Fact or Fiction: Was 'White Christmas' written at the Biltmore?

- It’s one of those stories people from Arizona like bragging about: “Did you know the song ‘White Christmas’ was written at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel?”

That’s right.

Although many of us don’t get to see the snow or pelt each other with it, we at least get the influential piece of Christmas history that was born right here in the middle of the desert.

Or so we thought.

“The story begins in 1939,” Arizona's Official State Historian Marshall Trimble told me, “with Berlin staying at the Biltmore Hotel composing words and music for three movies: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Carefree and Second Fiddle.”

“Berlin” would be Irving Berlin, considered by many to be one of the greatest songwriters in American history. And it’s true. He wrote those classic movies Trimble mentioned at the still fabulously swanky Biltmore Hotel near 24th Street and Camelback.

Many of us Phoenicians believe his writing didn't stop there.

The Biltmore Hotel's General Manager Sheila Foley told me, "The Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, has a storied history playing host to a myriad of Hollywood's glitterati, including Marilyn Monroe and Irving Berlin, the latter of whom is rumored to have written the iconic 'White Christmas' holiday ballad while visiting the Jewel of the Desert."

As that rumor goes, Berlin was sitting by the hotel's sunny Catalina pool in the middle of December, dreaming about home in New York, when he began writing:

“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas Just like the ones I used to know.”

The song was, and still is, a huge success. Guinness World Records says Bing Crosby’s version is the best-selling single of all time. Elvis, Willie Nelson, New Kids on the Block, even Bob Marley have recorded their own renditions.

“When I first heard the story [about how the song was written],” Trimble said, “I accepted it as fact.”

But...

“Like many of Arizona's myths and legends, this one takes us down the path of plausibility, and we have to figure out where to get off.”

I’m sorry Arizona, it looks like we’ve reached our stop.

Before I turn into the Grinch who stole White Christmas, I have to tell you that I believed this story too! In fact, that’s what this whole piece was supposed to be about! I grew up hearing it and telling it, but after some research, I must report the truth. 

I’ll let Trimble break the news:

“One of Berlin’s biographers, Laurence Bergreen, claims he finished it in New York City while another, Edward Jablonski, says it was California. The latter seems most likely.”

There’s more:

“The prolific songwriter himself gave several versions of how he came to pen the Christmas classic, but none mentioned the Biltmore.”

This last one hurts:

“Author Jody Rosen in her, ‘White Christmas: The Story of an American Song’, analyzed the lyrics, including the first sixteen measures, and concluded it was probably written two years earlier during a Christmas stay in Beverly Hills.”

Have you seen the song’s prelude? It's often left out, but...

“The sun is shining, the grass is green,
the orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty fourth,
and I am longing to be up north.
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
just like the ones I used to know.”

Oh, Arizona. I’m so sorry to have done this to you right before the big day. How did this happen to us? How did we get so deep into believing something that most likely wasn’t true?

Trimble told me, “Since most Arizonans were born and raised elsewhere (today only 32% are native born), it’s quite common for those transplants to dream nostalgically of the snowy Christmases of their youth.”

So, it seemed legit and we just wanted to believe it. Even Trimble, the state historian, had to be nudged into doing the fact-checking that would eventually change his mind.

By the way, The Biltmore does admit that there is no concrete evidence proving where the song originated. But hey, many people thought it was written in Phoenix because of our fabulous weather and fancy hotels.

So even without a "White Christmas," we're still pretty cool. 
 


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