Harmon, Charlie. “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius”, Imagine Books, 2018.
Day-to-Day with Lenny
With this year being what would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein we have had a large number of books about him being published although every year there seems to be a new “definitive” biography of the maestro. In “On the Road…”, Charlie Harmon makes no such claim as this is not a biography but rather a fascinating look at a fascinating man and it is a fun read. There is also a bonus foreword by Broadway legend Harold Prince.
I met Lenny several times while I was living in Israel and sure enough Harmon captured him beautifully and brought back memories of the penthouse at the Tel Aviv Hilton.
Harmon’s job was twofold— he was hired to manage the day-to-day activities of Bernstein’s life and to make sure Bernstein met the deadline for an opera commission. That deadline was consistently being disturbed by things kept getting in the way such as “the centenary of Igor Stravinsky, intestinal parasites picked up in Mexico, teaching all summer in Los Angeles, a baker’s dozen of young men, plus depression, exhaustion, insomnia, and cut-throat games of anagrams.” That sentence alone should give you an idea of what this book is all about. It is very obviously not a doctoral dissertation but then dissertations are rarely fun to read.
Harmon saw Bernstein everyday for four years and during that time he was Bernstein’s social director, gatekeeper, valet, music copyist, and itinerant orchestra librarian. He was an active participant in his boss’s life and did everything from packing and unpacking suitcases to making sure Bernstein got to concerts on time, made plane connections and knew how to speak to luminaries. There was always music as well (as if that is not the main reason for the adoration of Bernstein).
You are probably wondering whether this book is gossip and I must say that it is, indeed. However, it is not malicious and harmful gossip, rather it is a series of anecdotes that come together to give us a great musician. Now I love gossip as much as the next person and I have my own Bernstein stories that I will never share so I must read other’s stories instead and what I find amazing is that they all sound pretty-much alike.
But it is not all gossip. Bernstein was a superstar and so we have to expect some gossip and of course, we have expected someone to tell these stories. I am glad that it is Harmon that does because his writing is so clear He was just 30 when he got the job after a three hour interview and was not sure that he was not sure he could handle the job. He felt sure he could deal with handling phone calls, mail, and appointments but the packing and unpacking many suitcases for every trip; taking notes during rehearsals and performances; and making sure that Bernstein did not generate negative publicity might have been beyond him. Nonetheless, reservations and all, in 1982, Harmon set off with Bernstein and his entourage to Indiana University for a six-week residency, during which his boss began work on an opera. This was just four years after the death of LB’s wife, Felicia, and he was demanding, impatient, and given to “bouts of fury and bratty behavior.” Harmon figured that Bernstein was still grieving over his wife’s death. Then there was also the Bernstein entourage that included a large and sometimes-divisive cast of characters. Harmon shares that LB was a cruel bully and he drove Harmon to seek help. Yet, on the other hand, Harmon admits that his intimacy with LB’s musicianship gave him “a remarkable education.” So what we have here is salacious gossip about and insight into Leonard Bernstein’s later-life artistry. Be prepared for the name-dropping.
Most of us do not realize what being Leonard Bernstein meant. His schedule was unbelievable and when Harmon was with him, LB was already in his 60s. With all that went on between the two men, Harmon held and still holds great respect and love for Bernstein. You will not find a narrative or a plot here since this book is primarily a collection of stories, I must also compliment Harmon for not mentioning the negatives he had to deal with. He really does not criticize and he had many reasons to do so. He does write about several drunken episodes and other inappropriate behavior but I had the feeling that he knew so much more and just looked the other way. As far as Bernstein’s sexual relationships with other men, there were no real secrets. As far as the Dexedrine use getting out of control, Harmon says that it seemed “like a sensible way to get everything done.” Bernstein’s affairs with various men were never serious and actually took place as “passing asides.” In the epilogue, Harmon says people have asked him if LB was gay and she says he answered ambiguously because it is a non-issue. (Do not share that with the boys in the park in Tel Aviv. I can remember all too well often hearing “Lenny’s back, you know what to do”.
Harmon gives us a man who loved music and loved teaching. He gave of himself to students and if one thing stands out about him it is that he cared. Ultimately, Harmon resigned as personal assistant yet he continued to work for Bernstein as his archivist and editing Bernstein’s scores after his death.