'The Leonard Bernstein Letters': a man in full

The correspondence reveals a complex man of diverse musical and sexual appetites

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This collection of letters by and to Leonard Bernstein, edited by Nigel Simeone, is both amazing and frustrating.

It's amazing because Bernstein brought the same charm, playfulness, intelligence and energy to his correspondence as he did to his music. It's frustrating because the nearly 600-page book is so packed with people, places and musical references, often stuffed into footnotes, that it's tempting to go off on tangents to learn more about these other fascinating subjects. This is definitely not Leonard Bernstein for Dummies.

Edited by Nigel Simeone.
Yale University Press ($38).

Mr. Simeone, who wrote the book "Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story" (2009), provides brief introductions to each of eight sections, but he seems to assume that the reader has taken Bernstein 101 somewhere else.

Bernstein 101 would highlight the unique musicianship and charismatic personality of this legendary pianist, composer, educator and conductor who led some of the world's great orchestras and also wrote scores for Broadway shows, most famously "On the Town" and "West Side Story."

It would also relate Bernstein's own real-life "A Star Is Born" story, about how when he was 25 and assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he had to go on after the scheduled conductor became ill.

The year was 1943. The country at the time was united by radio. After the Sunday Philharmonic broadcast from Carnegie Hall with Bernstein on the podium, he became practically a household name. The fact that he was young and American and led the orchestra with such vitality and sensitivity caught the nation's war-weary heart.

After that concert, Bernstein wrote to Jerome Robbins, with whom he was collaborating on the ballet "Fancy Free," "I have hardly breathed in the last two weeks. Nothing but reporters & photographers & calls & mail & rehearsals."

His conflict between "serious" music and more popular works is a constant theme throughout the letters. For instance, in 1945, after "On the Town" opened on Broadway and became a hit, Bernstein wrote, "Now I am bleary with a throat infection, and a general let-down collapse, and struggling to get back into my beard (long-hair) and study Brahms' First for Pittsburgh next. It will be fun to be back there ..."

This is one of several mentions of Pittsburgh in the 1940s. In a letter at that time he referred to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as "rough, but full of spirit, young and cooperative." In a 1949 note to Helen Coates (once Bernstein's piano teacher and later his secretary) he called the music critic for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, J. Fred Lissfelt, a "sour puss."

The earliest letter in the book is from 1932, when Bernstein was 14 years old. Also included are famous names such as Bette Davis and Jacqueline Kennedy; musicians from John Cage to Cole Porter to Serge Koussevitzky and Igor Stravinsky; the playwrights Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller; blunt letters from Bernstein's psychoanalyst Marketa Morris; and numerous communications from "West Side Story" collaborator Stephen Sondheim, who wrote: "Friendship is a thing I give and receive rarely, but for what it's worth I want you to know you have it from me always."

The most consistent and revealing letters are to and from Aaron Copland, the American composer who was mentor, friend and something more to Bernstein. In another chatty note from 1943, Bernstein wrote about "my new friendy-wendy, Prince George Chavchavadze. All very confusing. I still love D[avid] O[ppenheim]. What to do? I know, marry my new girlfriend. ... Life is full and empty by turns -- the latter mostly cause you're away."

In the same way Bernstein wanted it all musically, he also wanted it all sexually. He married the actress Felicia Montealegre, and the couple had three children. Dozens of their communications are included.

In the end Bernstein faced failures, including his marriage and his musical "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." But this letter from 1959 seems to sum up his attitude toward his enchanted life: "I've decided that gratitude is the essence of joy, the basic emotion, what we feel when we hear music we love, or look at our loved ones, and growing old means only losing that emotion. The retention of gratefulness is the guarantee of continued youth, don't you think?"




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