Leonard Bernstein. The name almost speaks for itself. (The man certainly did.) Even those who do not follow classical music have heard of Leonard Bernstein. Indeed, there have been few classical composers and conductors in the twentieth century as well known and highly regarded throughout the world.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918, Bernstein came from a family that produced many rabbis, and he shared the urge to teach, preach and impart wisdom. He referred to his “lurking didactic streak.” Although his father wanted him to join the family business, Bernstein’s passion was for music. He studied music at Harvard and determined his calling was to compose and conduct. He later studied with the eminent (and also Jewish) conductor and composer Serge Koussevitzky, who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra and became a mentor.
Another important figure in his life was the composer Aaron Copland. After Koussevitzky and the composer Roy Harris advised to adopt a non-Jewish last name to advance his career, Bernstein wrote to Copland, “I suppose I haven’t approached [Koussevitzky’s] model for me sufficiently. I haven’t changed my name, or learned to schmoos, or become a dignified continental. The hell with it.”
Bernstein’s big break came during World War II when, due in part to a dearth of conductors caused by the draft, he won the position of assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic. Offered the chance to step in for an ill conductor and lead the orchestra in 1943, Bernstein grabbed it. He wowed concertgoers with his passionate, inspired performance. The next day’s New York Times marveled at this new talent. Leonard Bernstein had arrived.
Although he was gay, in 1946 Bernstein met and fell for the glamorous Costa Rican-born actress Felicia Montealegre. In 1947, Bernstein’s analyst, Marketa Morris, wrote to him of their courtship: “You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy. The same old pattern. You can’t give up.” Nevertheless Felicia and Bernstein got engaged. Then, however, Bernstein broke off the engagement because, he told her, he was gay and could not make her happy. Evidently she thought otherwise, and continued to pursue him, eventually successfully. The couple married in 1951. In some ways their union was an experiment, given his sexuality, but they loved one another.
“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?” Felicia wrote to Bernstein. “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?),” she continued, adding, “Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please! […] Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?”
They had a daughter, Jamie, in 1952, a son, Alexander, in 1955, and a second daughter, Nina, in 1962. Bernstein was apparently a devoted, dedicated father, which is perhaps unsurprising given his passion for people. As he wrote to a friend in 1939, “You may remember my chief weakness—my love for people. 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.”
Bernstein was an avid letter-writer and his correspondence with Copland went on for decades. “I suppose if there’s one person on earth who is at the center of my life, it’s you;” Bernstein wrote to the older composer. “And day after day I recognize in my living your presence, your laugh, your peculiar mixture of intensity and calm . . . I hope you live forever.” As fate would have it, Copland, born 18 years before Bernstein, would outlive him. Bernstein once said of Copland, “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.”
In 1968, aged just 50, Bernstein retired from conducting the New York Philharmonic in order to focus on composing. In the course of his illustrious career he penned operas, musicals, orchestra pieces, ballets and film scores. Perhaps his most famous works are West Side Story, Peter Pan, On the Town, and Candide.
In 1976, Bernstein and Felicia separated and he moved in with a young male musician. Felicia was livid; she felt humiliated and wronged. Shortly after, the two gave a holiday performance of Peter and the Wolf, which he conducted and she narrated. After the concert, someone presented Bernstein with a large bouquet, which he walked over to present to Felicia. Furious, she pivoted and walked off—the flowers falling to the ground. The audience had been applauding wildly; in unison it gasped.
“You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man,” Felicia apparently told Bernstein. But not long after it was she who was diagnosed with a fatal condition—lung cancer—and Bernstein immediately moved back to the family home. He cared for Felicia until her death at the age of 56 in 1978. But he blamed himself for her death, and never forgave himself or forgot her curse. A heavy smoker, Bernstein himself died of lung disease in 1990.
Bernstein was a proud Jew and keen Zionist who spoke fluent Hebrew. He was in Israel at its founding and revisited the Jewish State to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection on Mount Scopus after its reconquest as a result of the Six-Day War. Although not a religious man, he would always go to as many synagogues as possible on Yom Kippur to hear Kol Nidre. “My father would always go shul hopping that night, or as he explained it, ‘a little bit of Kol Nidre here and a little bit there’,” Jamie told The Jewish Chronicle. “Together with my brother they would visit a handful of synagogues around New York and even though each one was sold out, they would always find room for Dad. You can only imagine the faces of the chazans when they spotted Leonard Bernstein in the congregation. They must have been trembling in their tallit.”