Mike Bernard was a considerable talent in many fields, including inventing some of his own biography, which made research frustrating at times. Hopefully this biography will cover enough of the facts and anomalies to present a mostly accurate picture. While conventional sources show him as born in 1881 or 1884, his age in the 1880, 1900 and 1910 U.S. census records indicate a probable 1874 or 1875 birth year, and locating a draft record was difficult, so this is inconclusive. To further compound the issue, the 1900 census, which is usually fairly accurate, lists his birth month as May, not March. The March 17th date may have been a gimmick to give him more of a contrived Irish heritage (he was actually born to Polish parents). For consistency with the best verifiable information this essay will stick with 1875.
A revelation during a new look at Bernard's life in 2013 showed that most previous data on his origin was very likely incorrect. Two marriage records and news articles on a divorce led research in a different direction, and there is very high level of confidence with the following data. Michael was born in Manhattan, New York, as Michael Barnet Brown, to Julius S. Brown and Eva Eisenberg, both Prussian immigrants. It is probable that they had Anglicized their name from Braun. Michael had one older brother, Harry (3/1873), also born in New York. The 1880 census showed the family living in Manhattan with Julius listed as wallpaper dealer. He may also have been in the liquor business according to city directories of that time. Later editions are in line with the wallpaper and hangings business. An intriguing entry in a couple of pre-1880 directories also show a Julius Brown as a piano maker, although an absolute identity match was not made in this case.
Discovered to be both precocious and talented at an early age, Michael received good musical training in his youth in Manhattan. He eventually traveled to Germany around 1892 to study at either the Berlin Conservatory of Music or the Stern Conservatory (the former cannot confirm his attendance, and the latter has lost the records from that time). Brown reportedly played a performance in front of Kaiser Wilhelm II during this time. It is unclear when he adopted the Bernard name but it appears to be a variation on his middle name of Barnet.
Once back in New York City in late 1895, Mike heard his first ragtime as played by white composer/performer Ben Harney (who claimed to have invented the ragtime genre in part) and decided he also wanted to play the music that Harney was doing; Ragtime. So he learned what he could from Harney, who was a couple of years older, while at the same time working up the prowess to challenge Harney's position in New York vaudeville. Before long either Bernard or his quickly accumulating fans dubbed him the "Rag-Time King of the World." This could have been prompted by his 1899 composition, The Rag-Time King: A Symphony In Rag-Time. The historically designated originator of the moniker was Richard K. Fox, owner of the famous pink National Police Gazette weekly newspaper that reported on entertainment and sporting and anything salacious in the city and beyond.
After spending a few months in the orchestra pit as music director for Tony Pastor's theater, the most popular vaudeville spot in New York through the 1880s and 1890s, Mike joined Harney on stage as a resident ragtime pianist. The first located public notice of him performing there in any capacity was in the New York Times of April 8, 1896. Bernard was among a list of performers listed at Pastor's for "the annual benefit of Harry S. Sanderson, including well established acts like Weber and Fields and Matthews and Bulger. There were several notices to follow in the weekly entertainment listings, and Bernard was soon engaged all about town.
While never a prolific composer, Mike did try his hand at a few pieces starting in 1896. His first, The Belle of Hogan's Alley with lyrics by James W. Blake, was based on an early comic in the New York Sunday World. It was dedicated to pioneer Sunday comics artist Richard Felton (R.F.) Outcault, whose most famous enduring character was The Yellow Kid, the likeness of which appears on the cover with other Outcault creations. A Times notice from March 19, 1899, notes that Mike was one of the few performers featured at the first of a series of Sunday evening concerts held at the Academy of Music.
The 1900 census shows Bernard living in New York City as a pianist, and married for at least a year or more to May Agnes Convery, who was 19 to his 25. As it turns out, this was the key to finding his identity. It appears that Michael first attempted to marry May on February 25, 1897, when she would have been just 16. Parental intervention evidently resulted in an annulment. Only slightly deterred, they were married again on June 7, 1898, presumably when May was closer to legal age (she was born in January of 1881), or when her parents finally consented. Both marriage certificates cite the first names of Bernard's parents, and the first one showed the alternate name of Brown. A son, Melvin Bernard, was born in 1899, but an actual date is unclear nor is the reason he was not found in the 1900 record. Melvin may have been with his grandparents, the Converys. Another curiosity is that Julius and Eva listed Mike in their residence 12 days before he was enumerated with his wife May, born in March, 1875, and working as a pianist. Whether he was actually present in their home when this was done is unclear.
There was a well-promoted and much-hyped ragtime piano competition on January 23, 1900, run by Fox and the Police Gazette. In the January 20 issue printed just prior to the contest, the following announcement appeared: "Many eyes are on the diamond-studded trophy... The ragtime contest will settle a much vexed question... since the coon melodies became popular... We assure our readers that in the first place the best man will win... an artist who belongs in an obscure country town has as much chance to win as anyone... Acknowledged leader of the ragtime players is Mr. Michael Bernard, leader of the orchestra at Pastor's and whose fame as a manipulator of the ivories has spread through the land. If ever there was a champ, he is one." It seemed that the fix was in, and indeed Bernard did secure his trophy and earned his title, with few if any complaints from those who participated.
There were a few dissenters from outside the Pastor's circle, however. As noted in the 1950 book They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, pianist Jake Schaefer, who was "persona non grata" at Pastor's theater, chimed in on Bernard's status with the Police Gazette, who printed his letter:
"I see where Mike Bernard is to give a ragtime contest and bills himself the champion of the world. I feel called upon out of duty to myself to respectfully dispute his claim to the title. I have played in contests all over the country and won first honors in every one in which I competed. I have played against the best of them and as I have never been defeated in open contest I was generally looked upon as the champion if there is such a thing among rag players. Has Mr. Bernard ever won any equitably conducted contests or has he competed against any of the leaders?
"I do not say I can defeat Bernard, but I would like a chance to prove whether I can or not. While I have had little trouble in defeating all my comptetitors of course there is no telling when you will rub up against your superior. If matters can be satifactorily arranged, I will play against Bernard but not on his terms. He suggests that the judges be selected from the audience. It is just like a boxer with a traveling combination who is meeting all comers. When an outsider comes on the stage he is handicapped in that he is a stranger; the boxer with the company is not out to get the worst of it and the managers do not as a rule try to give him the bad end...
"I would be glad to have a try at Bernard under the following conditions which all are bound to admit are fair: Each contestant to name two judges who can play ragtime music and have the four select a fifth; each one of the five to show his ability to judge by playing a number of selections. In that way both would get a fair show... As a graceful suggestion, I might say that colored folk be selected as judges..."
The Police Gazette responded to Schaefer's call for a challenge to have him compete, but did not fully accept his terms. "In regard to the judge question, those selected from an audience are all right from any standpoint... One of the judges in this case will be a representative of the Police Gazette and he will not be biased in favor of of anyone." Whether Schaefer showed up for the competition on January 23 is unclear. That Bernard won by popular acclaim is very evident.
Mike became the talk of the town among pianists and ragtime fans. This win gave him great visibility, and soon his name was making headlines beyond the Police Gazette, getting more notice in the standard newspapers of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Occasionally the Gazette sponsored or promoted some of the many ragtime competitions in which Harney and Bernard participated, with Bernard usually coming out victorious, but these were found in a variety of theaters as well, in an environment not too dissimilar from today's wrestling matches. The Gazette in particular gave out a fabulous diamond medal and a trophy for their competitions, and similar prizes were handed out for contests held at Tammany Hall during that period in which Mike mostly, but not always, fared very well. In particular, Bernard was known for concert-grade arrangements of tunes complete with sound effects produced by the piano, and for his ability to also syncopate the left hand and pass melodic lines between hands.
It appears that for a short time he secured a position with well-known publisher E.T. Paull, as announced in The Music Trade Review of September 28, 1901.
One of the best known piano players in the country is Mike Bernard. He has won many contests for piano playing, and is well known throughout the continent. Mr. Bernard has joined the forces of the E. T. Paull Music Co., and will devote all his time to furthering the firm's interests and he will doubtless prove a valuable acquisition in every way. He has just written the music to a clever song entitled 'Since Sally's in the Ballet,' Vincent B. Bryan having written the words. Another good number by Mike Bernard is 'The Phantom Dance...' With Bert Morphy - the general manager, Mike Bernard and [manager] Harry Rogers, things should certainly hum at 46 West Twenty-eighth street, New York.
Another notice in the October 26 edition of the same journal noted that "Mike Bernard, well known as the champion long distance piano-player, and who 'banged the box' six seasons at Tony Pastor's, is now the manager of the professional bureau of the E.T. Paull Music Company... He informed The Review that he is going to spring a surprise on the public soon. What it is he will not say." Other than the two publications mentioned, nothing more of Bernard's appeared under the Paull logo, and perhaps the surprise turned out to be that their association was somewhat short-lived.
New Yorkers loved vaudeville, and they loved contests involving musical prowess, and Bernard regularly delivered in both. He appeared in nearly every major vaudeville house in the city, seen hopping theaters in the trade and public notices perhaps once a month at times, and appearing at many benefits as well. One New York Times notice of February 21, 1904 described one such event:
There were merry doings at the Stroller's Club in Madison Avenue last night. The twenty-third 'roister' was held amid general rejoicing and with a large attendance. The miniature theater up stairs was crowded. The entertainment was furnished by vaudeville 'doubles' and 'singles' for prizes... The 'singles" were George Wilson, George W. Bandy, Mike Bernard, Joh Hathaway, Hugh Flaherty, Fred Haywood and R. Barrow. At a late hour last night the judges were still undecided as to who had won.
During his rise to fame, and even after his death, Bernard was both regarded and reviled by many, not so much concerning his ego, which was backed up by his fine performances, but as a white pretender to a black music form. While this contention shows up in occasional articles mentioning Bernard or Harney in the early 1900s, as well as later interviews with some of his black peers, it appears in a much more prescient form in They All Played Ragtime. Blesh made his feelings clearly known about white musicians in ragtime and jazz in his 1943 lecture series at the San Francisco Museum of Art, so this negative representation was not unexpected. However, historically, it should be noted in spite of the advantage of having access to more privileges as a white player in society that Bernard's recordings on Columbia records, which were possibly started as early as 1909, speak volumes about his skill. He did not necessarily play "authentic negro ragtime," but he did play and compose ragtime in a style that was hard to surpass. It has been reported (hard to substantiate) that Eubie Blake once saw Bernard's name listed for a cutting contest, and Blake demurred from playing there in spite of his own considerable skill because he knew that Mike was clearly a public favorite. Even composer George Gershwin had mentioned Bernard as an early influence to which he was indebted for his playing style, particularly the left-hand passages.
Mike was touring on the West Coast and in the Midwest with a vaudeville troup from some time in 1907 to perhaps 1909. Also in this troupe for part of the time was singer Blossom Seeley, and she and Mike did a short act together as partners during that time. There is some evidence in a divorce suit filed by her first husband Patrick Curtin that she and Bernard were likely an item during part of that tour, suggesting at least a separation if not a divorce for Mike during that period. He also released a rag in 1908 which he was performing on stage, The Stinging Bee. It would be followed in 1910 by Lemon Drops. Mike is listed in 1910 as a single 36 year old theater pianist in Manhattan and staying at the Hotel Cadillac. May does not appear with him in that year's census, and Melvin was living with his grandparents, Joseph and Alice Convery, in Brooklyn.
An April 9, 1910 advertising notice in The Music Trade Review stated that:
"Mike Bernard, the celebrated ragtime pianist, who, some years ago, won the Richard K. Fox gold medal for ragtime piano playing against a number of the most skillful performers who could be brought together in New York, is again distinguishing himself in vaudeville. Mr. Bernard recently added to his already long repertoire 'Where the River Shannon Flows' and 'Temptation Rag' [Henry Lodge], two Witmark numbers which are cutting a very important figure in the popular music of the day. This remarkable pianist is more than pleased with the success which he is having with these two new acquisitions.
A notice in the New York Times of May 1, 1910, describes the short-run show Paris By Night at the Hammerstein Theater, in which he appears with Bert Williams among other notable vaudeville actors and singers.
A Music Trade Review article of July 23, 1910, noted another publisher association for the pianist:
Mike Bernard has formed a partnership with Karl Tausig, and they have entered the song writing field, Mr. Tausig writing the lyrics and Mr. Bernard the music. Charles K. Harris is their publisher and he will issue several of their songs in the near future. 'That Tickling Rag' instrumental by Mr. Bernard is out, and Mr. Tausig is writing words for it.
In spite of this buzz in the industry, it appears that the partnership did not work out as evidence of any Bernard and Tausig compositions is hard to come by. On August 23, 1910 the Review again gave Mike a couple of descriptive column inches:
The Chicago Daily Journal speaks as follows of Mike Bernard, the well-known ragtime pianist, who is playing the fascinating Witmark number 'Temptation Rag': 'Bernard gives a piano-playing exhibition that looks like an acrobatic sideshow and sounds like a speeding pianola. Bernard plays the 'Temptation Rag' and Paderewski's masterpiece [unspecified] with the same elemental motive of force.'
Another pair of Witmark Publications would come out in 1911, his last two authentic rags, The Race Horse Rag and Panama Pacific Rag. The latter was four year in advance of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, so the reference for the title is not clear.
It is known that around 1910, as Mike was beginning his brief recording career, that one of his most popular works was The Battle of San Juan Hill which evidently recalled the famed 1898 Cuban conflict with bugle calls, patriotic tunes, and various gunnery effects. These can also be heard on his Columbia recording of the piece. It has been reported that Bernard was paid as much as $10,000 for his early recording sessions, given the expected sales of those records based on his popularity. He made the bulk of his known records for Columbia in 1912, 1913 and 1918, having been one of the few ragtime pianists actually recorded during this period. Mike also toured during these years, appearing in notices all around the country from Chicago to Los Angeles, advertised with various vaudeville acts as the 'King of the Ragtime Pianists.' One of his frequent stage partners was fellow Willie Weston with whom Mike had co-composed a few works. Another partner was noted in a February 1, 1912, Los Angeles Times blurb: "Mike Bernard, Blossom Seeley's one-time partner, has hooked up professionally with Amy Butler, and the two are coming over the Orpheum circuit." Their association appears to have lasted two seasons. He also appeared on many bills with singer Jack Rose.
After Blossom, Mike became involved with singer and Ziegfeld Girl Dorothy Zuckerman, who went by Dolly. It is highly unlikely, though not impossible, that they were ever married. The couple had a child on January 22, 1914, Bertram Bernard, was probably born out of wedlock, given Benard's location and status at that time. Within a couple of years Bertram was sent to live in Queens with his maternal grandfather, confectioner Benjamin Zuckerman, so Dolly and Mike could go their own ways and pursue their separate careers. Dolly died before she was forty. As for going his own way, Mike chose matrimony once more.
Leaving Weston behind, Mike formed a new act with Fay and Florence Courtney, who were working as the Courtney sisters. A later incarnation of "coon shouters" singing Negro numbers, Fay was actually touted in the press as the "female Bert Williams," alluding to the well-known black vaudeville entertainer. The sisters and Mike met while working for a road show featuring Evelyn Thaw, the questionably talented wife of Harry K. Thaw and former mistress of Stanford White who had been shot by Thaw. Having made her fame by being the center of attention during the sensational murder trial, Thaw managed to eke out a career on that notorious noteriety. Mike accompanied her as well as the sisters. It was during that early 1914 tour on February 17th that Mike married his second (or third, depending on Dorothy's status) wife, Florence, on a stopover in Staunton, Virginia. After leaving the Thaw company that spring, Mike accompanied the sisters on both piano and pipe organ at venues such as Henderson's Music Hall at the famous amusement center in South Brooklyn, Coney Island.
The couple managed to get along for over a year as the act performed around the country. However, trouble followed Mike around again, or he pursued it, and a major misstep was made. Florence accused him of marital misconduct in October of 1915, while on a stopover in Omaha, Nebraska, and again in November, while in Saint Paul, Minnesota. While the co-respondent in the divorce case filed in December of 1915 remained unnamed, Mike's now former friend, actor Sidney Gottleib, testified that he had seen Bernard sharing a set of pajamas with her; one of them wearing the top and the other the bottom. The divorce was finalized in early June of 1916. By then, Michael, who had been playing that Palace, was on the road with his new partner, Miss Claudia Tracey.
Mike tried to keep his private life out of the public eye from that point forward. A fading star in many regards, he continued to tour vaudeville throughout 1916 and 1917, often as a solo act. Even though he was eligible for the 1918 draft call [no card has been found for him], Mike did not get selected military service, unlike many vaudeville performers who ended up serving, so that gave him a little more bandwidth for appearances during the conflict in 1918. It was another event of that year, the Spanish influenza pandemic, that could have changed his later life significantly. In early 1919 after Original Dixieland Jazz Band pianist Henry Ragas died, Bernard was afforded an opportunity to audition for that slot, although the job ultimately went to composer and pianist J. Russel Robinson.
Mike Bernard left New York soon after the war, and spent a few years based in Chicago, also working on the Midwest and Western Vaudeville circuit. He is seen in regular notices of appearances throughout 1918 and 1919. It was most likely while in Chicago or on the road he met and married his third (or fourth?) wife Katherine "Kitty" Stapleton. She appears with him in the 1920 enumeration as 18 years old and married to Mike, who is a bit vainly listed as 36. This may be an error on the part of the enumerator, or a deliberate error of vanity on his part, being 46 and married to an 18-year-old. She also is listed as a vaudeville entertainer, possibly a singer. They had a son, Julius "Jules" Brown Bernard, on October 9, 1921. As for Bert, Mike seldom saw his second son except for occasions when he would send a car to bring him to a performance. By mid-1922 Mike had returned to New York City to live. He saw Bert somewhat more often, reportedly keeping a piano at Zuckerman's candy shop to entertain the neighborhood. According to Mike's grandson, Bert was bitter towards his father as a result of the inattention. His relationship with Melvin, who was also a musician, was unknown.
The 1930 census shows Mike still married to Kitty, although there is a curious question as to their overall status in 1920 since she was now 29 and stated she married at age 26. Their son Jules also appears as 8 years old. Of further question is Bernard's own age, now listed as 50, which is inconsistent with previous census records and even with his generally accepted birth date of 1881. However, he is still shown as a professional musician, now living in Queens, not far from his first son who was in his mid teens. Bertram later went to Julliard for musical training, but it did not suit him and he ended up working as an immigration lawyer. In addition, Mike's first son Melvin was living with his own wife and two child in Brooklyn, and working as a musician.
Mike appeared at a Great Depression era actors aid benefit in April 1931. The event was hosted by the Friar's Club and Roxy's Gang, and included a wide variety of vaudeville entertainers old and new, with Mike being the last entertainer listed, part of the "Roxy contingent." An April 1935 luncheon was held to honor British music hall singer Vesta Victoria, who had made a splash in the 1890s and early 1900s. In the New York Times report on the event at which Mike was one of the entertainers, he was described as "while playing the piano at Tony Pastor's [he] introduced the jazz number, 'The Twelfth Street Rag.' " But Mike's big return to the news that month was during a Friar's Club event at which New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia spoke on relief efforts and the merits of entertainment. WIth Mike Bernard and songwriter Joe Howard (Hello Ma Baby and I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now), he included some musical interpolations from the ragtime era. As noted in the April 9, 1935 New York Times, " 'Ragtime as originated by Mike Bernard is a permanent part of music in this country,' he asserted. 'It is always melodious, and its syncopated counterpoint follows established rules of harmony. Contrast it with the shrills of woods and the shrieks of brasses we hear today. I don't believe such stuff can possibly live.' " This was high praise and a pretty good grasp of musical jargon by His Honor.
Bernard spent his final years playing at a nostalgic joint in New York called Bill's Gay Nineties, drawing a crowd even during the depression. His last notice in the New York Times of June 13, 1936, noted that "Mike Bernard, ragtime pianist, has returned to Bill's Gay Nineties," which was following a short absence from that regular gig. Bernard died two weeks later at the age of around 61. The death certificate, which incorrectly states his age as 51, listed his cause of death as "cellulitis of pelvis caused by extravasation of urine behind an old gonorrheal stricture of the posterior urethra," essentially complications from a venereal disease, one of the hazards of the sporting life lived by many ragtime performers.
Kitty Bernard continued to recopyright her late husband’s works from after his death into the 1940s. For the 1940 census, Mary Convery was living with her divorced son in Brooklyn, showing as widowed, and Melvin was still working as a musician. Bernard's exploits and his contributions to the popularity of ragtime among all races still live on into the 21st century.
The Brown revalation is new as of January, 2013, inadvertantly found during a search on a female composer by the author. Thanks also to piano roll expert Robert Perry of New Zealand who uncovered information on Mike's marriage and divorce to Florence Courtney. Some previously uncovered information on Bernard emerged in late 2010, thanks to the efforts of Elizabeth Bernard, wife of Mike's grandson, Robert Bernard. She has written a novel on the eclectic family figure. You can find out more at The Ragtime King on ragtimeking.com. Elizabeth was responsible for imparting the information on Mike's first child and possible second wife.