The next time you suffer overspill on your bookshelves, take down the Bernstein section and send it for recycling. The Leonard Bernstein Letters, out this month from Yale University Press, contains so much that is startling and unknown that all past books, including his own, become instantly inadequate. Don't take my word for it. On the jacket, Bernstein's official biographer, Humphrey Burton, declares that, with this book in hand, "I want to start all over again."
The letters, preserved by Bernstein's early piano teacher and lifelong secretary Helen Coates, are housed at the Library of Congress, tens of thousands of them, so many that only an amazingly knowledgeable or presumptuous scholar would dare to sift wheat from chaff. The man who dared is Nigel Simeone, an English expert on Messiaen and West Side Story; his curation is confident, comprehensive, beyond criticism.
Simeone opens with a 1932 letter to Miss Coates: "I have decided to study with you, taking one lesson every two weeks." He is 14 years old and his authority verges on effrontery. That assurance never wavers through his life.
Bernstein writes letters as I remember him speaking: in a stream of consciousness that burbles with wit, malice, truth, flashes of human insight, an omnivorous curiosity and a profound understanding of failure. His voice is irresistible, his interests boundless and his position on any important issue magnificently ambivalent.
"Which of us worth his salt is not a paradoxnick," he demands, late in life. "There's something in the Bible we all believe, even if not literally; and there's something also in Darwin and Freud that grabs us equally. Wm. Blake vs. Martin Gardner, X vs Y and on down the list of all the antitheses that engender free inquiry and democracy. I like to think of myself, and you, as primarily rational humanists, but then there I go inhaling cosmic energies . . ."
Such a man belongs to no conventional set. When I share with you the discovery that this letter was written to his business manager, you will appreciate that Bernstein gathered minds as restless as his own in a community where, with Voltairean Panglossianism, he could play all the roles in Candide and escape with integrity intact.
His driving concerns are music, career, politics and sex, the last a constant preoccupation. He makes friends easily and clings to them for life. His circle embraces every strand of celebrity. Bette Davis adores him. Frank Sinatra is a fan, Louis Armstrong calls him "Daddy", Miles Davis declares him a genius, Arthur Miller invites him to sleep over and Jacqueline Kennedy writes him a six-page letter about "your Mahler" at four in the morning. Bernstein is the only classical composer to achieve that degree of American fame, a feat never to be repeated.