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Lenny!

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Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Leonard Bernstein, New York City, 1958

Lenny’s tone with his early showbiz friends is naturally more relaxed, more a matter of equals chatting with equals. He first met Adolph Green when they were both working at a summer camp, and Adolph was instantly smitten with his brilliance. By the time Adolph was joined at the hip with his lifelong partner, Betty Comden, and was working with their other great friend Judy Holliday in the nightclub act called the Revuers, Lenny was on hand, playing the piano for them down at the Village Vanguard. (On the occasion of an experimental telecast in 1940, as noted by the columnist Leonard Lyons, the distinguished page-turner for Bernstein was Aaron Copland.)

Only a couple of Lenny’s letters to Adolph, and none to Betty or Judy, are included in this volume—maybe none has survived—but their letters to him over the years punctuate and enliven the book. Comden in particular remained a loving friend, sensible and honest and concerned. Adolph is bouncy, gregarious, eager: “Dollink Lennie, What is there to say? You are brilliant, brash, you (28)—I am fat, old (49½) and feeble. In short, what is there to say?” (Actually, Adolph was thirty-two.)

The two musicals Lenny and Adolph and Betty wrote together—On the Town and Wonderful Town—were big hits, but although there was endless talk of their working together again, it never happened. Adolph and Betty were off in Hollywood writing Singin’ in the Rain among other movies; he was off in Europe conducting Maria Callas in La Sonnambula. Lenny had his Hollywood episodes, too, ranging from a two-night fling with the young Farley Granger to a serious scheme at Paramount for him to star in a film opposite Garbo: he would be Tchaikovsky, she would be his patron Madame von Meck. Think of the music Lenny and Greta could have made together—even if, in real life, composer and patron never met.

One of the most telling exchanges of letters over the decades is that between Lenny and the woman he would marry, the beautiful and talented Felicia Montealegre. She was a well-born Chilean actress, also a musician, whom everybody adored, including Lenny. It is obvious that she worshiped him, and soon they were talking marriage. An early letter from her signs off “Boss darling—goodnight,” not necessarily a happy omen. Marriage receded, then was back on the front burner, then happened. Felicia knew the score. They hadn’t been married long when she wrote to him, speaking of what she refers to as “our ‘connubial’ life”:

First: We are not committed to a life sentence—nothing is really irrevocable, not even marriage (though I used to think so).
Second: you are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?
Third: I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar. (I happen to love you very much—this may be a disease and if it is what better cure?)…
As for me—once you are rid of tensions I’m sure my own will disappear. A companionship will grow which probably no one else may be able to offer you. The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express—our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?

They did have them, and he had known they would: in a letter about Felicia to his sister, Shirley—always the person he was most open and honest with—just before the die was cast in 1951, he wrote, “I feel such a certainty about us—I know there’s a real future involving a great comradeship, a house, children, travel, sharing, and such a tenderness as I have rarely felt.” It worked, except when it didn’t. When he was in New York, they enjoyed a rich domestic life. Then he would be off on his endless conducting tours, writing long gossipy letters to her, occasionally meeting up with her. She was able to do some acting; she was raising the children.

But by the 1970s, his life as a homosexual had become flamboyantly open, to her increasing distress. He was now immensely famous and powerful, and he cast off all restraints—the self-regard he had always exhibited had hardened into unmitigated narcissism. Burton reports that Paul Bowles, a very old friend meeting him after many years, thought that “he had become ‘smarmy’ and ‘false’; ‘a small crumb of what he once had been.’ His success had been ‘painfully destructive’ of his personality. It was,” Burton remarks, “a chilling assessment,” and the letters validate it.

In 1976, Lenny left Felicia for a young man named Tom Cothran. It was a public break, devastating and humiliating her. Eventually he returned to her, but it was too late—soon afterward, in 1978, she died of lung cancer, and it was his turn to be devastated. Despite everything, she was certainly the great love of his life. “He never recovered from her loss,” Burton concludes, “and he never forgot the curse she uttered when he told her he was leaving her for Cothran. She had pointed her finger at him in fury and predicted, in a harsh whisper: ‘You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.’”

The smartest decision made by Nigel Simeone was to include scores of letters to Lenny. Again and again they’re more interesting than his own letters—possibly because so many of them seem refreshingly direct and sincere, in contrast to his performances. I’ve mentioned Comden and Green’s letters to him—they’re fun, they’re witty, and they’re true. The letter Jackie Onassis wrote thanking him for arranging the music for Bobby Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s reveals this enigmatic woman at her most open and heartfelt. One passage from her long letter, written at four in the morning the night of the funeral:

When your Mahler started to fill (but that’s the wrong word—because it was more this sensitive trembling) the Cathedral today—I thought it the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I am so glad I didn’t know it—it was this strange music of the gods who were crying…. The only thing that mattered in the world was that Ethel should have what she wished as music for her husband…. Dear Lennie—you were so tender and gentle and understanding—and tactful and self effacing—so she had everything she wanted.

The letters from Martha Gellhorn—a seemingly odd choice of friend for him—are engrossing. He writes to her that he had met her one-time husband Ernest Hemingway

and was taken totally by surprise. I had not been prepared by talk, photos, or interviews for a) that charm, and b) that beauty. God, what goes on there under his eyes? What’s that lovely adolescent tenderness? And the voice and the memory, & the apparently genuine interest in every living soul: fantastic.

In response, she writes:

Interested about Ernest. Tenderness is a new quality in him; but people do luckily change all their lives and the luckiest ones get better as they grow older. His main appalling lack was tenderness for anyone. I longed for it in him, for myself and for others. I’d almost have settled for others….
He was interested in everyone but there was a bad side. It was like flirting. (Like you, in fact, he has the excessive need to be loved by everyone, and specially by all the strange passing people whom he ensnares with that interest, as do you with your charm, though in fact he didn’t give a fart for them.)…
By the time I did marry him (driving home from Sun Valley) I did not want to, but it had gone too far in every way. I wept, secretly, silently, on the night before my wedding and my wedding night; I felt absolutely trapped…. You will also be surprised to hear that I have never been more bored in my life than during the long long months when we lived alone in Cuba. I thought I would die of boredom.

And there’s Saul Chaplin—raw from the experience of helping to produce the film of West Side Story—writing about Jerome Robbins, with whom Lenny had a lifelong relationship, mutually beneficial but, like most relationships with Robbins, fraught:

Jerry, of course, is wildly talented. He is also wildly destructive of people and relationships. For me, one doesn’t compensate for the other. He is easily the most reprehensible person I’ve ever known. And so, when the golden day dawns when I will, at last, be freed from West Side Story, I will make it a life’s work never again to mention his name or think of him. That, indeed, will be a time for wild celebration.

Jerry was, indeed, a tough customer. How interesting that, as Simeone tells us, quoting Lenny’s longtime record producer, “Felicia was vital to his stability as was Jerry Robbins, the only two people who could make Lenny sweat.” Yes, Felicia could be a tough customer too.

Throughout the volume, moments of Lenny’s wit and insight flash out:

To Copland, about Anton Bruckner: “Impossibly boring, without personality, awkward & dull, masked in solemnity.”

To Felicia, about Lillian Hellman: “I had forgotten what a charm Lil has: speaking to her over the phone reminded me of why one sticks to her through thick: she has a real attractiveness in spite of everything, and a kind of combination of power and helplessness that in a woman is irresistible.”

To Felicia, about Herbert von Karajan: “My first Nazi.”

Alas, Simeone has diluted the gold in his book with pointless letters—notes, often—from and to Lenny. Here’s a telegram from 1957: “Dear Lenny, I hear glowing reports about your new show [West Side Story]. All my congratulations to you and Jerry. Best, Cole Porter.” Seemingly anyone with a celebrated name is automatically thrown in. And Simeone’s editorial apparatus is erratic—some notes tell you things everyone knows, others don’t exist where you want them. Where the letters involve serious discussion of music, they’re absorbing—the serious Lenny peeks out—but there should be more (if they exist). Certain friendships—as with the composer David Diamond and the clarinetist David Oppenheim (Judy Holliday’s first husband)—are fully explored, others are not. One wants more to and from his parents and siblings. There are almost no letters between him and his three children—their decision, I assume.

Simeone tells us that there are more than 10,000 (!) Bernstein letters extant, and making a selection of a mere 650 must have been a daunting challenge. The results are uneven, but the basic problem stems not from the editor but from Lenny himself: he so often comes across as fatally facile rather than deeply probing. His friend the legendary musician Nadia Boulanger tactfully put it this way when he sent her the score of West Side Story: “Merci—I am enchanted by its dazzling nature—perhaps facility is a danger, but it is enough to be aware of that and follow it…. I often think of you, of the problems and temptations that your gifts give you—divergent and convergent.” Lenny was aware of the danger, but he was helpless before the temptations.

Yes, he wanted to be everything to everyone, but we have to remember how well he succeeded at being so much to so many. He was one of the most acclaimed conductors of his day. He was a successful composer, though we tend to take his light music—the musicals—more seriously than we take his serious music. I mean, wouldn’t you rather be listening to On the Town or Candide than his “Kaddish” Symphony, his Dybbuk? He was an ardent advocate for the music of his day. He was a potent and highly influential proselytizer for music in general, both in his writings and on television—his impulse was relentlessly pedagogical. (“I don’t really possess my own feelings until I’ve shared them.”)

And whatever his emotional vagaries, he was a consummate professional; I worked with him only once, in the 1960s, as the editor of his book The Infinite Variety of Music. He was an accommodating author—late on deadlines sometimes but, considering his schedule, how not? He was serious about his writing and responsive to suggestions. In other words, his ego didn’t get in the way of his meeting his responsibilities. And he was appreciative. A few months after our book was published, he sent me a Christmas present. Why was I not surprised that it was a copy of The Infinite Variety of Music?

Letters

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off February 20, 2014

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