“The Leonard Bernstein Letters” edited by Simeone Nigel— A Intimate Look at Bernstein

leonard bernstein letters

Simeone, Nigel (editor). “The Leonard Bernstein Letters”, Yale University Press, 2013.

A Intimate Look at Bernstein

Amos Lassen

Aaron Copeland, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Thornton Wilder, Boris Pasternak, Bette Davis, Adolph Green and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are just some of the recipients of letters from Leonard Bernstein.

We all knew Bernstein as an American genius, one of the great orchestra conductors of the 20th century, a fantastic composer of hit musicals and symphonies and ballets. He was also a teacher and a personality. These titles are about the public Bernstein. His letters show us the private side of his life.

Bernstein has been gone for over 20 years yet his name lives on. Now we get a look at 650 of his letters that shows us other aspects of the man we all knew as public personality. We learn here that about one-third of his letters were correspondence with members of his family and these were sealed until late 2010 and are now in the Library of Congress in Bernstein’s archives. Then are the others letters and those written to him and what we see in them is a man who was conflicted and who worked hard to balance his roles as a conductor and composer and as a devoted father to three children who also enjoyed sex with men. We also read that he was being followed by the FBI even while he was an international celebrity. What surprisingly comes out of the letters is that Bernstein was a man who suffered from self-doubt and was filled with contradictions.

I felt like I was peeking into his life as I read the letters. In one letter dated 1949 du from Arthur Laurents we learn that Bernstein threatened to pull out of the project that eventually became “West Side Story” but we do not see the reasons for this. Laurents does state that there were hostilities between Bernstein and himself. If there was a response from Bernstein, it is not among the letters here. We do see that he recommitted to the show in 1955 due to the urging of Jerome Robbins. In other letters we see how he worked with Robbins.

There is here a proposal for an opera about the life of Eva Peron in a letter from Marc Blitzstein. There is also a proposal for a collaboration with Ingmar Bergman on Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” that did not come to be.

Other letters tell about “Bernstein’s efforts to commission works from fellow composers, to encourage Stravinsky to come and conduct the orchestra, and arrange events like Aaron Copland’s 60th birthday concert. A regular visitor to the White House during the Kennedy years, he later exchanged several letters with Jacqueline Kennedy after organizing music for Robert Kennedy’s funeral”.

We get a look at Bernstein’s political life. There was the time that he had a great deal of trouble when he tried to renew his passport; this was probably due to the fact that he was being closely watched by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Editor Simeone includes a sworn affidavit from Aug. 3, 1953 to the State Department that served as a kind of “loyalty oath,” providing exhaustive details of all of the organizations of which he had been a member. Bernstein wrote to his brother Burton, and to composer David Diamond, about the humiliation of the episode.

Bernstein had a very complex love life. Through his letters in the 1930s and 40s we see his relationships with some of his colleagues—Aaron Copland, David Diamond and clarinetist David Oppenheim. We read of his romance with actress Felicia Montealegre and see that it took some time for marriage plans to develop because Montealegre wanted an acting career and was clearly torn about being Bernstein’s wife. She wrote to him, “You are a homosexual and may never change,” but then in 1952 she wrote, “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” Felicia was well aware of her husband’s dalliances with men and both she and Bernstein saw their marriage as an experiment and while Bernstein liked being married to her, he seems not to have an idea about what was involved in being married.

“Some letters are serious; some are silly. There are mash notes from Bette Davis and word games with Stephen Sondheim. Simeone says these letters, with family, friends, lovers and colleagues, reveal a private Bernstein”. We see the maestro as confused and insecure and whatever and all the things that we all are. Simeone says that he finds that “actually, rather endearing.” There are several letters between Bernstein and Aaron Copeland. They first met when Bernstein was a sophomore at Harvard and it was that relationship that caused Bernstein to be a major Copeland cheerleader. Have a look at this:

“What terrifying letters you write: fit for the flames is what they are. Just imagine how much you would have to pay to retrieve such a letter forty years from now when you are conductor of the Philharmonic.” In 1957, Bernstein became the aforementioned director.

Another interesting conflict was when Bernstein questioned putting his energies into conducting or composing. Here is what he wrote to his college roommate, “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.” Composing was lonely.

There are some other little tidbits here. Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, relates this, “I think Steve Sondheim was the one who said there were only two things that my father was afraid of, and they were God and Jerome Robbins,” she says. “And that was the joke. But it was kind of true.” There are several letters between the two and according to Jamie Bernstein,  “I think Robbins was one of the very, very few people who could really make Bernstein do what he thought he should be doing and really just insist on bringing out the best of him,” says Simeone. “There’s a kind of fierce work ethic there, as well as just plain fierceness, sometimes.”

There are some tender letters between Bernstein and his wife, Felicia. He was a devoted husband and father. In one of the letters, she acknowledges her husband’s sexuality, “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?”

 Bernstein’s letters tell much about this complex man and his collaborators, mentors, and others that were close to him. Most of these letters have never been published before. Simeone has chosen those that demonstrate the breadth of Bernstein’s musical interests, his struggle to find the time to compose, his “turbulent and complex sexuality, his political activities, and his endless capacity for hard work”. It is just fascinating to meet the guy behind the legend that he created for and about himself.


2 thoughts on ““The Leonard Bernstein Letters” edited by Simeone Nigel— A Intimate Look at Bernstein

  1. Nigel Simeone

    Thanks for the very nice and enthusiastic review of my book! I’m so glad you found it interesting.
    A tiny thing: Can I ask you to correct the typo in my surname in the heading? I’m Nigel Simeone (not Nigel “Simone”).


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