By ZACHARY WOOLFE
THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS
Edited by Nigel Simeone
Illustrated. 606 pages. Yale University Press. $38.
“You see, I still don’t really know quite what I want to do,” Leonard Bernstein wrote to a friend in 1939, when he was 20. “Conduct, compose, piano, produce, arrange, etc. I’m all of these and none of them.”
Over the next 50 years, the question was less what he would do than how he would do it all. One of the great cultural personalities of the 20th century, Bernstein (1918-90) had capacious talents and an uncommonly full life.
But “The Leonard Bernstein Letters,” newly selected and edited by Nigel Simeone, feel overlong and curiously thin despite some dazzling pages. While the misconception that Bernstein was a brilliant dilettante was never true, these letters inadvertently advance that criticism, which dogged his career. The book offers sketches of globe-trotting tours and testaments to a conductor and composer’s unlikely celebrity — “Dear Daddy Bernstein,” Louis Armstrong writes in 1959 — more than substance.
The reader of these 650 letters will not discover Bernstein’s feelings about his surprise smash New York Philharmonic debut in 1943. Or his opinion on “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” the eviscerating essay Tom Wolfe published in New York magazine after the Bernsteins hosted a legal-defense fund-raiser for imprisoned Black Panthers in 1970. Or his thoughts about his separation from his wife, Felicia, in 1976 and ’77, when he felt he could finally live openly with a man.
Mr. Simeone writes in his introduction that his selection favors “correspondence that told us something about Bernstein himself, and particularly his life as a musician.” But Bernstein, for all his skill as an educator in his TV specials and the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts, turns out not to be particularly interested in delving deep into music in these letters.
While there are more or less intriguing drafts of potential concert programs, and a memorable tussle with John Cage about Bernstein’s inclusion of an orchestral improvisation in a 1963 Philharmonic concert, there is, for example, no real discussion of his beloved Mahler. (Unless you count his observation, to his conducting mentor Serge Koussevitzky, that the Seventh Symphony “has marvelous things in it, and is also very long.”)
His accounts of the musicians with whom he worked are just as unilluminating. “Callas is greater than ever,” he writes while rehearsing Bellini’s “Sonnambula” with her in Milan. She “sings like a doll.”
We get little sense of Bernstein, who was constantly on tour, as a profound observer of the world. “Germany and Austria were fabulous, filthy, Nazi, exciting,” he writes, which may well have been true in 1948, but skims the surface nevertheless. There’s a dashed-off quality to many of these travelogues: a lot of “Milano was the greatest” and “Paris a joy, as ever.”
For all the scope of his travel and acquaintance, this volume has a hermetic quality. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt is a perpetual specter, but otherwise politics is mostly absent. There is practically no mention in the letters of art, literature, film or theater other than the shows Bernstein and his friends were working on. Janis Ian, who performed her “Society’s Child” on a Bernstein TV special, wrote him two adorable letters — the first signed “Janis Ian (me)” — but that’s about it as far as pop goes.
Bernstein, a vivid musician and communicator, may well have been simply a prodigious yet unrevealing correspondent. His interlocutors frequently turn out to be more entertaining, wide-ranging writers than he is. “Should we not give Carnegie Hall the last lubrication before she will die?” Stockhausen inquires in a fabulously demented 1959 missive.
The novelist and journalist Martha Gellhorn is unsurprisingly deep and serious; her reply to Bernstein’s letter about meeting her ex-husband, Ernest Hemingway, blows Bernstein’s superficial account out of the water. Jacqueline Kennedy is a more acute, articulate listener than Bernstein himself when she writes of the “sensitive trembling” of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, “this strange music of all the gods who were crying,” in the book’s most extraordinary letter, written at 4 in the morning on June 9, 1968, hours after Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral.
These are not the only highlights. The early letters — including exchanges with some hilarious school friends as well as with Bette Davis, an admirer — have incredible charm, laced with arrogance. “The feeling is mostly sweet plus cocky,” Bernstein wrote to Jerome Robbins in 1944 about a passage in their ballet “Fancy Free,” and the same could be said for most of the early correspondence, including, most important, the start of a rich decades-long friendship with Aaron Copland.
The Copland-Bernstein letters are the most intimate sustained interaction in the book, with expansive candor — rare for Bernstein, as we can see — about sexuality and music. “Sweetie, the end is a sin,” Bernstein writes to him about his Third Symphony, criticism that Copland took in stride, as he took all of Bernstein’s incorrigible hectoring.
But too much of the book feels vague — an oddly cool glimpse toward vibrant personalities. If there is poignancy to the letters, it is from reading between the lines what has always been wrenching about Bernstein: his desire to compose when all the world wanted was more of his conducting, and the burden of “West Side Story” as he sought fame for his more “serious” operas, symphonies and masses. (Mr. Simeone, the author of “Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story,” leans rather too heavily on letters about that pathbreaking show’s genesis.)
So it’s a tiny heartbreak when Ronald Reagan, in a note on Bernstein’s 70th birthday, praises him for his music “from ‘West Side Story’ to ‘On the Waterfront,’ ” summing up decades of work in two scores that were by then more than 30 years old.
Even sympathetic listeners like Walter Hussey, the priest who commissioned Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” wanted more of the same. “I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of ‘West Side Story’ about the music,” Hussey wrote to him in 1964.
As it happens, that letter from Hussey is quoted in Humphrey Burton’s 1994 biography of Bernstein, as are many of the most important letters here. The new volume is best appreciated as an appendix to Mr. Burton’s comprehensive, fluent and fair work. The letters on their own don’t take us much deeper into the man — or into the culture of which he was so vital a part — than we’ve already gone.