Irving Berlin, Isaiah Berlin: Churchill’s Mistaken Identity

Irving Berlin, Isaiah Berlin: Churchill’s Mistaken Identity

Isaiah turned out to be Irving Berlin

My old friend and col­league, John Plump­ton in Ontario, writes: “Have you writ­ten about Churchill’s con­fu­sion over the Berlins when Irv­ing Berlin was invit­ed for din­ner? I am look­ing for an authen­tic ver­sion of the event. Trust you are well and thanks if you can help.”

As it hap­pens the first source I turned up was John him­self, writ­ing in “Action This Day,” his “years-ago” col­umn in Finest Hour, which con­tin­ues to this day under the capa­ble edi­tor­ship of Michael McMe­namin. Here is what I sent John (start­ing with his own account) about Churchill’s amus­ing confusion.

John Plumpton, 1994

Irving Berlin“Churchill had enquired who wrote the polit­i­cal sum­maries which arrived from the British Embassy in Wash­ing­ton. He was informed that it was Isa­iah Berlin, Fel­low of All Souls and Tutor of New Col­lege. (He sub­se­quent­ly wrote Mr. Churchill in 1940: A Por­trait of a Great Man at a Great Moment).

“When the famous song writer Irv­ing Berlin arrived to enter­tain the troops, the Prime Min­is­ter con­fused him with Isa­iah and invit­ed him to lunch. Churchill con­versed with Irv­ing as if he had been the aca­d­e­m­ic, ask­ing such ques­tions as ‘When do you think the war will end?’ (See Colville quote below.) Churchill was not so pleased, par­tic­u­lar­ly when Berlin told him that his most impor­tant piece of work was White Christ­mas.

The Prime Min­is­ter was quite amused lat­er when he learned of the mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty. On meet­ing the true Isa­iah Berlin, Churchill said: ‘I fear that you have learned of the grave solip­sism I was so unfor­tu­nate to have per­pe­trat­ed.'” —FinestHour 82, First Quar­ter 1994

Rafal Heydel-Mankoo, 1997

LONDON, NOVEMBER 5TH— “Sir Isa­iah Berlin  OM CBE FBA, the renowned philoso­pher and his­to­ri­an, has died at 88. Born in Latvia, Isa­iah moved to Britain with his fam­i­ly in 1919. A lec­tur­er, pro­fes­sor and col­lege pres­i­dent at Oxford, he is cred­it­ed with estab­lish­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry and polit­i­cal the­o­ry. It is no hack­neyed trope of speech to say that he was one of the great­est thinkers of our time. A notable admir­er of Churchill, Berlin wrote Mr. Churchill in 1940, regard­ed by some as the finest essay on Sir Winston.
Berlin’s admi­ra­tion was repaid by WSC. In The Fringes of Pow­er, Sir John Colville recounts an amus­ing inci­dent in 1944. A great light has been extin­guished in the world of acad­e­mia. We are all the poor­er for it. —Inter­na­tion­al Date­lines, Finest Hour 96, Autumn 1997

John Colville, 1944:

Wednes­day, 9 Feb­ru­ary— Lunched at No. 10 with the P.M. and Mrs. Churchill. The oth­er guests were the Duchess of Buc­cleuch, Sir Alan and Lady Brooke, James Stu­art, moth­er, Mr. Irv­ing Berlin (the Amer­i­can song­writer and pro­duc­er), and Juli­et Hen­ley. After lunch the P.M. fore­stalled Irv­ing Berlin ask­ing lead­ing ques­tions by him­self address­ing them to his poten­tial inter­locu­tor (e.g., “When do you think the war will end, Mr. Berlin?”). This I thought was inge­nious technique.

Irving Berlin
Eras­mus Prize, Ams­ter­dam, 27 Octo­ber 1983. Isa­iah Berlin, right, with Prince Bern­hard, Mar­guérite Yource­nar and Leszek Kolakovs­ki. (Pho­to by Rob C. Croes, Cre­ative Commons)

Berlin said he thought Roo­sevelt would get in at the com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and in this his name should help him because in all repub­li­can sys­tems human nature tri­umphed over con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ci­ple and the hered­i­tary sys­tem came into its own. This also applied to our own Labour Par­ty in which the wife or son of a well known MP was always in demand as a par­lia­men­tary candidate.

It lat­er tran­spired that the rea­son why Mr. Irv­ing Berlin had been bid­den to lunch was a com­ic mis­un­der­stand­ing. There are spright­ly, if some­what over-vivid, polit­i­cal sum­maries telegraphed home every week from the Wash­ing­ton Embassy. The PM, inquir­ing who wrote them, had been told by me, “Mr. I. Berlin, Fel­low of All Souls and Tutor of New Col­lege.” When Irv­ing Berlin came over here to enter­tain the troops with his songs, the PM con­fused him with Isa­iah and invit­ed him to lunch—and con­versed with him, to his embar­rass­ment, as if he had been Isa­iah. —Colville Diary

Jack Fishman, 1963

To be a Churchill lun­cheon or din­ner guest is, very under­stand­ably, a much cov­et­ed hon­our. One famous Amer­i­can who can claim to have achieved this dis­tinc­tion is Mr. Irv­ing Berlin. How he did it is a sto­ry wor­thy of one of his own musi­cal comedies.

It hap­pened that in the British Embassy in Wash­ing­ton worked a Mr. I. Berlin, whose reg­u­lar appraisals of the Amer­i­can scene, sent on to the For­eign Office and sub­se­quent­ly passed to the Prime Min­is­ter, were much admired by Win­ston. He con­ceived the great­est respect for Mr. Berlin’s wit and polit­i­cal shrewdness.

One morn­ing, in the course of his rou­tine read­ing of all the news­pa­pers, he noticed that a Mr. Irv­ing Berlin had arrived in Britain from the Unit­ed States. Hav­ing instruct­ed a sec­re­tary to make the nec­es­sary con­tact, he informed Clemen­tine: “We shall be hav­ing a Mr. Berlin to lunch today.” He was too occu­pied with weight­i­er mat­ters to explain why.

Irv­ing Berlin arrived, to be greet­ed by Clemen­tine, and even more warm­ly by Win­ston. “You have writ­ten some won­der­ful things,” said the Prime Min­is­ter. “As you know, I have admired them great­ly. Now what, of all that you wrote, do you con­sid­er was the best?”

“Well, Mr. Prime Min­is­ter,” said Irv­ing Berlin, “I hard­ly know, but I guess I would say My Heart Stood Still.”

Win­ston laughed appre­cia­tive­ly at this appar­ent piece of wit.

“What’s going to hap­pen in the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion?” he inquired.

“Well, sir,” said Irv­ing, “a lot of peo­ple think that Roo­sevelt will lose.”

“Do they?” said Winston.

“But on the oth­er hand,” Irv­ing con­tin­ued, “a lot of peo­ple think Roo­sevelt will win.”

* * *

Win­ston stared at his guest long and hard. Then, sud­den­ly excus­ing him­self, he left the room. “Will you tell me,” he asked a sec­re­tary, “whom I am lunch­ing with?”

“Yes, sir. Irv­ing Berlin, the famous Amer­i­can songwriter.”

Clemen­tine looked at Win­ston as he re-entered the room, try­ing to fath­om his table con­ver­sa­tion and his gen­er­al behav­iour. There was no more talk of pol­i­tics when Win­ston resumed his seat at the head of the table. He con­versed gra­cious­ly about noth­ing in particular.

He insist­ed on join­ing Clemen­tine in see­ing their guest to the door when it was time for him to leave, and expressed the hope that he would come again.

Not until the door closed did he explain the com­e­dy of errors to his puz­zled wife. —My Dar­ling Clemen­tine, 88-89.


There is con­fu­sion about which song Irv­ing Berlin told Churchill was his great­est work. Since Fish­man is the least reli­able source among these four and White Christ­mas such a clas­sic, I buy John Plumpton’s version.

Related content

“Songs Churchill Would Love: Willie McBride” by Eric Bogle, 2017.

“Churchill Anec­dotes: Lil­li Mar­lene,” by Hans Liep, 2023.

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