Within the East River, near Mary Ellin’s penthouse home, her father had once, at 8 years old, nearly drowned; when rescued, he was found still clutching the pennies he had earned that day selling newspapers.
He often seemed a “shaky, uncertain man,” Ms. Barrett wrote — drumming his fingers, molding the inside dinner rolls into compact balls, smoking too many cigarettes, chewing an excessive amount of gum, jumping when the phone rang, twiddling with his piano.
Yet out got here hit after hit after hit; between his 20s and his 60s, he wrote about 1,500 songs.
Ms. Barrett got here to see her father’s drive because the product of tension and toughness that lingered from a ghetto childhood. He was “the road fighter,” she wrote, “not noisy and brawling but quiet, dogged,” never shaking the sense that he acted “along with his back against the wall, writing, composing, negotiating his way out of a corner.”
Mary Ellin Berlin, who was born on Nov. 25, 1926, in Manhattan, grew up in a special universe. Her girlhood memories included dinner parties with the Astaires, the Goldwyns, the Capras and Somerset Maugham, who once lay on the ground, balanced a glass of water on his brow and stood up without spilling a drop.
Though she sometimes needed to chase her father for attention and felt alienated by the celebrity of her parents — her mother, Ellin Mackay, was an heiress and a well-liked novelist — Mary Ellin felt less resentment than enchantment along with her success. When she relentlessly invited people to the family’s theater house seats for her father’s 1946 Broadway megahit, “Annie Get Your Gun,” one annoyed friend told her to knock it off.