Legend has it Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” at the Arizona Biltmore’s Catalina pool.

Berlin's Biltmore Daydream

Written by Jessie Martin Category: History Issue: December 2016
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As the days get shorter and the nights are lit up by twinkle-light-adorned palm trees, we Phoenicians start to pine wistfully for the white Christmas that almost never comes. It’s a beautiful, impossible dream – possibly the same dream songwriter Irving Berlin was having when he wrote his renowned holiday classic “White Christmas.” Legend has it Berlin wrote the song while sitting poolside at the “Jewel of the Desert,” the Arizona Biltmore resort’s famed Catalina pool, during a Valley visit in 1942.

The pool, built in 1930 by Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., was a hotspot for vacationing celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. According to a January 1939 Arizona Republic article, it was also where Berlin found inspiration for many of his songs, which he claimed was due to the vitality of the Arizona sunshine.

Unlike the rest of the Biltmore, which has a strong Frank Lloyd Wright influence (he was the consulting architect), the pool was inspired by and fashioned after Wrigley’s resort on Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. Wrigley was so enamored of his California escape that he imported all of the tiles for the Biltmore pool from Catalina, which is how it received its name.

Since then, the pool has become the sunshine-soaked getaway for everyone from celebrities to politicos to staycationers.

The 1939 Republic article tells of Berlin’s visit to the Biltmore to compose music for the Sonja Henie film Second Fiddle:
“The famous composer, clad in swimming shorts, leaned back in a lounge chair beside the Arizona Biltmore Hotel pool, dark glasses shading eyes which had been busy till dawn. ‘It’s great here,’ he said. ‘My only wonder is that it isn’t even more popular than it is.’”

Berlin wrote six of the 1,500 songs published under his name during the weeklong  Biltmore visit, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and the score to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Carefree. But among all his pieces (allegedly) written in Phoenix, “White Christmas” is the most beloved and enduringly popular, even among saguaro-surrounded Phoenicians. Because while our desert Christmas may not be white, it can certainly be merry and bright.

– Jessie Martin