The correspondence of Manhattan’s Maestro.
Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By JOHN SIMON
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a man of multiple talents: He was a composer of classical music as well as of musical comedies (On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story) and a number of ballets for choreographer Jerome Robbins. He was composer, too, of the epochal film score for On the Waterfront (1954), and he was a highly gifted musical lecturer on television shows such as Omnibus—lectures of equal interest to professionals and outsiders that were collected in a couple of important books. Some lyrics for show tunes display his skill with verse.
Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic (1957)
As a master conductor of music both old and new—including his own—he was hailed the world over. This led to correspondence with major composers, conductors, and instrumentalists, as well as important others. There are letters from Jackie Kennedy and Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall and Harpo Marx, Ronald Reagan and Richard Avedon, Frank Sinatra and James M. Cain, Aldous Huxley and Francis Ford Coppola, Margot Fonteyn and Boris Pasternak, among many others.
The book’s able editor, Nigel Simeone, sensibly includes letters to Bernstein as well as excellent biographical sections and ample, helpful footnotes.
A commendable thing about Bernstein’s letters is that they are to specific persons about germane matters, none of them grandiloquently aimed at publication and posterity. There are occasional paragraphs that jump out as somewhat “literary,” but they are simply good writing, not self-aggrandizement or histrionics.
Many of them are to persons with whom Bernstein was in love, platonically or otherwise. Foremost are those to Aaron Copland, adored mentor, as well as those to fellow composers such as David Diamond (despite a late falling-out), Marc Blitzstein, and William Schuman. Here too are his letters to conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Dimitri Mitropoulos and to clarinetist and disciple David Oppenheim, later head of New York University’s School of the Arts. Mitropoulos and especially Copland were highly probable lovers; some of the others seemingly so. (Schuman and Koussevitzky definitely not.)
Particularly moving are the letters to Copland and, later, Felicia Montealegre Cohn, the Chilean-American actress who became Bernstein’s wife and mother of their three children—the only woman he truly loved. (There were early, fleeting affairs.) There are also warm letters to Bernstein’s parents, particularly to his mother.
The earliest schoolboy letters are intemperate: “I hate the Harvard Music Department . . . because it is stupid & highschoolish and ‘disciplinary’ and prim and foolish and academic and stolid and fussy.” But he is aware of his own problems: “My chief weakness [is] my love for people. I need them . . . every moment. . . . Any people will do.” To Copland, he writes: “I’ve never felt about anyone before as I do about you. Completely at ease, & always comforted. . . . This is not a love letter, but I’m quite mad about you.” The older man replies, somewhat prophetically: “What terrifying letters you write: fit for the flames. . . . Just imagine how much you would have to pay to retrieve such a letter forty years from now when you are conductor of the Philharmonic. . . . I don’t mean that you mustn’t write such letters (to me, that is), but I mustn’t forget to burn them.”
At this early stage, Bernstein is already bursting into bits in other languages (mostly French, sometimes German, rarely Italian, and, later, also Yiddish and Spanish). But then, so did many of his correspondents, it being a show of sophistication. He even invented a patois, or baby talk, of his own, often for nicknames and, of course, endearments, prompting such answers as Copland’s “If I said what I felt the paper would melt.” But parallel to genuine affection were forays into Turkish baths and Greenwich Village gay bars, often led by Paul Bowles. Of these we read, “The more promiscuous the better”; but the experience was often “as horrible as if I hadn’t gone at all.”
To David Diamond he gives thanks “for leading me straight into the arms of a great and quiet and radiant joy.” To David Oppenheim, with whom he recorded the Clarinet Sonata, his first notable composition, he writes: “You will, of course, destroy this letter. Unless you some day give up the clarinet in favor of blackmail.” Samuel Barber (never a close friend) counsels him on how to disqualify for the wartime Army—“Develop an impassioned asthmatic wheeze”—and it works. Copland writes, “You’re a good disciple—but an angelic love.”