Eternal Truths Of A Megastar

Leonard Bernstein's letters reveal him as obsessed with music, career, politics, and (always) sex

Norman Lebrecht

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.

American born and bred, he feels a constant outcast. His conducting mentors — Fritz Reiner, Dmitri Mitripoulos, Serge Koussevitsky — connect him to the old Continent. He misses out on war service, the forging fire of his generation. Like Aaron Copland and most of his closest friends, he is Jewish and politically on the Left. There is mention of “the party” in letters of the 1940s, though Bernstein would always deny he was a Communist. In an effusive affidavit, sworn in 1953 when Senator McCarthy inflicted terror across the arts and Bernstein had his passport withdrawn, he declares: “I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party, nor have I ever subscribed to communist doctrine or ideology.” He adds: “I have in the past spoken out against the inhibitions imposed upon creative artists, particularly composers, under the Soviet regime.” Do we hear an ironic snipe at his own, American inhibitors?

His outsiderness is exacerbated by sexual duality. He is attracted more to men than to women, giving restless encouragement to both — except during brief chastity breaks. He sees a New York shrink, “the Frau”, whom he shares with his lover, the clarinettist David Oppenheim. The Frau tells him: “In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy.”

Felicia Montealgre, his Chilean fiancée, agreeing to marry him, accepts that “you are a homosexual and may never change — you don’t admit to the validity of a double life.” Both the shrink and the wife have got               him bang to rights. Bernstein, however, eludes all attempts to limit him to any single affinity.

Music is his ultimate ambivalence, riven between mass popularity and classical esteem. Koussevitsky condemns On The Town in 1944, so he writes nothing more for Broadway while the old man is alive. He completes West Side Story in 1956 and, the ink still wet, signs on as music director of the New York Philharmonic — one foot in both camps, never openly acknowledging the possibility of a double life. 

Despite, or because of, his desire to be all things to all men and women, his is one of the great American success stories. His Philharmonic era brings US composers universal recognition. He creates a cult of Gustav Mahler, provokes argument and attention and educates a mass audience via the new medium of television in how music really works. To eight-year-old kids on Saturday morning, he makes it seem like fun.

After 15 years, he drifts off, craving other confirmations and consolations. He takes no other job after the Philharmonic. He leaves Felicia for a man and returns to nurse her when she is dying. His later concert works miss the mark by an ever-widening mile. He tells the song composer, Ned Rorem: “The trouble with you and me, Ned, is that we want everyone in the world to personally love us and . . . that’s impossible.”

Even in decline, he could light up any room on earth. I remember an affair at the Savoy electrified by the glimpse of that ruined, whisky-capillaried nose poking round a doorway. His death in October 1990 hushed Manhattan to a moment’s silence. Weeks before the end, he receives a letter from his aged mother, Jennie. “Dear Son,” she writes, “I have confidence in you that you are on the right track.” Curb the Jewish mother jokes: within these compelling letters lie eternal, at times unbearable truths.

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