The Magazine

Sincerely, Lenny

The correspondence of Manhattan’s Maestro.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By JOHN SIMON
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There are interesting letters to and from a couple of female analysts, one of whom he and others refer to as the Frau. “Are you alone—like the Frau wants?” Copland asks Bernstein, who fantasizes about marrying his dentist’s pretty daughter. There are also judgments on fellow composers: Vernon Duke is “insufferable”; about George Antheil’s music: “When it’s all over, one doesn’t give a damn”; concerning Roy Harris’s “Ode to Truth”: “I can’t even describe it, except as an eternal measure of turdlike notes .  .  . with his three tricks in it.” It may come as a surprise that, among these letters, there are almost no hints of World War II; Bernstein feels happily “chez moi” wherever he is—as, for instance, in Prague: “The Czechs are happy and look to the future. They are the sweetest people on earth.”

Bette Davis fantasizes about becoming his patroness, like Tchaikovsky’s Madame von Meck. Numerous and fascinating are the many letters to and from such collaborators as Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jerome Robbins, a frequent collaboration often couched in abundant epistolary detail. Thus, for the ballet Fancy Free, Bernstein will ask Robbins for “a kind of hot pants feeling .  .  . but lyrical, perfumed by these little rhythmic urgings in the balls.”

For his beloved siblings, Shirley and Burton, there is a private language, such as “Mine deoah” (my dear) and “Mü la dü” (my love to you), and he signs himself Lennuht or Ladümü. Felicia’s cold becomes a “kepepelt,” and a bed, a “boweweld.” From the Frau he gets written advice: “Why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work?” He feels terrific when conducting in his beloved Israel: “Somehow in Israel one finds strength for everything.” In Europe, he has “a strange lack of nostalgia for America.” In Budapest, he makes his audiences go crazy about Bartók as they never were before.

With Felicia, after some serious bumps in the road, true love led to marriage. Thanks to her, he feels he “can begin really to live my life .  .  . and not only live on the circumference of it.” He writes: “Lonely on the sea, my thoughts were only of her. Other girls (and/or boys) meant nothing,” thanks to “the great companionship of this girl.” He now “needs no shrinks [and] will cope on [his] own.”

He feels his marriage to be “the most interesting thing I have ever done, though there are times when one’s interest must be that of a person in an audience, or one would go mad.” Felicia’s attitude, shortly after the wedding, is that “nothing is really irrevocable.” She knows that her husband is “a homosexual and may never change,” but is “willing to accept” him as he is without becoming a martyr, because “our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect.”

Bernstein discovers “a new young lyricist named Steve Sondheim, who is going to work out wonderfully” for what will become West Side Story; for Candide, “Richard Wilbur, a marvelous young poet who has never written a lyric .  .  . is already doing wonders.” While conducting in Italy, he “became real good friends with von Karajan. .  .  . My first Nazi.” There is much trouble with the making of West Side Story. Abroad, he misses his family, “especially you [Felicia] who have come to mean something miraculous.” But he has problems: “I study my hairline in the mirror and pray desperately against baldness.” 

He has fun skiing in Sun Valley, where he meets Hemingway and is “taken totally by surprise,” by “a) that charm, and b) that beauty,” he writes to his new friend Martha Gellhorn, one of Ernest’s ex-wives. Such fun, and yet, “I have only my own sick silly psyche pushing from inside.” He discovers Gustav Mahler, for whose revival he works tirelessly: “I bought lots of albums of Mahler & I’ve been listening & crying as I listen.” But when he tries to go on to Bruckner, he wisely finds him “impossibly boring, without personality, awkward & dull, masked in solemnity.”

With the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein became a true world conductor, performing as far afield as Japan, about which he writes brilliantly to Felicia. A letter from Nagoya (dated April 30, 1961) is as good as anything I’ve ever read about Japan, and terse to boot. There, he experienced “the most beautiful day and night anyone has ever had. [But] my big nose is still sick, & needs a big rest.”