Lyricist and composer Irving Caesar was born Isidore Caesar to Morris and Sofia Selinger Caesar on July 4, 1895, in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Although his family was not wealthy, his parents and teachers at Music School Settlement, now known as Third Street Music School Settlement, fostered his early interest in and talents for music and writing. His father, a trained lawyer and Socialist author, ran a second-hand bookstore, which inspired 6-year-old Isidore to compose his first poem. This and later works caught the attention of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the well-known poet. Caesar also studied at the Chappaqua Mountain Institute, a Quaker boarding school, and graduated from Townsend Harris High School in New York. He attended the City College of New York for a year before going to work in 1915 for the Ford Motor Company. Caesar answered a newspaper advertisement and joined Henry Ford's Peace Ship as a secretary (the Peace Ship sailed to neutral countries in Western Europe, raising awareness of pacifist movements and seeking a mediated resolution to World War I).
Caesar was still working for Ford when his songs first found acceptance on Broadway, beginning with the 1918 edition of Raymond Hitchcock's Hitchy-Koo!. These early successes drew Caesar to New York's Tin Pan Alley scene where he met George Gershwin, a demonstration pianist for Jerome H. Remick and Company. The two became close friends and collaborators; their most successful song was "Swanee," which they wrote in 1919. The pair wrote the lyrics on the bus ride to Gershwin's home after dining at Dinty Moore's restaurant and, after fifteen minutes at the piano, the song was completed. "Swanee" featured prominently in Ned Wayburn's Demi-Tasse Revue and would go on to become one of Al Jolson's greatest hits after the singer performed it in Sigmund Romberg's Sinbad.
Chief among Caesar's other songwriting partnerships was his work with composer Vincent Youmans. That collaboration started when Youmans and lyricist Otto Harbach needed a couple of new songs for the struggling show No, No, Nanette. The two lyrics contributed by Caesar—"Tea for Two" and "I Want to Be Happy"—are considered largely responsible for the show's success. During its London run, the Prince of Wales insisted that both songs be repeated any time he saw the show. No, No, Nanette opened on Broadway in 1925 and became one of the most popular musical comedies of its era.
Not all of Caesar's work graced the stages of London and Broadway. In 1935, with Ray Henderson and Ted Koehler, Caesar created the immortal hit "Animal Crackers In My Soup" for Shirley Temple in Curly Top. Caesar would go on to write many more songs not included in shows, such as "Just A Gigolo," "If I Forget You," and "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?"
Caesar's dedication to music matched his dedication to social issues. In 1938, Caesar created, with composer Gerald Marks, the famous Sing a Song of Safety collection of children's songs, which was followed by Sing a Song of Friendship and Songs of Health. Caesar visited auditoriums and lecture halls across the nation in connection with the children's series, used by schools to teach children the basic principles of safety at home and in the streets. Caesar's Sing a Song of Friendship, a series of 19 songs promoting world unity and peace, was inspired by the creation of the United Nations. This action also prompted the publication of his "Peace by Wireless" proposal, in which he suggested to Congress that citizens of different countries be able to listen to each other's radio broadcasts, translated, as a means of promoting greater understanding between nations. Caesar also composed a musical setting for the Pledge of Allegiance, which was officially adopted through a Congressional resolution.
Irving Caesar was an active and lifelong participant in music industry affairs and organizations. He joined the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1920, served on the ASCAP Board of Directors from 1930 to 1946 and again from 1949 until 1966. He was also a founder and early president (1936-1942) of the Songwriters' Protective Association, now known as the Songwriters Guild of America.
Irving Caesar lived a long and successful life, marrying for the first time in his 90s. He wrote more than 700 songs, many of them among the Twentieth Century's most popular, and contributed lyrics to 44 Broadway shows. He passed away in New York at the age of 101 on December 18, 1996.