eventual friendship happily.

There is no such thing as a perfect marriage but Irving and Ellin Berlin’s survived for 62 years, which might be a record for a “show-business couple.”  They overcame the differences in their religious and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, their marriage probably set an example for many “mixed-marriage” couples to follow in the future. Despite many challenges they remained devoted to each other until Ellin’s death in 1988. Irving died the following year, at age 101. Because they had still been estranged from Clarence at the time of Irving, Jr.’s death, their baby was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, with Ellin’s mother’s family, rather than in the Mackay Mausoleum. Ellin and Irving chose to be buried in the same grave with their son.

This article was originally published in the October / November 2013 issue of Irish America.

4 Responses to “A Jazz Age Love Story”

  1. Virginia says:

    Simply incredible! Fascinating history, with great details, of this family. The rich really are different, aren’t they? However, as a 2nd generation Belfast descendant, I also veered from Catholic roots and launched into a mixed marriage, and was disowned for awhile by my father.

  2. Good job, Mr. Burke. Yes, I’m on the trail of the Mackays myself. Thanks for teaching me how to pronounce the name.

    The Irish are really amazing. The more I investigate them the more impressed I become. Likewise the Scottish – thank God they had America to develop in – away from those pirates, the English.

    Best wishes,
    Peter Garland

  3. Neal H H says:

    Mary Ellin was born 1926.

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