In 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 of dinner rolls into compact balls, smoking too many cigarettes, chewing too much gum, jumping when the telephone rang, fiddling with his piano.
Yet out came hit after hit after hit; between his 20s and his 60s, he wrote about 1,500 songs.
Mrs. Barrett came to see her father’s drive as the product of anxiety and toughness that lingered from a ghetto childhood. He was “the street fighter,” she wrote, “not noisy and brawling but quiet, dogged,” never shaking the sense that he acted “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 different universe. Her girlhood memories included dinner parties with the Astaires, the Goldwyns, the Capras and Somerset Maugham, who once laid on the floor, balanced a glass of water on his forehead and stood up without spilling a drop.
Although she sometimes had to chase her father for attention and felt alienated by the fame of her parents — her mother, Ellin Mackay, was an heiress and a popular novelist — Mary Ellin felt less resentment than enchantment with her good fortune. 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.