A new biography is overly impressed by Leonard Bernstein’s liberal politics
It’s a rare musician who requires a biography devoted solely to his or her political activities. But as Barry Seldes shows in Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, Bernstein is one of those exceptional cases. For his entire adult life, Bernstein was perhaps the most famous composer and conductor in America—which is not the same thing as being the best—and he had no qualms about using his artistic fame to advance his political beliefs. Whenever there was a liberal cause that needed support, Bernstein was there: he was involved with the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee in the 1930s, supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party in the 1940s, clashed with HUAC in the 1950s, marched on Selma in the 1960s, fought for gay rights and AIDS research and the NEA in the 1970s and 1980s. More problematically for his artistic legacy, he also sought to infuse his political views into his music. Many of Bernstein’s biggest compositions, from West Side Story to The Age of Anxiety to Mass, were conceived as vehicles for his didactic liberalism.
The problem that Seldes faces in writing about Bernstein, then, is not to prove that politics mattered to him. Clearly, as Seldes writes in his introduction, “to ignore the impact of political forces upon Bernstein is to miss out on much of what enlivened and motivated him.” What Seldes must prove, rather, is that Bernstein’s politics should matter to us. For if Bernstein was known as a famous liberal, he is also widely remembered as a fatuous one. That is due largely to a cruelly entertaining article by Tom Wolfe that appeared in New York magazine in 1970, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” Wolfe’s account of a fundraiser held by Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, for the Black Panthers coined a durable phrase to describe the shallow, trendy, self-abasing leftism of the 1960s, and it made Bernstein the living symbol of radical chic. Here is Bernstein talking to Don Cox, the Panthers’ “Field Marshal”:
“When you walk into this house, into this building”—and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doorman downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front—“when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!”
Seldes is wholly admiring of Bernstein’s politics—indeed, he faults his subject only for not being more explicitly radical in his music—and so he is naturally resentful of Wolfe’s influential portrait. He writes, rather primly, that Wolfe’s “characterization was terribly insulting and inappropriate.” Yet if you read Wolfe’s whole piece, it is clear that it was much more than just an attack on Bernstein. It was, rather, an exploration of Jewish status anxiety, and Wolfe convincingly argues that it was Bernstein’s Jewishness, and that of so many of his rich guests, which led them to identify with the oppressed even after they were so evidently part of the elite:
Among the new socialites of the 1960s, especially those from the one-time “minorities,” this old social urge to do well by doing good, as it says in the song, has taken a more specific political direction. This has often been true of Jewish socialites and culturati, although it has by no means been confined to them. Politically, Jews have been unique among the groups that came to New York in the great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many such groups, of course, were Left or liberal during the first generation, but as families began to achieve wealth, success, or, simply, security, they tended to grow more and more conservative in philosophy. The Irish are a case in point. But forced by 20th as well as 19th century history to remain on guard against right-wing movements, even wealthy and successful Jewish families have tended to remain faithful to their original liberal-left worldview.
The story that Seldes has to tell is basically the same. Bernstein’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, who settled in Lawrence, Massachusetts and made a good living in the beauty-supply business. Leonard, born in 1918, was drawn to the piano as a child and stuck to it despite his father’s opposition, attending Harvard as a music major. (I am not sure, however, that Seldes is right to say that “music making was a craft held in low esteem by Eastern European Orthodox Jews, whose religious tradition had no Bachs.” There was certainly a flourishing tradition of Jewish musical prodigies, and many a Jewish father—though apparently not Bernstein’s—hoped his son would turn out to be the next Heifetz.)
His first introduction to the wider musical world came in 1938, when the 19-year-old Bernstein found himself seated next to Aaron Copland at a concert in New York. They struck up a conversation, and Copland, already celebrated as an advanced American composer, invited Bernstein to a party where the guests included Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles. Bernstein wowed them by playing Copland’s Piano Variations from memory, and his meteoric social rise began. Soon he was friendly with actors and directors like Harold Clurman, Clifford Odets, and Elia Kazan, the stars of the left-wing Group Theatre. This was the empyrean of Popular Front culture—politically radical, culturally populist, and largely Jewish—and it left a permanent impress on Bernstein’s idea of what music should be. Mark Blitzstein’s agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock, Seldes suggests, became a model for Bernstein’s ambition to compose a new kind of American opera.
Almost immediately, Bernstein began to show how easily he could cross the conventional boundaries between art music and popular music, conducting and composing, culture and politics. In the summer of 1943 he was named assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic; in January 1944 he debuted his Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah; in April came the premiere of Fancy Free, the ballet he wrote with Jerome Robbins. It would be hard to imagine a more spectacular entrance on the New York stage, and Seldes aptly quotes the novelist Dawn Powell’s wry observation of “Bernstein, the new wonder boy” basking in “the confidence, super cock-sureness of early success.”
The magic touch never seemed to leave Bernstein. Fancy Free was followed by On the Town and Wonderful Town and West Side Story, and in 1958 he was named music director of the New York Philharmonic. He shook hands with President Eisenhower at the groundbreaking for Lincoln Center, he was on the cover of Time, he performed and lectured on CBS and NBC. His eagle-like profile—the beaky nose and white cowl—became a kind of logo of American high culture.
All the while, Seldes shows, Bernstein kept up his commitment to liberal causes. Whenever there was a petition to sign, or a conference to attend, or a group asking for donations, Bernstein was there—even if the worthy cause was actually a Communist front. Bernstein does not seem to have been a Party member, but he was definitely an active fellow traveler, and his name surfaced in dozens of connections sure to draw the attention of HUAC, once the New Deal years gave way to the Red-baiting 1950s. As friends like Odets and Robbins named names, Bernstein was terrified that he was going to be called before the committee. “I suppose there is nothing to do when your life and career are attacked but strike back with the truth and go honestly to jail if you have to,” he wrote to his sister in 1951. “I hope I’m as brave as I sound from this distance when it catches up to me.”
In the end, Bernstein was never subpoenaed by HUAC. But in order to ensure the renewal of his passport, he did have to produce a cringe-inducing affidavit swearing to his loyalty and Americanism. Interestingly, Seldes notes, one of the bona fides Bernstein offered was his “allegiance to a politically orthodox religion—in his case, Judaism.” As a Jew, he argued, he was “necessarily … a foe of communism,” a historically specious argument but apparently an effective one. Even so, Bernstein was evidently blacklisted by CBS Radio and the New York Philharmonic for a few years in the early 1950s—though his ascent was at most slowed down, never really endangered.
To Seldes, all this is evidence of a political seriousness that can also be found in Bernstein’s music. When Bernstein told an interviewer, in 1948, “I am the logical man to write the Great American Opera,” Seldes sees his “operatic ambition” as “conjoined with his Progressive political aspirations,” in particular with his enthusiasm for the third-party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. And the major thesis of Seldes’ book is that Bernstein’s ultimate failure to produce a great opera or symphony—a failure that haunted his last years—can be attributed to the failure of progressive politics in America. It is in support of this argument that Seldes stirs great undigested chunks of political history into the book: “According to Reagan, government was the real domestic enemy, whereas liberals and progressives argued that his outlook was a cover for proposals to grant tax relief to those in the higher earning brackets and to cut social spending while increasing defense spending.”
Yet Seldes overreaches when he concludes that “Bernstein’s compositional frustration had its roots more in the evolving American social fabric … than in his supposedly limited talents, his idiosyncrasies, his habits, and his psychological dispositions.” This gets the relationship between the artist and society exactly backwards: a genuine artist does not expect society to conform to his preferences, but exposes himself to the confusions of the time in order to find expression for them. There is, in fact, something rather silly in Seldes’s suggestion that America let Bernstein down by voting for Ronald Reagan. If Mahler could draw inspiration from the social chaos of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg could keep composing through two world wars, surely a composer of similar stature could find a way to flourish in the much less adverse conditions of late-20th-century America. It follows pretty clearly that Bernstein was not a composer of that stature, just as he was not a political thinker or activist of lasting interest. Somewhere between Wolfe’s mockery and Seldes’s reverence lies the affection that Bernstein’s achievement, and his memory, actually deserve.