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.
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.”
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.”
Upon receiving an honorary degree, together with Copland, from the University of Michigan, Bernstein writes a sonnet. From Vienna he writes, “I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can.” To his mother he adds, “Every morning I eat Vienna rolls—what you always used to call Vianna rolls. Remember?” He sends his parents Demel chocolate, “the best on earth,” and signs, “Your Wiener Schnitzel.”
From New Zealand, he sends one of his liveliest, most evocative letters to Felicia, full of well-observed and vividly recounted details. “And so much love to you, my angel,” it concludes. To the mortally ill conductor Karl Böhm, he writes a touchingly warm letter, complete with some incorrect German: “You taught me, in wisdom, what I had been performing by intuition.” The great conductor Victor de Sabata writes him: “To know that a Bernstein does exist helps a lot.”
Sadly, Bernstein broke his promise to Felicia of dignified discretion; shortly before his wife’s death in 1978, he moved into an apartment with a young man. She cursed him: “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.” To his last days, that malediction haunted him. In a late letter to his business manager, he tells him that he likes his “paradoxical duality” about occult matters, something he likes most “in any thinking-feeling person—including myself, in those ever-decreasing moments when I like myself.” The last letters are very moving, notably one from Mother Jennie to her son, wishing him “happy composing” and a “Happy (Jewish) New Year.” She outlived him by two years.
Finally, we get a letter from an illustrious colleague, Georg Solti: “It is wonderful that you will continue to write and teach.” A few days later, on October 14, 1990, Bernstein died at 72. His manifold legacy, including these letters, lives on.
John Simon is an author and critic living in New York.