When Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins met 75 years ago, they were young men hungry for their Big Break. Little did they know their partnership would make waves for decades to come.
by LAURA JACOBS
In 1947, the photographer Irving Penn made a black-and-white portrait of a young American musician. He is seated on drab carpeting draped over a chaise-like shape, vaguely old-world. The carpet’s mossy folds throw luxuriant shadows, and the musician upon them wears white tie and tails, a black overcoat caping his shoulders. He is relaxed, his left elbow propped on his left leg, which is hitched up on the seat, and his left cheekbone resting in his left hand as he gazes into the camera. His only visible ear, the right, is large—and as centrally positioned in the portrait as middle C. Is this a fin de siècle poet dressed for the theater? Is that a cigarette butt lying on the floor? Leonard Bernstein never looked more beautiful.
The following year, Penn took a black-and-white photograph of another young American artist, only here the subject is wedged between two walls forming a tight V—a Penn visual trademark. This man, barefoot and wiry, wears a turtleneck and black tights cropped at the calf. His feet press against the walls, a stride that suggests the Colossus of Rhodes. Yet his torso twists in another direction, and his arms are held tightly behind his back, hidden as if handcuffed. His expression is wary. Does the Colossus mistrust the camera or himself? Leave it to Jerome Robbins to choreograph a dance of inner conflict that lasts the length of a shutter’s click.
At this time, most of Penn’s subjects were middle-aged and long-established, but not these two. “Lenny” and “Jerry” were newly minted princes of the city—New York City, the postwar capital of the arts. Both were artists in love with classicism, trained in European traditions yet bending them to their new-world will. And both, in defiance of immigrant fathers who scorned the arts as a losing proposition, had their first big successes at the age of 25.
Each man in his own right was astonishing. Until his death, in 1990, Leonard Bernstein would be the most important musician in America, period. His fourfold eminence as a conductor of the world’s greatest orchestras, a composer of music in myriad forms, a concert pianist, and a teacher on television and at Tanglewood added up to a matchless legacy of accessibility and eloquence, gravity and theatricality, intellectual precision and ecstatic transport. He was a telegenic musical mensch—magisterial. Jerome Robbins, who died in 1998, was less public, a watcher whose uncompromising vision as a choreographer and director—in ballet and on Broadway, in shows filmed and on television—placed the power of dance before America’s baby-boomers and their parents. A storyteller in movement, Robbins daily murdered his darlings and those of his colleagues—dance phrases that were too fancy or distracting, music, text, and emotion that were too much. Truth, moment to moment, was all that mattered. He wasn’t a mensch. He was a perfectionist whose gypsy instinct for the essential, his eye as sharp as a shiv, demanded the best in others or just go home. Few chose to go home. And certainly never Lenny.
Both these men were about energy—positive, negative, generative—and while they racked up stunning achievements separately, they were elevated when joined. Put them together in collaboration—in masterpieces such as the joyous ballet Fancy Free, the breakaway musical On the Town, and the electrifying experiment West Side Story—and you had an ongoing theatrical Manhattan Project, work kinetically detonated, irreducibly true, and oh so American.
They were born within two months of each other, one hundred years ago, in 1918—Louis Bernstein, called “Leonard” by his parents, on August 25 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz on October 11 in New York City. When they first met, 25 years later, it was the kismet of kindred spirits, their upbringings variations on a theme: middle-class, Russian-Jewish, tough love from difficult fathers who were busy achieving the American Dream. Sam Bernstein did well in his own beauty-supply business, having grabbed the New England franchise for the Frederics permanent-wave machine, a device used in beauty salons, and Harry Rabinowitz, after moving the family to Weehawken, New Jersey, ran the Comfort Corset Company. While both men loved music, including the songs of the synagogue, and took pride in the accomplishments of their children (Lenny had younger siblings Shirley and Burton; Jerry an older sister, Sonia), they expected their sons to come into the family business and were horrified by the artistic ambitions blossoming in their homes. When a piano belonging to Aunt Clara was parked in the Bernstein hallway, Lenny, aged 10, found his reason to be. “I remember touching it,” he said, “and that was it. That was my contract with life, with God. . . . I suddenly felt at the center of a universe I could control.” For Jerry, who’d been playing violin and piano from the age of three and who began taking dance classes in high school, “art seemed like a tunnel to me. At the end of that tunnel I could see light where the world opened up, waiting for me.”
Note the shared language of rapture. “Jerry just breathed theater,” says the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who worked with both men. “Lenny had a really wonderful sense of theater, but he breathed music.”
Still, there were crucial differences. Lenny’s mother, Jennie, doted and adored, while Jerry’s mother, Lena, was impossible to please (a favorite gambit: if Jerry misbehaved, she would pretend to call the orphanage with a donation—him). Lenny was educated at Harvard and then on scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music. Jerry, who had to leave New York University after one year because it was too expensive, was permanently insecure about his lack of education. And when it came to being Jewish, Lenny was proud of his heritage. He cherished memories, dating back to his boyhood, of the times he and his father sang together at temple. When Serge Koussevitzky, one of the several conductors who mentored Lenny, and himself a Jew, suggested he Anglicize his name to Leonard S. Burns, he replied, “I’ll do it as Bernstein or not at all.” (Pronounced Bern-stine, with a long i.)
For Jerry, being Jewish brought shame and fear. Asked to say his name on the first day of first grade, he began to cry. “Rabinowitz” was so not American. “I never wanted to be a Jew,” he would write in notes for an autobiography. “I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated.” Once he began performing, his name changed program to program, from Robin Gerald to Gerald Robins to Jerry Robyns to Gerald Robin to Jerome Robbins. It is often said that Leonard Bernstein wanted everyone in the world to love him; while still in college he said as much to a close friend. Lenny lived with arms open. Jerry did not feel lovable and was deeply guarded. At the height of his mastery on Broadway he insisted that his billing include a box around his name, showcasing his contribution, protecting it, arms crossed around it.
They met in October of 1943, the beginning of what Bernstein would call “the year of miracles.” Bernstein was living in New York City, marking time as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and Robbins was in the classical company Ballet Theatre. Both were hungry for the Big Break, but it was hard to see anything on the horizon. Bernstein’s would come a month later, when on November 14 he took the podium at Carnegie Hall—without rehearsal!—and conducted for the ailing Bruno Walter. This kiss of fate allowed him, in one afternoon, to loosen forever Europe’s grip on the conductor’s baton. His debut made the front page of The New York Times, and the skinny kid, soon dubbed the Sinatra of the concert hall, soared to stardom. Two months later his Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, was premiered.
Robbins had to make his own luck. Though a dazzling mimic and scene-stealer in character roles, he was tired of dancing courtiers and exotics in the corps. He wanted to choreograph ballets that were immediately American. After inundating company management with over-ambitious ideas for ballets, Robbins finally offered up a timely, simple scenario—three wartime sailors on shore leave in Manhattan. Management bit. All he needed was a score, which took him to Bernstein’s studio in Carnegie Hall.
On that October day in ‘43, Robbins described his ballet—not yet titled Fancy Free—and in answer Lenny hummed the tune he’d written on a napkin that afternoon at the Russian Tea Room. Jerry flipped. The sound was spontaneous and streetwise. “We went crazy,” Lenny recalled. “I began developing the theme right there in his presence.”
“The one thing about Lenny’s music which was so tremendously important,” Robbins said later, “was that there always was a kinetic motor—there was a power in the rhythms of his work, or the change of rhythms in his work and the orchestration—which had a need for it to be demonstrated by dance.”
‘I remember all my collaborations with Jerry in terms of one tactile bodily feeling,” Bernstein said in 1985, “which is his hands on my shoulders, composing with his hands on my shoulders. This may be metaphorical but it’s the way I remember it. I can feel him standing behind me saying, yes, now just about four more beats there . . . yes, that’s it.”
This was the kind of hands-on collaboration that Bernstein—who never liked being alone in a room—would always love. And it wasn’t metaphorical. Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in West Side Story, has said that “Lenny would bring in new music and he would play it for us. And Jerry would be standing over him and he’d clutch Lenny’s shoulders as if he were a musical instrument. He was always capable of coming up with a new melody, whatever Jerry needed.”
Key words: “standing over him.” In their relationship, Jerry was the leader, dominant, the overlord—everyone says this—and Lenny was flexible, with quick response time and an inexhaustible archive of musical forms from which to pull. Bernstein was steeped in the classical repertory, and he was a savant when it came to rhythm. “We were always embarrassed by his dancing,” says his older daughter, Jamie Bernstein. “But when it was put into the context of conducting or composing, suddenly his sense of rhythm was spectacular—it’s what gives his music a thumbprint. There’s no explaining why he had this incredible aptitude for rhythm, but it is true that he synthesized what he got out of Hebrew cantillation, and the music and dancing in that world, combined with his getting really obsessed with what were called race records, in his college years—Billie Holiday and Lead Belly—to say nothing of Stravinsky and Gershwin. Add the Latin-American thread, which came in around 1941, when he was in Key West, and he just went bananas.”
Because Robbins was touring with Ballet Theatre, much of the collaboration on Fancy Free’s score took place through the mail. Exuberance shoots through Lenny’s updates, letters of magical rapport and full of cocky confidence, just like the sailors in the ballet. A letter of late 1943: “I have written a musical double-take when the sailor sees Girl #2—has that ever been done before? And the rhythm of your pas de deux is something startling—hard at first, but oh so danceable with the pelvis!” Some friends who knew them then have said that Bernstein and Robbins had a brief affair. Others say not. But this was one more thing that Lenny and Jerry had in common—bisexuality. At the very least, the letters are full of excitement.
And the excitement was realized. Fancy Free was one of the greatest hits in ballet history—22 curtain calls on opening night, April 18, 1944. With a set by Oliver Smith, evoking the city at dusk, the ballet was a perfect little playlet, a New Yorker short story out of Jerome Robbins, so clearly articulated in movement slang and classical momentum that words would have been overkill. Lenny conducted, and his buoyant presence, that too was choreographic. “His downbeat, delivered against an upward thrust in the torso, has an instantaneous rebound, like that of a tennis ball,” wrote the distinguished dance critic Edwin Denby. “And you could see that the dancers, even when they came on tired, responded to Mr. Bernstein like hepcats to Harry James.” Bernstein’s physical brio on the podium would become a signature—the “Lenny dance,” he called it.
“We’re 70 years on in the life of that ballet and it is so alive,” says Damian Woetzel, the incoming president of the Juilliard School and a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, where he danced Robbins’s own role in Fancy Free. “These were true American voices that were addressing what it meant to be American, through dance and music. And finding their foothold at a moment when America, during the war and afterwards, is becoming more and more indispensable—as a country and as a force. I see Fancy Free as their mighty yawp. There they are—wham—they’ve arrived.”