Size: 4.9 MB
Who composed "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Don't Fence Me In," "Night and Day," "Begin the Beguine," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "White Christmas" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra"?
According to Ira B. Arnstein, he did, and for more than three decades he persistently sued the likes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, their publishers and their rights organizations for plagiarizing his own ditties. In truth, Arnstein contributed less to the Great American Songbook than he did to "copyright law and lore," as Gary A. Rosen explains in his entertaining and instructive book, "Unfair to Genius: The Strange and Litigious Career of Ira B. Arnstein."
Arnstein, Mr. Rosen writes, was "a crank, a noodnik, and a loser." He was briefly committed to a mental hospital and certified a lunatic. Even Arnstein himself once confessed in court: "Reading my testimony, anyone would get an idea that the person testifying is of a disordered mind." Though he never won a case, Mr. Rosen argues that Arnstein's quixotic claims "engaged some of the finest legal minds of his era, forcing them to refine and sharpen their doctrines."
Those minds included noted jurists Jerome Frank and Billings Learned Hand. Frank went so far as to invoke Jonathan Swift and Friedrich Nietzsche in warning against creating a bad precedent "merely because we may think Arnstein is nutty." One of Arnstein's suits was squelched by an opposing legal team that included William "Wild Bill" Donovan, who would go on to lead the Office of Strategic Services and godfather the CIA.
Having emigrated from a Ukrainian shtetl, Arnstein sang as a boy soprano in a Russian peasant choir at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. After Arnstein's voice changed, he studied violin and composition in New York and toured the U.S. as a pianist supporting opera diva Nellie Melba. He began to make a respectable living as a composer and voice and piano teacher in Harlem and augmented his income by dabbling in popular music, publishing a few pop songs and playing piano accompaniment to silent films. His greatest ambition was to compose an opera based on the life of David. After the Metropolitan Opera rejected it as "amateurish," Arnstein slipped gradually but ineluctably into penury and a dementia that Mr. Rosen diagnoses as "morbid querulousness," a behavior disorder characterized by a self-destructive and disruptive pursuit of personal vindication in the courts.