By JOHN ROCKWELL
THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS
Edited by Nigel Simeone
Illustrated. 606 pp. Yale University Press. $38.
Whenever a generous collection of correspondence like “The Leonard Bernstein Letters” appears, one rejoices, but sadly. People still write one another, though usually through electronic and social media that discourage leisurely soul-searching or digressions. Lenny was lucky he didn’t live later, or we’d have “The Leonard Bernstein Tweets.”
“Letters are impossible,” Bernstein once complained to Aaron Copland, but that hardly stopped him from writing them. Most of the letters here offer glimpses of his personality rather than insights into his compositions or conducting. There is some of that, as in exchanges with David Diamond, Marc Blitzstein, John Cage and Gunther Schuller. Yet despite discussions with collaborators like Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, this is hardly a latter-day version of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence, which remains the ultimate depiction of a long-distance working relationship. Bernstein’s subjects offer more about love and affection and concert triumphs than deep insights. They open up a window into his dazzling personality and his close relations with an expansive range of friends, and a smaller circle of truly close friends, often dating back to his youth (Copland, Adolph Green, the producer David Oppenheim, the orchestrator Sid Ramin and more), and, above all, family.
That Bernstein was bisexual was no secret in his later years, and he has been outed (snarkily, awkwardly, gleefully) since his death. Here he outs himself, through frank exchanges with his new wife, Felicia Montealegre, with whom he formed an unspoken covenant: He could have affairs with men, he could lead his “double life,” as long as he was reasonably discreet. In a wonderful letter from 1951 or ’52, shortly after their marriage, Felicia wrote: “You are a homosexual and may never change. . . . Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession. . . . Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect.” When he stopped being discreet in the 1970s, after his wife had had a mastectomy four years before her death from lung cancer, they separated, although Bernstein came back, racked with guilt, as she was dying.
Bernstein was torn by most any dichotomy, and homosexual versus heterosexual love was high on the list. He suffered through years of therapy, apparently in the hope that he could be “cured.” But his desire for men lasted a lifetime: “I have been engaged in an imaginary life with Felicia,” he wrote his sister, Shirley, from Israel in 1950, “having her by my side on the beach as a shockingly beautiful Yemenite boy passes.”
For Bernstein, though, the anchor of his wild life became family and home. The letters from the 1950s and ’60s overflow with devotion to his wife and their three children; “tenderness and mutual respect” have mutated into something very much like passion. Particularly charming is the Bernstein family’s love of nicknames and made-up words. Lenny is Lennuhtt; Felicia signs off as Mï laü dü, Tia, Fely, which is pretty clear. Everyone is an “ape”; games and poems and puzzles abound. Not just in his overflowing musicality, Bernstein recalls Mozart, with their shared childlike wonder in play.
Beyond sex and family there were artistic dichotomies, too, so many that one has to wonder if guilt drove him creatively. There was the piano versus conducting versus composing. Within composing there was Broadway versus the classics. There were television shows and books and prestigious lectures and even, almost, Hollywood acting (in 1945 Bernstein discussed the possibility of playing Tchaikovsky opposite Greta Garbo as Tchaikovsky’s platonic patron Mme. von Meck).
He could joke about the dizzying diversity of his gifts: “Someday, preferably soon, I simply must decide what I’m going to be when I grow up,” he wrote in 1955. But sometimes the correspondence grows angry, even bitter. “I haven’t the vaguest idea of what has happened to the real Lenny and even if he exists anymore,” wrote his longtime friend Shirley Gabis in 1944. “Although you are headed for a brilliant career, it will never be a great one. Your driving ambition to be the most versatile creature on earth will kill any possibility of you becoming a truly great artist in any one of the talents you possess. . . . Is your mission in life to be the greatest of all dilettantes?”
Harsh, but according to some true. Would he have triumphed even more had he stuck to musicals? Or conducting? Yet as the glow of his incandescent personality has faded since his death in 1990, and eclecticism has become the classical norm, we can see his mature compositions more clearly, and several, like “Mass” (1971) and “A Quiet Place” (1983), have been favorably reconsidered. They stand along with “Fancy Free” and “On the Town” and “West Side Story” and “Candide” and the symphonies. And the majesty of his conducting of the classics, which remain with us in recordings.
There is more here, a lot more. He died with horrible lung issues, and the constant references in the letters to colds and sinus infections and bronchitis and the flu, and to smoking, give one pause. There are eloquent letters from Martha Gellhorn, the noted war correspondent and, for five years, wife of Ernest Hemingway. Jackie Kennedy sends him a moving letter written at 4 a.m. after Robert Kennedy’s funeral, whose music Bernstein oversaw. His passionate support of John F. Kennedy and social justice shines through, as does his championing of American composers and his almost giddy enthusiasm for the nascent state of Israel.
But (and here come the buts): The vast bulk of Bernstein’s letters are in the Library of Congress. “You save every scrap of correspondence you get,” Betty Comden wrote him in 1950, and since his death others have come forward with letters in their possession.
As editor, Nigel Simeone had to winnow this trove, and without reading all the letters it is impossible to judge his selection. The correspondence trails off in later years, with six-month gaps between some entries and lots of brief, heartfelt but formulaic birthday greetings. Maybe Bernstein was too busy to write. Or depressed or distracted. Maybe some of the more lurid letters have been redacted by all sorts of hands, from his longtime, fiercely loyal secretary, Helen Coates, to the estate to Simeone himself.
Then there are oddities. There is a surfeit of fascinating exchanges among the collaborators on “West Side Story,” but that creative process has already been the subject of entire books, one by Simeone himself. The footnotes are a mess — sometimes coming long after a first mention of a name, sometimes redundant, sometimes confusing; one relies on the index to sort things out. Mixed in with the letters are pièces d’occasion and speeches and an affidavit; do they belong here? The two appendixes seem irrelevant.
For all its many pleasures and insights into an extraordinary man, this collection must be considered an addendum to Humphrey Burton’s biography, “Leonard Bernstein,” which was written with family access and which quotes many of these key letters. Burton plows along devotedly but is clear and coherent in a way these letters are not. Still, for those who knew Lenny, however casually, and for those many more who admired him from near and afar, this remains a collection to cherish. It reminds us vividly of a remarkable man, remarkable despite all his delirious flaws, or because of them.
John Rockwell, a longtime arts critic for The Times, profiled Leonard Bernstein for The Times Magazine in 1986 and is editing a Times book about the 1960s.