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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

Adam Kirsch
November 04, 2013
Leonard Bernstein at the piano, 1936.(Courtesy Yale University Press)
Leonard Bernstein at the piano, 1936.(Courtesy Yale University Press)

Thanks to YouTube, it’s possible to watch the 1965 concert in which Leonard Bernstein conducted the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Youth Chorus in a performance of his own choral work, Chichester Psalms. What’s mesmerizing about this video, beyond the music itself, is the sheer historical irony at work. Among the Israeli musicians were doubtless to be found refugees from Nazi Vienna; among the Austrian choirboys and girls, there were surely some whose parents had been Nazis themselves. Yet here they are together, under the baton of the world’s most famous Jewish conductor—and they are singing the words of the Psalms as Jews have sung them for millennia, in Hebrew.

Only Leonard Bernstein could have brought about such a dramatic vindication of Jewishness, in the erstwhile heartland of anti-Semitism. Reading about his life and career in The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a marvelously entertaining new book, shows just how famous Bernstein became, and how his fame helped to shape the image of American Jews as the cultural high-achievers of the American Century. From the 1940s through the 1970s, Bernstein was probably the world’s most recognizable classical musician; even today, 23 years after his death, his eagle-like profile and swoop of white hair remain an icon of high-cultural glamour. He was triply famous as a conductor, the longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic; as a classical composer, whose major works dwell explicitly on Jewish themes and texts; and as a Broadway composer, where he reached the widest audience with his scores for West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, and other shows.

In retrospect, it’s possible to see that Bernstein came along at the perfect moment to make the most of his talents. Before the 1940s, the top conductors of American orchestras were all Europeans, and the idea lingered that only in Europe could a world-class musician be made. After the 1970s, the mass prestige of both classical music and Broadway began to collapse, as part of the fragmenting and democratizing of American culture. Today, even a sophisticated New Yorker might struggle to name the conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

But everybody knew Leonard Bernstein. Nigel Simeone, the editor of the Letters, made the good decision to include not just letters Bernstein wrote, but those he received, and it is often the latter that make the most exciting reading. Name a celebrity in any field from the 1940s to the 1970s, and there’s a good chance that he or she will be found in The Leonard Bernstein Letters, showering the maestro with praise. Frank Sinatra is here, asking Bernstein to participate in JFK’s inaugural concert; eight years later, Jacqueline Onassis thanks him for arranging the music for Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. Bette Davis writes him fan letters: “there is probably nothing in the world so encouraging for the future of the world as a super talent in someone—it is the only true inspiration and help in believing the world is really worthwhile.” So does Richard Avedon: “You stand alone. Terrifying, but true.” So does Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in broken English: “probably, only composer who could create music for such kind of theme are you.”

And that’s before you even get to the musicians. Conductors like Serge Koussevitzky, Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, Claudio Abbado, and Georg Solti rave about Bernstein’s conducting. Composers thank him for performing their work so brilliantly: not just the American composers with whom Bernstein is usually associated, such as Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and David Diamond, but Europeans too, including Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen, and Iannis Xenakis. And then there are the theater people, including Bernstein’s collaborators Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Some of this praise doesn’t rise above the level of flattery. Indeed, when the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen sent Bernstein a particularly over-the-top letter, comparing him to Mozart (“There is a secret relationship between your soul and Mozart’s soul, perhaps you know it: brilliant seldom stars appearing from time to time at the sky of this earth … ”), Bernstein forwarded the letter to Foss, who replied with disgust (“Who is that man who dares out-flatter the flatterers?”). Clearly, for all kinds of people, it paid to have Leonard Bernstein as a friend, and as the book goes on, there is an increasingly hectic and impersonal quality to the letters he writes and receives.

It is the people who knew Bernstein as a young man, before his precocious success, who remained his most trustworthy correspondents. Adolph Green, who co-wrote the book for Bernstein’s shows On the Town and Wonderful Town, first met “Lenny” in 1937 at a Jewish summer camp. In a letter written in 1968, Green recalls that summer at “Uncle Lou’s Heavenly Haven for Healthily well-fed young Hebrews,” and the overwhelming impression that the 19-year-old Bernstein made on him: “I felt a sudden, complete exuberance, the fresh air of 1,000,000 windows opening simultaneously and a sense that my life had been building towards a turning point and that it had happened—now.”

This lovely letter captures what many people must have felt encountering the young Bernstein. When admiration for his musical gifts combined with romantic and sexual interest—as it seems to have for Aaron Copland, Bernstein’s first and greatest mentor, and the conductor Dimitris Mitropoulos—the result was a passionate desire to advance the young prodigy’s career. A cynic might call this good tactics on Bernstein’s part. Reading the letters, however, it seems more like an inevitable result of his youth and beauty and talent, which couldn’t help winning conquests on every side.

As a student at Harvard and then at the Curtis Institute of Music, Bernstein was already marked for great things. Copland took an interest in him, as did Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and creator of the Tanglewood Festival, with which Bernstein would long be associated. His annus mirabilis came in 1943-44, when, in quick succession, he made his debut conducting the New York Philharmonic—filling in at the last minute for a sick conductor—then debuted his own Symphony No. 1, and then had a Broadway hit with the ballet On the Town. At the age of 25, he was a celebrity, and from then until his death in 1990, the pace seldom slackened. To read these letters is to be whirled from city to city and continent to continent, accompanied by Bernstein’s reports of rapturous audiences and bowled-over critics and ticket lines stretching down the block. The subtitle of this book could be taken from On the Town: “I’m so lucky to be me.”

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.