Not Even Letters Can Solve the Mystery of Who Leonard Bernstein Really Was

[5 February 2014]

By Jose Solis

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most iconic American figures of the 20th century. He became a superstar conductor in the late ‘60s and one of the most prominent artists in the world. He was president of the London Symphony Orchestra and a guest conductor with both the Vienna and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as one of the most beloved public figures in the United States through his appearances on television during the golden age of the medium.

Bernstein imposed a style of conducting that allowed orchestrators to play freely with the tempos and rhythms of the masters. He worshipped Mahler but didn’t think twice before tweaking some of his most famous compositions. He also became an incomparable teacher, helping form future conductors.

His life brimmed with richness and success, yet there was always something that suggested Bernstein wasn’t completely happy (something that could arguably be said about “any” other important figure). In order to find more about who he was, Nigel Simeone has edited and put together a book comprising all of Leonard’s correspondence between 1933 and 1990, simply titled The Leonard Bernstein Letters (the last letter in the book is dated 10 October 1990, Bernstein died just four days later at age 72). While it has become cliché to expect people to completely reveal themselves in their letters and journals, the most fascinating element about Bernstein’s letters is that he was inventing a character his entire life.

For example, it took Bernstein decades before he came to accept himself as a gay man and while it’s understandable to see why he couldn’t live his life in public during his heyday, we find him inventing a heterosexual persona for himself. “You’re not the only one who’s met a nice girl” he wrote to his friend Sid Ramin in 1933, “last night a crowd of us went for a moonlight swim—and I met her—and well, we’re kinda interested in each other.” It’s perplexing to see him write with such passion about something that wasn’t part of who he was.

In his earliest letters we discover he was a man of eternal contradictions; fully aware of what was wrong for him, but still doing it, “I’m on a ‘no cigarette’´campaign, I’m trying my darndest not to smoke” he writes to Ramin in 1933. But near the end of his life he’d been suffering from severe emphysema for the previous two decades.

In 1951, Bernstein married Costa Rican actress Felicia Montealegre, with whom he remained married until her death in 1978 and a major part of the book is comprised of letters that tackle their courtship, their times apart from each other and eventually, a living arrangement that allowed for him to be with men whenever he needed to (“Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession” she writes to him).

In a gorgeously sincere letter from a few months after their marriage Felicia wrote “you are a homosexual and may never change.” “Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect,” she reminds him, as if trying to make him feel at ease with who he was. His letters to Felicia from a trip to Italy in 1955, have the strange longing of a child to its mother (he calls her “madrina”, Spanish for godmother) and he often seems to think of their marriage as essential to who he was. He confesses he needs Felicia more than anything else in life, which makes for a sophisticated, but ultimately tragic love story.

While the relationship between Felicia and Leonard is the book’s center, many will be attracted to its contents because of the quantity of “cameos” in it. It seems as is Bernstein was friends with anyone and everyone who mattered in the 20th century; from composer Betty Comden, to Aaron Copland and Arthur Miller (who hilariously expresses his distaste for the sets in the staging of The Crucible). From Lillian Hellman (who suggests she wants to turn Voltaire’s Candide into a musical, something which came to happen in 1956 with Bernstein as composer) to Elia Kazan (who calls him “Maestro” and expresses he’s happy with the acting in On the Waterfront because “nobody has ever seen [any of the actors before] except their mothers” and even Yo-Yo Ma in the late ‘80s. Indeed, The Leonard Bernstein Letters serves as a concise history of some of the most important artistic turns in history.

And if we’ve yet to bring up West Side Story, it’s not because it’s not mentioned in the book (there is a delightful chapter chronicling the entire creative process between Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins, and a peculiar letter in which Aldous Huxley asks Bernstein to create a musical accompaniment to Brave New World), but because it was clear through the composer’s career that he wished he’d been remembered for more than this musical. It’s perhaps only fitting that the very last letter in the West Side Story chapter is one in which Joshua Logan wishes Bernstein good luck in his new job as conductor for the New York Philharmonic.   

Bernstein was a man of pure genius who found a way to make music adjust to his style. While the letters in this book help give us more access to who he might’ve been in his private life, there’s still a sense of mystery surrounding him, as if he had it all and somehow despised it. “The people of the ‘artistic world’ that I encountered on this last trip [to New York] revolt me in every way” he wrote to his friend Kenneth Ehrman in 1939,  “I have been made sick by the depravity of the Greenwich villagers, the totally degenerate homosexuals, the equally degenerate heterosexuals, the foolish and destructive attitudes, and the frantic attempts to preserve the atmosphere of postwar bohemianism.” At times his description of a world where he came to be loved and respected can, in a way, break one’s heart.

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