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Leonard Bernstein, the Man Behind the Legend of the Jewish Maestro

Homosexuality, Jewishness, and Zionism, in the newly collected letters of the charismatic musician

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Leonard Bernstein at the piano, 1936. (Courtesy Yale University Press)
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But of course, Bernstein’s life was not so simple. One of the major subjects in the early letters is his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality, in part through psychoanalysis at the hands of a German woman he refers to only, forbiddingly, as “the Frau.” While he clearly had an active and enjoyable sex-life—there are plenty of gossipy references to lovers and affairs, especially in the letters to Copland—Bernstein also seems to have endured the standard Freudian guilt trip about being gay. A letter from another therapist, this time a Jungian, is premised on the idea that homosexuality was a sign of immaturity, which had to be worked through on the way to becoming straight: “That shows very nicely why you are so eagerly seek homosexual contact in reality, it seems the way out or the escape from the fear of being caught in bourgeois patterns.”

Happily, the woman he eventually married—Felicia, an actress born in Chile—accepted Bernstein on his own terms: “You are a homosexual and may never change,” she wrote him in 1951, shortly after their wedding. “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” After some early troubles, the letters show them settling into a strong partnership, whose basis was their love for their three children. Still, it is clear that the L.B. career always came first, and Bernstein was often away from home, sending home friendly but not exactly intimate travelogues to his family in New York.

Another aspect of Bernstein’s identity, however, seems never to have given him any cause for self-doubt. This is his Jewishness, which stands at the center of these letters, as it did in Bernstein’s public image. At the beginning of his career, Koussevitzky, who was Jewish himself, advised Bernstein to change his name to something less conspicuously ethnic, if he wanted to succeed in the world of classical music. (Oddly, in 1968, Bernstein received a letter from another conductor who had received the same advice from Koussevitzky and followed it; he too was born Bernstein but became known as Harold Byrns.)

Bernstein didn’t just keep his name, however. He drew his first symphony, “Jeremiah,” from biblical texts, and his third, “Kaddish,” from the Jewish prayer of mourning. When the dean of Chichester Cathedral wrote him to commission a choral setting of the Psalms, Bernstein agreed, on the condition that he could set the words in Hebrew rather than English. Even his theater music, while less explicitly Jewish, can be seen as expressing the best of mid-century American Jewish liberalism—as in the humanist message of West Side Story, or the irony of Candide. (The song “I Am Easily Assimilated,” in the latter, is a kind of wry anthem for the Jewish immigrant experience.)

No less significant was his early and highly visible support of Israel, which he visited for first time during the War of Independence, conducting concerts “sometimes accompanied by shells and machine guns outside.” The achievements of Zionism touched him deeply; he wrote:

I have visited the fronts, entered Notre Dame, where we held out a few paces only from Arab-British guns, inspected the strategic heights around the city and the Palmach bases. I have played piano in hospitals for the new wounded of the Negev, and in camps for soldiers and Kibbutzim people. I have been decorated with the Jerusalem Defense medal and the Palmach insignia. I have almost grown to be a part of all these wonderful people and history-making days.

About Israel, as about everything else, Bernstein was an enthusiast. The Leonard Bernstein Letters makes it possible to take stock of Bernstein’s weaknesses—his enthusiasm could lead to sentimentality, and clearly his fame became a kind of bubble. But these pale in comparison with his energy, joy, and absolute dedication to music. It’s sad to think that our culture will probably never produce someone like him again.

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Leonard Bernstein, the Man Behind the Legend of the Jewish Maestro

Homosexuality, Jewishness, and Zionism, in the newly collected letters of the charismatic musician

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