- 1933 - 1994
Scope and Contents
This collection contains the written works of Ralph Berton including manuscripts, film scripts, essays, and reviews. Also included in this collection are correspondence, artwork, and ephemera.
14 Cubic Feet
Conditions Governing Access
This collection is partially open for use. Some of the materials in the unprocessed portions of the collection are fragile. Contact the Institute for details or to make a request.
Language of Materials
Biographical / Historical
Ralph Berton was born Berton Cohen December 24, 1910, in Danville, Illinois, to a family of vaudevillians. His father, Maurice, was a violinist and his mother Ida (nee Glueck) occasionally ran a boarding house for traveling vaudevillians. Berton was the youngest of three brothers. His middle brother Eugene, born in 1903, was a classical singer, concert pianist and musical theatre composer with whom Ralph collaborated on numerous musical theatre projects over the course of their lives. According to family lore it was Eugene who insisted on changing the family name to improve his show business career prospects and so young Berton Cohen was asked to give up his first name at the age of seven or so for the good of the family and then chose his own first name. While accounts of their exact age difference vary, Ralph's eldest brother Vic was considerably older than Ralph, probably somewhere between twelve to fourteen years Ralph's senior. Vic Berton was a drummer of considerable renown among jazz musicians in the early years of jazz, and, according to Berton's account in his memoir, Remembering Bix, something of a surrogate father for Ralph.
Berton usually professed to have little formal education acquired haphazardly and unsystematically through voracious private reading and insatiable curiosity about the world around him. During this period, the bohemian and politically progressive Berton family moved frequently, spending a considerable amount of time touring vaudeville theatres of the Midwestern "gas light" circuit and the precocious young Ralph could often be found backstage either with his nose buried in a book or absorbing the show business culture around him. However, conflicting accounts as to the exact extent of Berton's formal education have emerged. According to some biographies, Berton attended school in Chicago and New York City. One of his own resumes states that he attended Lane High School in Chicago, graduating in 1933 and Central Junior College in Peoria, Illinois. It remains unclear whether Berton's claims to having no formal education were a matter of personal braggadocio or his enhancements about higher education were padding on his résumé to increase his marketability. Although Berton eventually became a man of letters, a devotee of the arts, knowledgeable on many subjects and multilingual he rarely earned a meaningful living at any of these pursuits. Berton held diversified jobs throughout his life including French tutor; artist and art teacher, tennis teacher, boxer, singing waiter, bootlegger; truck driver, salesman, actor, musician, free-lance advertising copy writer, disc jockey, playwright, radio, television and film script writer, concert and jam session producer, promoter, editor, free-lance writer, teacher, and jazz critic and educator. Nevertheless, for most of his working life, his primary income derived from his work as a freelance advertising copywriter and technical writer.
According to Berton, when he was twelve years old, he had a bit part in Annie Dear, a Broadway show produced by Florence Ziegfeld. In 1924, Vic Berton became the manager of Bix Beiderbecke's first professional band, the Wolverines and as a young teenager Ralph tagged along with Vic, Bix and the Wolverines. That experience became the basis of Berton's widely praised October 1958 Harper's magazine article, "Bix and His Lost Music." Berton is perhaps best remembered for the 1974 full-length book, Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age, also based on these earlier experiences. After his sojourn with the Wolverines in the mid-1920s, Berton fell away from the jazz community for over a decade, pursuing, at various points, a career as an artist, a prizefighter, a screenwriter and a radio scriptwriter. Berton attested to ghosting the book Modern Dance and Legitimate Drumming published under his brother Vic's name in 1927.
In the late 1920s, Berton pursued a serious study of art, moving to Woodstock, New York where he became a student and lifelong friend of artist Wilhelm DeKooning. Berton's artwork was featured in one-man shows in New York and Los Angeles, and in other exhibits as well. In the early 1930s, he sojourned briefly in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Berton's most significant script in that period was the RKO production of Dangerous Corner (although the fact that he did not receive screen credits is the subject of several letters between Gene and Berton and the studio). Berton's unpublished novel Jewel City Inn drew on his experiences in Hollywood during that period.
In the late 1930s, Berton relocated to New York City where he made his living primarily as a radio scriptwriter. During this period, Berton was also active in writing scripts for the legitimate theatre, writing lyrics for popular songs and occasionally appearing on stage. In 1937, he wrote and directed the three-act comedy Cassandra Kelly produced in summer stock. In 1938, St. John Terrell produced Berton's play The Happy Marriage at the Bucks County Playhouse. In 1939, Berton and his brother Gene appeared in Two for Tonight, a revue at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City, performing their co-written musical numbers. In his capacity as a writer and playwright, Berton was a member of both the Author's Guild and the Dramatists' Guild of the Author's League.
Like many American intellectuals in the 1930s, Berton joined the Communist Party. Berton referred frequently to this association in conversations much later in his life, and it is the subject of occasional correspondence, essays and oral interviews many decades after he left the Party. In earlier years, Berton never referred directly to this affiliation. From the late 1930s and through the early years of World War II (the heyday of American Communism) many of Berton's essays and his private correspondence contain rhetorical formulations associated with American Communism, such as glib references to the class struggle, self-determination for the Black Belt and American imperialism. Sometime towards the end of World War II, nearly all such references disappear from Ralph's writing for several decades. Through the 1950s and 1960s, encompassing the rise of the modern civil rights movement, baby boomer youth culture and the protests against the Vietnam war, no political commentary of any kind is found in Berton's public writing or in his private correspondence, nor any reference to his association with the Communist Party a couple of decades earlier. Based on both written evidence and private conversation, the exact circumstances of Berton joining and leaving the Party are unclear. From the 1970s on, Berton alleged disillusionment with Stalinism or his frustration with "old-fashioned" marketing techniques as reasons for his break with the Communist Party.
Tens of thousands of Berton's contemporaries passed through the Communist Party. Most of them "broke" with the Party, not over disillusionment with Stalinism but because of the rigorous discipline and high level of activity required of Party members. Since Berton Maintained utter silence about the Communist Party, Communism or virtually any political subject for decades after his disaffiliation with the movement, the likelihood is that Berton's own experiences in this regard were quite similar to his contemporaries. He, most likely, became bored with the confines of the Communist intellectual discourse and frustrated with the marginal political accomplishments of the Party. Or perhaps, his bohemian personality was ill-suited to the discipline that the Party demanded of its hard-core members, and it seems probable that his subsequent disillusionment with Stalinism, though it became quite real, was essentially an ex post facto revelation.
As Berton put it, he re-entered the world of jazz in 1938. Alone, lonely, unemployed and virtually homeless, for some time during the latter part of the Great Depression Berton was largely too preoccupied with finding a place to lie down and enough to eat to think about jazz or anything to do with creative arts. Berton later referred to feeling that jazz was a pleasure he did not deserve until he "got his life together." One summer night in 1938, he wandered by the Savoy Ballroom and chanced to hear Teddy Hill's band. Berton wrote of the experience: "Had literally managed to forget, in the years between, the shock and overwhelming impact of certain jazz musicians, the impact of my brother Vic's drumming, the sweet soaring buoyancy of Louis Armstrong, the drowning in Bix Beiderbecke's swinging imagery. I found myself on my feet, next to the bandstand, and knew I had never heard a trumpet speak like this - the odd, insistent pushing on the beat, the completely unpredictable intervals as he found new harmonies in every bar, the enormous swinging of his piercing tone and low caressing register. It was that way when he played, and I was beside myself. I had forgotten, but his trumpet brought it all back, overwhelmingly. And when the set ended, I jumped up on the stand and stood in front of him. 'Jesus,' I said, 'who are you?' He looked me over and smiled. 'They call me Little Jazz,' he said. 'My name is Roy, Roy Eldridge.'"
This encounter was an epiphany for Berton and a turning point in his life. The next day he bought the four Eldridge discs then available, featuring: Farewell Blues, Swingin' at the Famous Door, Where the Lazy River Goes By, After You've Gone, Wabash Stomp, Florida Stomp, That Thing, and Heckler's Hop, and depended on the friendly bartenders willing to put them temporarily on their juke boxes and on friends with record players to listen to them.
This experience motivated Berton to actively promote jazz music from then on and for the rest of his life. Within a year, he became one of the first, if not the first, jazz disc jockeys in New York City. Beginning this career on WNYC, he subsequently presented jazz programs on numerous stations including WMCA, WINS, WBNK, WNCN, and KJAZ. As a guest artist, he appeared on WNEW, WBAI, WSOU, WKCR, WOR, WFMU and network shows on NBC and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Quoting from one of his many young listeners at the time: "His radio program was not the usual disk jockey show - a little patter, then spin the platter. He did more than list the musicians, where and when recorded, and that sort of thing. He did this, of course, but his program was more than the obvious love and enthusiasm for the music. It was the vignettes and stories that fleshed out the recordings, creating a sense that you were there in the midst of the music and the musicians. And there was a didactic side to the programs. Often, he would dissect a performance, pointing out what he heard and saw in a particular solo or how the ensemble was put together. Sometimes he would play cuts of the same song recorded by different musicians to show different approaches to the same material. He would disassemble the song, show you the pieces, put it back again and then play it. You learned to listen in a new way and with greater understanding. It was as if a forensic surgeon dissected a body and then was able to reassemble the parts into a live, vibrant person. The surgeon can't do it, but Ralph Berton could with his music."
During this period Berton also began to write and lecture about jazz and he continued to proselytize for jazz in various ways for the rest of his life, even incorporating his views on the subject into his fiction writing in later years. He wrote extensively about Bix Beiderbecke, beginning with his radio play about Beiderbecke, produced on WNYC in 1940. Beginning in the early 1940s, in conjunction with his jazz radio program, Berton taught what might have been the first courses ever in jazz appreciation at the Metropolitan Music School in New York. In 1941, Modern Age Publishers contracted Berton to write an introductory book on jazz, variously titled Listening to Jazz, Understanding Jazz, or 1023 Jazz Records. This book apparently remained unpublished - however, pages of galley proofs from the manuscript are available in the Collection. His ruminations on his WNYC jazz disc jockey show and his lecture notes from the early jazz appreciation course he taught formed the book's basis. Many of the ideas first expressed in that manuscript reappeared, developed and expanded, in Berton's later writing. In conjunction with his early radio program, between 1941 and 1943, Berton published and edited a mimeograph periodical, Jazz Information, distributed largely to members of his listening audience.
In addition to writing and lecturing about jazz, Berton used his position as a jazz disc jockey on WNYC to broaden his activity in the world of jazz in yet another way - as a concert and jam session promoter and producer. Between 1939 and 1942, Berton organized the jazz section of Wynn's annual American Music Festival. Several audio examples are extant of the live jazz performances and jam sessions that aired on his WNYC program.
From the end of World War II through the 1960s, Berton's critical writing, with few exceptions, was cultural, not political. For example, he did comment on matters such as the rise of "beat" and later "hippy" culture and the conflict, in the late 1950s, between folk music and jazz devotees. Berton's public essays, fiction, and his private correspondence contain little political commentary despite the arrival of avant guard jazz influenced particularly by a rising black nationalism in the 1960s. During this time Berton worked as a staff writer for the 1958 Wagner for Mayor campaign putting more emphasis on his skills as a copywriter and ad man than on his affinity with the incumbent mayor's various political positions.
Meanwhile, during and immediately after World War II, Berton turned to producing, directing, and writing military and industrial instructional and advertising films to earn a living. He was eventually responsible for over thirty-five productions in that genre ranging in subject matter from medical and social issues to life insurance.
With his jazz-related activities in the post-war years, Berton continued to try to make money writing radio scripts and also began writing for the then-emerging television market. However, his income as a jazz critic, promoter and disc jockey, or even as a dramatic writer for radio or television was marginal at best, and for the rest of his life, his work as a free-lance advertising copy writer, technical writer and screen writer for industrial films formed the bulk of his income.
In the post-war period during the late 1940s and 1950s, Berton became involved in the Reichian psychological movement and, for a time, was a patient of Wilhelm Reich himself. However, aside from the soft-core porn script If You Really Loved Me, set in a Reichian summer camp, evidence of Berton's involvement in the Reichian movement is scant in the Collection itself.
Berton was a contributor to Here Me Talkin' to Ya, the oral history of jazz compiled by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, in 1955. As a critic, book, record, concert, film and theatre reviewer, essayist and short story writer in this period Berton contributed to American periodicals: Harper's, Cosmopolitan, Town and Country, High Fidelity, Metronome, Down Beat, FM, American Jazz, Jazz, The Jazz Record, Jazz Review, Jazz Quarterly, Jazz Times, Overlook, Record Changer, Swing, World, Village Voice, Akron Beacon-Journal, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Goldmine and Music Box. His contributions to international publications include Bulletin du Jazz-Hot (Paris), Melody Maker (London), and Jazz Journal (London). In 1965, Berton became music editor of Status magazine and in 1965-1966 Berton functioned as the executive editor of Sounds & Fury magazine.
In 1961, Berton published "Conversations on a Bridge" in Metronome. This short story fictionalized Sonny Rollins's wood shedding period when he had disappeared from public view. Berton carefully attempted to hide Rollins's identity, changing his name and the location from the Williamsburg Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge, although in retrospect these changes seem a thinly disguised effort and jazz initiates must have caught on immediately. Nevertheless, this piece was the first to reveal the lost Rollins's whereabouts and activities to the jazz public; it is considered one of Berton's most significant pieces on jazz.
In 1962 or 1963, Berton staged and wrote the libretto for La Bohéme in Greenwich Village, an update of Puccini's opera which ran for twelve showcase performances at the Jan Hus Theatre, and which prefigured similar efforts such as Rent by four decades. Berton's brother Gene adapted Puccini's score and served as musical director for the production. The exact dating of these events is unclear as data from the Collection and family recollections differ. In 1963, Berton wrote and directed an industrial film starring Buster Keaton, The Triumph of Lester Snapwell, which received the Film Guild Institute award for the year's best short comedy. Produced for the Kodak Corporation, this film introduced the Instamatic camera. In that same period, Berton wrote the libretto for the opera Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania. Berton's brother Gene wrote the music for an earlier production of the opera and Ralph was brought in as a "script doctor" for a new production, eventually making such extensive revisions that he became the show's primary author. The opera showcased in California and Teddy Gaston Getty still holds an option for re-production.
In the late 1960s, Berton concentrated on his activities as a jazz educator, teaching courses in sociology and jazz appreciation at Bloomfield College and Middlesex Community College. Because of his resumed teaching career, Berton wrote one of his most significant essays, "Berton's Brabble", published in the 1971 Downbeat annual. Berton continued to use his life experiences, this time as a jazz educator, for source material and the article contains remarkable insights on problems of pedagogy.
In the early 1970s, Berton wrote and published two pornographic novels, The Cruise and Full Circle, under the pseudonyms Richard Stander and Richard Bennett. He concentrated most of his early 1970s writing on his most widely known opus, Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age, published in 1974.
In the late 1970s, Berton completed the novel, The Ad, a fictionalized treatment of the real-life experiences of one of his former partners in placing a personal ad in the Village Voice. Despite efforts to market this piece, it remains unpublished. Editors at that time judged the novel as "unrealistic" and "dated," despite its basis in fact. Far from being dated, it may well have been ahead of its time, anticipating television series such as Sex in the City by decades. In the early 1980s, Berton put a considerable amount of work in on a musical comedy variously titled The Big Score or The Brooklyn Bridge. Berton both scripted the play and wrote the song lyrics. Ultimately not produced, a rudimentary budget developed with choices for a director, choreographer (Fred Kelly, Gene's brother), set designer and actors for principal roles.
During the 1980s, Berton's public political writing increased considerably, and he published several op-ed pieces, including several spirited and well-argued defenses of the Second Amendment. At the time of his death on November 17, 1993, Berton was working on a collection of memoirs of his encounters with notable jazz musicians, titled All Those Great Cats. Berton actively, though not successfully, sought a publisher for his memoirs until his death.
Besides Berton's life-long obsession with jazz, his writing for the theatre, his fictional writing and his technical writing, one of his great passions was chess, often with such luminaries as Grand Master Larry Evans and Dizzy Gillespie. Berton was a militant atheist and occasionally wrote on the subject. Berton described himself as being "married" ten times, though he used the term loosely for all his live-in lovers; three of these unions were legally sanctioned. His "wives," in chronological order were: Shirley Maxwell, Ann Aston Reynolds, Sylvia Kingsley, Joan March Eleanor Pekarski, Mary-Claire Parrish (legal), Natalie Bowen, Phyllis Hochhauser (legal), Audrey Marcus and Kate René (legal). Berton died at the age of 82 after living for many years with congestive heart failure. He is survived by his widow Kate René Berton, and three children, Barbara, daughter of Eleanor, and John and Thomas, sons of Phyllis. Berton spent the last twenty years of his life living in North Bergen, New Jersey.
The Ralph Berton collection is divided into sixteen series and arranged chronologically as feasible in each section: 1. Correspondence 2. Reviews by Berton 3. Musical essays by Berton 4. Short works by Berton 5. Film scripts 6. Musical theater scripts 7. Radio scripts 8. Television, legitimate theater scripts and jokes 9. Books, novels, and longer works 10. Sheet and transcribed music 11. Oversized documents 12. Photographs 13. Scrapbooks 14. Audio 15. Art 16. Musical scores
- Finding aid written in 2005 by Gabe Gabrielsky and Annie Kuebler. Finding aid encoded in EAD, version 2002 by Robert Nahory, Tad Hershorn and Caryn Radick. Finding aid revised in 2022 by Diane Biunno and Elizabeth Surles.
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