Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra,
New York City, 1972

In 1966, Leonard Bernstein conducted The Rite of Spring and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 with the London Symphony Orchestra, and just recently that BBC event has been released on DVD for the first time. It’s a fascination—not only for the strong performance, but even more so for the chance to watch “Lenny” in action, close-up. Yes, all conductors have highly personal characteristics, but has there ever been one as theatrical, as showy, as hammy as he was? Or as exciting, as persuasive, as dedicated?

There’s the Lenny problem: Is he for real or is he an act? Do we love him or do we want to kick him in the ass? Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him? And do those of us who grew up with him in all his avatars respond to him the same way as those coming to him for the first time, with no history and perhaps no expectations?

Look at him up there, facing a cadre of highly disciplined, impeccably groomed Englishmen. (Not many women in the LSO in those days.) They watch him closely, of course—is it my fantasy that they watch him as if they were in striking distance of a dangerous tiger? His behavior to them is totally cordial and respectful—in fact, remarkably generous: hands shaken, pats on the shoulder, warm smiles. If he isn’t happy with their playing, you’d never know it.

But have they ever worked with a conductor not only this legendary but this over the top? It’s not just his notorious bouncing up and down. He grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms; the emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face—he’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways. He sweats. He mouths along with the music. Since he conducts without a score—his musical memory is famous—his inner concentration is unbroken. If a tragedian performed King Lear this way we’d probably hoot him off the stage. But just when we’re ready to find the whole thing risible, we begin to believe it. No, he’s not a charlatan; no, he’s not a joke. He’s a believer. It’s for real.

And yet…

The mystery of who and what Leonard Bernstein was is what draws us to accounts of his life, and now to a large collection of his letters, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone. Surely the letters of such a well-educated and literate man, a practiced and effective writer—author of best sellers about music, important lectures, successful television scripts—will be revealing? Alas, it is not so. Despite his cleverness and charm—which definitely come through—we’re left knowing no more, really, than we knew before. The confusion between genius and narcissism, heroism and self-pity, generosity and exploitation remains unresolved. His astounding energies both made him everything he was and undermined him. Was he a composer or a conductor? Was he “serious” (the “Jeremiah” Symphony, Chichester Psalms) or “showbiz” (On the Town, West Side Story)? Was he straight (his beloved Felicia, and their three cherished children) or gay (just about everyone else)? Was he loyal to his friends and benefactors or careless with them? Was he deeply emotional or merely sentimental? Did he use his extraordinary powers wholesomely or did he dissipate them? And what really mattered to him?

He’s not going to tell us, but the Letters, read in conjunction with Humphrey Burton’s excellent 1994 biography, Leonard Bernstein, suggest that there were three things that motored him: music, of course; his family, despite (or because of) the conflicts; his Judaism (and his belief in Israel). The money, the celebrity, the sex were front and center, but not, in the long run, central.

Letters came easily to the young Bernstein—he’s as fluent a writer as he’s fluent at everything else—and he understands how self-centered he is. (To his great pal Kenny Ehrman, he once said, “Who do I think I am, everybody?” To Helen Coates, first his piano teacher, later, and for decades, his assistant, guide, life-support system: “Before I forget myself and write an ‘I’ letter, I want to wish you a very pleasant summer.” He pours out his heart to just about everybody. He’s met the perfect girl (boy). He’s written this, he’s done that. So-and-so complimented him, so-and-so is giving him a hand up. Always there’s the assumption that anyone he’s writing to wants to know everything about him—a narcissism that’s normal, even touching, in a young man, but less so in a (supposedly) mature one. Think how he would have taken to blogging!


He needs, obsessively, to be appreciated, to be admired, to be loved. He needs people. “You may remember my chief weakness—my love for people,” he writes Ehrman in 1939 (he’s twenty). “I need them all the time—every moment. It’s something that perhaps you cannot understand: but I cannot spend one day alone without becoming utterly depressed. Any people will do. It’s a terrible fault.” He needs to be witnessed—at bottom, he’s a performer, and his letters are performances. Only to a few people—his sister and brother, for instance—does he talk straight: when he tells them what’s been happening and that he loves and misses them, it’s the real Lenny who’s talking—if there is a real Lenny.

There’s a special category of letter in his early years—the flattering cries for attention of a young man on the make. By the time he was twenty, he had cast a spell over a series of major musicians. Of course they were also responding to his extraordinary abilities, apparent to everyone from the very start—the music world knew at once that he was a prodigy and a future leader. And they were drawn by his good looks and intelligence and personal magnetism. But their partiality was certainly enhanced by the way he approached them. To Aaron Copland, the first of his formidable mentors, in April 1942:

It would have been wonderful to see you. God, yes. On our first beautiful spring day. And we would have walked in all Boston’s parks and spoken long, quietly & with heart. Such gab. Can’t you come anyway? We must have a session on the Copland youth opera, you know. The master’s interpretation. Hell, I miss you so.

This relationship, which either did or did not begin as a love affair, was probably the most durable and nurturing of Lenny’s life. There were ups and downs, but Copland always cared about his younger friend, and Lenny always revered him. One of his most persuasive pieces of writing was the speech of introduction he gave at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979, which ended:

Usually men of such restraint and moderation, who also harbor such tumultuous inner passions and rages, are sick men, psychotics who are prone to unpredictable and irrational explosions. Not so Aaron…. The man is sanity itself—and that is why the first moment I met him—on his 37th birthday—I trusted him instantly and relied completely on his judgment as gospel and have done so ever since. It is my honor to present him to you, my first friend in New York, my master, my idol, my sage, my shrink, the closest thing to a composition teacher I ever had, my guide, my counselor, my elder brother, my beloved friend—Aaron Copland.

His exchanges with the formidable conductor Dmitri Mitropolous, a tormented (gay) man, are painful. Mitropolous is so lonely, so needy, that the attentions Lenny paid him became essential to him. He wrote to Lenny, “And, dear boy, I need your appreciation, your respect, your love! It is of great importance in my life…. May I ask a small picture of you to be my companion on my Europe trip?” And a month later:

Can you imagine for a moment, I thought I lost your love, and then, I was asked me [sic], perhaps I am not right to ask anything, to expect anything, from anybody, that my destiny is to be alone with myself and my art. But you my dear friend, tell me, it is not so, I am something for you, yes…don’t forget me. Goodbye dear, Dmitri.

Humphrey Burton believes that the relationship was not sexual, that “theirs was essentially a spiritual friendship.” But Dmitri’s language is the language of love, and although Lenny venerated him, he also took advantage of the conducting opportunities Mitropolous afforded him. Was it conscious advantage? Lenny simply could not help being seductive, and the older man could not help being emotionally seduced.

He was also wooing Fritz Reiner (Pittsburgh) and Arthur Rodzinski (New York Philharmonic), both of whom boosted his career. Later, he even captivated the greatest lion of them all, Toscanini, who in 1949 wrote to him, as quoted in Burton’s biography, “Your kind visit and dear letter made me very, very happy…. I felt myself 40 years younger.” (Alas, we do not have the “dear letter.”)

The most intense barrage of Bernsteinian flattery was aimed at the man who more than anyone else forwarded his career, America’s most influential conductor, Serge Kous-sevitsky (Boston Symphony, Tanglewood). One example, from 1943, early in their relationship:

Dear Doctor, Every once in a while I am appalled at the idea that I never see you—and I feel that I must write to you, or talk to you, if for no other reason than my constant warmth of affection for you. No matter how much time elapses without seeing you, you are always with me, guiding my work, providing the standards by which I measure my progress in our art. And today I feel simply that I must communicate with you, out of love and friendship—that is all.

Not long afterward, it’s love from “Lenushka.” And in 1945—he’s conducting around the country—


Every time I lift my arms to conduct I am filled with a sense of wonder at the great insight that has flowed from you to me…. It is something for which I thank you every day of my life—something which has freed me and given me a welcome bondage—as Prospero to Ariel…and when I feel this way, I always find I can express it best to you and through you to the Universal Creative Mind, to which you are closer than I.

It’s clear that Koussevitsky’s ego was as formidable as Bernstein’s powers of flattering it, and by 1946 the maestro is growing touchy. There’s a disagreement over programming a concert that Lenny is to conduct for Dr. K’s Boston orchestra, and Lenny has, apparently, taken liberties. Dr. K. snaps at him and instantly Lenny—“deeply grieved”—recants, apologizes, grovels. “Is there an evil element in my nature that makes me do and say immoral things? Is it that I say one thing and mean another? Or is it that communication between two people who are as close to each other is so difficult?”

The breach is repaired, but things are never again as they were. Because by this time, of course, Bernstein is no longer the eager beginner, grappling for a foothold in the world of classical music, but a public phenomenon: he’s enjoyed the triumph—front-page headlines (“BOY CONDUCTOR GETS HIS CHANCE”)—of his last-minute substitution for Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic; he’s written his “Jeremiah” Symphony; and his score for Jerome Robbins’s smash-hit ballet Fancy Free, followed by the musical based on it, On the Town, has made him not only a star but a celebrity. One of Lenny’s finest qualities was his loyalty, and he never fully turned away from Koussevitsky or his family, but he no longer needed him.

His esteem for great conductors was real, even fervent. Consider the genuine outpouring of respect and affection expressed in the letter he wrote to the dying almost-ninety-year-old Karl Böhm in 1981, ending:

You are young. Please stay so, for me, for my colleagues, for the holy art. What you have done in music has already made you immortal; does that not encourage you to remain with us, and teach us forever? I pray for you, as does the whole world of music. With devotion, Bernstein.

Alas, Böhm died the day after this letter was written, but the important thing is that Lenny obviously means it all—at least at the moment of writing. He may be carried away by his feelings, but being carried away by one’s feelings, however fleeting, isn’t as great a crime as not having any.


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?