It was like a double-date between the entertainment and political world and while it resulted in helping a Republican, it had all been prompted by a Democrat.
There’s No Business Like Show Business, Easter Parade, White Christmas: these are just three of the many popular Americana songs of the 20th century penned by Irving Berlin. Besides these, however, he was closely associated with numerous patriotic songs, composed just before and throughout World War II.
His legendary God Bless America, first sung by Kate Smith, was introduced in 1938, on a day sacred to many World War I veterans, the November 11 federal holiday once called Armistice Day, now known as Veterans’ Day. He wrote nine musical theater scores and eighteen for movies, and a total of nearly one thousand songs.
Born in 1888 to Russian Jewish parents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, settling in New York. Among his earliest jobs was working as a singing waiter. He began writing songs, his first being, Marie From Sunny Italy. Enlisting in the Army during World War I, his first musical, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, was staged at Camp Upton and included one of his biggest hits, Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning. The show ended up raising over $150,000 for a servicemen’s center at the camp.
In World War II, he wrote the musical This is the Army, which raised $10 million for the Army Emergency Relief. When he brought it to London in February of 1944, the then- Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower attended and came backstage to personally thank Berlin, who later wrote him, “You must know how much it meant to them to have you tell them that they were doing a good job and above all, that they were good soldiers.”
The note especially touched the gruff General – already known by the troops of the Allied Forces by his long-time nickname of “Ike.”
Four years later, on October 20, 1950, Berlin’s most recently-completed musical comedy hit Broadway, opening at the Imperial Theater.
Titled Call Me Madam, it was a light-hearted send-up about one of Harry and Bess Truman’s friends, the Washington hostess and Democratic Party fundraiser Perle Mesta, who was appointed Ambassador to Luxembourg by President Truman.
It was written specifically for the bellowing Ethel Merman, famous for belting out songs with gusto. She and Berlin had worked together on their previous Broadway hit, Annie Get Your Gun.
And, in the play, Berlin made no secret of the next man he hoped would be President – even though, as a military officer, Eisenhower had no political affiliation. In Act II of the show, he put in a catchy song called They Like Ike. It touched on the fact that there seemed to be no strong Republican presidential candidate on the horizon who could break the Democratic hold on the presidency since 1933 – except Eisenhower, potentially, the popular World War II hero.
Regretting that she didn’t get to sing They Like Ike in the show, its star Ethel Merman, born in Astoria, Queens, New York, in 1908, was one of those who not only liked Ike but worshipped him as a military leader and also saw political potential in him – despite her history of non-partisanship.”In politics, I’m non-commital,” she declared to the New York Times, “but Eisenhower is my war hero.”
The New York Times declared Call Me Madam one of Berlin’s “most enchanting scores: fresh, light, and beguiling, and fitted to lyrics that fall out of it with grace and humor.” Ethel Merman, said the New York Post was “a comedienne of rare skill…one of the joys of the world.”
But in perhaps the first-ever political review of a theatrical production, headlined, “Irving Berlin, Eisenhower Booster,” the astute columnist Inez Robb noted shortly after the show opened that, “I think the man who has done the most to place the general in nomination will eventually be listed as Irving Berlin. In his new musical comedy, Call Me Madam, he has written a rollicking tune They Like Ike which may alone and unaided sweep the general into the White House by acclamation. This song is one of the greatest political windfalls ever to fall like man upon a presidential possibility.” Here is the song, with footage of Eisenhower, from draft to convention to campaigning to victory:
It almost seemed an inevitability. Berlin reworked the lyrics of his original They Like Ike into I Like Ike, as part of a draft movement to encourage the General’s candidacy.
Even before Eisenhower officially declared himself a candidate and sewed up the nomination, the slogan “I Like Ike” swept the country, especially since the General did not announce what political party he would join.
“I might be a conservative Democrat,” he quipped cagily, “or a liberal Republican.” He finally settled on the Republican Party – infuriating incumbent President Truman, a Democrat, who had four years earlier even offered to drop his election campaign if Ike had decided to run as a member of that party.
With Eisenhower at least now aligned with a party, the “Citizens for Eisenhower” movement gained momentum. On February 8, 1952, Berlin and Ethel Merman headlined a massive Ike for President rally in Madison Square Garden, while the Eisenhowers were in France.
Merman even danced with band leader Fred Waring in a prize-fighting ring on stage.
Some fifteen thousand supporters of the growing movement were in attendance, and driving out of Madison Square Garden at the end of the rally were trucks of “Ike Girls,” to recruit for the cause.
Soon, the catchy song soon sparked a tidal wave of consumer products.
Everywhere, on everything, it seems, “I Like Ike” was plastered – rubber tires, women’s hosiery and jewelry, ties, hat-bands, even cigarette packs.
The new campaign song caught on, and also led to another, albeit less tuneful song, Ike For President, used in a commercial showing the voting public as cartoons, swept up in the craze.
The animated commercial was done by the Disney Studios.
But there was another, if less well-circulated slogan, aimed especially at the large numbers of women voters whom the Republicans geared the issues towards, in hopes in snaring their political support: “We Want Mamie.”
And that’s where Ethel Merman came in.
There was no better way to sell a new public persona than to make reference to one already established.
One didn’t have to look far beyond their beaming grins, husky voices, saucy humor, vigorous full-armed waves and love of all things pink to note the resemblance between Merman and “Mamie,” as the public was encouraged to call Mrs. Eisenhower, as if she were simply a neighbor one borrowed eggs from over the backyard fence.
“I never go for the real stuff, just the paste. J’ai Si Penne [J.C. Penny] is mighty fine by me,” Mamie declared when asked about her costume jewelry, “And if you’re watching the purse, it’s a fine howdy do! Why I can squeeze a quarter so tight, you can hear the eagle scream!”
Or, as Ethel Merman explained of her clanging collection of tin and plastic bracelets, earrings and necklaces, “At a flea market I always head for the junk jewelry table first.”
At numerous afternoon campaign events, if held in New York or nearby, Ethel Merman could always be counted on to lend her popularity to Mamie’s, dashing from the theater, between matinee and evening shows, to make appearances with her new friend at fundraisers and rallies.
Speculating on what type of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower would prove to be, Life magazine declared that Mrs. Ike had “a touch of Ethel Merman on the side.”
Merman was invited by Mamie to perform at the 1953 Eisenhower Inaugural Gala, joining other stars of the era, including Abbott and Costello, Edgar Bergen, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Helen Hayes, Ed Sullivan and Guy Lombardo. She again performed at the 1957 Inaugural Gala.
By the time 20th Century Fox film had made its feature film adaptation of the show, again bringing together Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman, their friends in the White House did not forget them.
Both the President and Mrs. Eisenhower, as well as Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman were publicly supportive of combating racial and religious bigotry in American life, an especially vital issue linked to patriotism after having defeated Hitler’s Third Reich.
Ethel Merman joined with other Republican Actresses, such as Lucille Ball, Helen Hayes and Thelma Ritter, among others, in performing at a 1953 Anti-Defamation League dinner honoring the Eisenhowers. Nationally televised on closed-circuit TV, the President used the event to criticize the anti-Communist tactics then being employed by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
A year later, at Ike’s request, Irving Berlin performed at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, on March 6, 1954.
Also that year, while the Congress authorized the creation of a special gold medal to honor Irving Berlin for his contribution to national culture, through his many popular, patriotic songs, it was the President who insisted on presenting it to him. On July 26, 1954, he invited Berlin and his wife into the Oval Office to first present to them some of the pens he used to sign the bill authorizing the medal and then, on February 18, 1955, gave his friend the congressional medal.
When Eisenhower ran for his second term in 1956, Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman again got to work for Ike and Mamie. Berlin wrote two new campaign songs, I Still Like Ike, and Ike For Four More Years.
Merman flew to the Republican National Convention which re-nominated Ike, in San Francisco, and performed the songs from the podium, setting the delegates into a double-frenzy.
Just months after the second Eisenhower Inaugural, Ethel Merman was back in Washington, providing entertainment for a belated birthday luncheon held in honor of her friend, the First Lady (see lead photo).
Until his death at age 101, in 1989, Irving Berlin remained dedicated to Eisenhower, even taking an interest, at age 97, in a statue being built of his hero.
Although he would go on to write one more theatrical musical comedy, Mr. President, and come to Washington to join the President and Mrs. Kennedy for its premier night at the National Theater, Ike was always his man.
So meaningful to Dwight Eisenhower was his friendship with Irving Berlin that, as the former President lay dying in Walter Reed Hospital, he wrote the last letter of his life to the composer, on March 24, 1969. It was simply a good-bye, a thank-you note “for the wonderful melodies you have created over the years…No music has meant so much to me as yours.” he died four days later.
Ethel Merman continued to hold up her end of the Eisenhower love. She came to Washington to perform in honor of Mamie Eisenhower’s 75th birthday dinner gala which raised funds for Eisenhower College in Schenectady, New York.
Merman joined several other actors who were strong Eisenhower supporters in lending their names in support of his Vice-President Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential election, including fellow Eisenhower friend Rosalind Russell and FDR-Truman supporter Cesar Romero. Still, when asked by the man who defeated Nixon, President-elect John F. Kennedy, she accepted his invitation to perform at his 1961 Inaugural Gala. She did so also for Reagan’s 1981 Inaugural Gala – making her the only performer to appear at the event for three different Presidents.
Before her 1984 death, however, Ethel Merman admitted that Ike was “the President I admire and respect most.”
- The Munching President (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Ethel Merman’s campaign promises (macleans.ca)
- Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisenhower #3: How to Make an Important Decision (artofmanliness.com)
- Keeping Ike’s – and Obama’s – Foreign Policy in Perspective (theamericanconservative.com)
- Ken Salazar To Broker Eisenhower Memorial Deal (huffingtonpost.com)