THE BOOK SHELF: "The Leonard Bernstein Letters"

By Steven Suskin
October 6, 2013

This month's column looks at Nigel Simeone's massive new collection of correspondence to and from Leonard Bernstein, "The Leonard Bernstein Letters."

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All things considered, one might imagine that composer/conductor/teacher/Renaissance man Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) made quite an interesting correspondent. Nigel Simeone, a British writer who proved his Bernsteinian mettle in 2010 with "Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story," dug into the archives — including significant material that was heretofore restricted — and has compiled a flavorful collection, "The Leonard Bernstein Letters" [Yale]. No, the book — consisting of 650 letters both from and to Bernstein, dated between 1932 and 1990 — is not merely interesting. It is fascinating, enlightening and a veritable page-turner that will keep you up nights, ruin your sleep and wreak all sorts of havoc for 600 pages.

That is, if you are interested in this sort of thing. "This sort of thing" encompasses music — concert, symphonic, ballet and show — and the everyday travails of an Everyman struggling to survive professionally, artistically, emotionally and sexually in a world filled with obstacles, some of his own making. Bernstein being Bernstein, these are Olympian struggles and Olympian successes in a rarefied world.

Consider the following morsels, from the first 150 pages or so:

Letter #2, 1933, to Sid Ramin (LB's lifelong friend, student, and the orchestrator of West Side Story and Gypsy): "I am in heaven!" exclaims the 15-year-old: He just bought the one-piano arrangement of Ravel's "Bolero" (which was written in 1928) and has been playing it all week. "My mother says I'm boleroing her head off... Boom! Crash! Discord! Sock! Brrrr-rr!!"

#20, 1938, to Aaron Copland: The 19-year-old LB starts one of his most important relationships, with the 37-year-old Copland. They talk about life, passion and music, which in the Bernstein/Copland orbit were frequently intertwined. In this case, the young Harvard student reports on the Boston premiere of Copland's "Variations." The soloist "began the thing wrong, played about two measures, skipped some variations, got lost again, skipped about 5 pages, played a few measures out of tempo — entirely without any discernment, without any idea of rhythm — and kept this up until she reached the coda... I was purple — I wish I could let you know how incredibly bad it was. It was the work of an imbecile. I left then and broke dishes in the Georgian cafeteria."

#30, 1939: LB confesses how he lost a valuable manuscript of Copland's on the train coming back from a visit to New York. "He of course took it as only he could take it — with a philosophical phrase. Good old Aaron: if it had been anyone else but he I should have gone into voluntary exile."

#34, 1939, from Adolph Green: A breathless report of early success in the nightclub world, as Green's cabaret act — The Revuers, with Betty Comden and Judy Holliday — signs with the William Morris Agency. "Gott zei dank, I'm making a little salary. I've lost about 25 pounds, so I'm no longer rolly-polly-Adolph, just a flabby Adolph." He also invites LB to split an apartment on 55th St. near 6th Ave for the summer, pointing out that it's got a good grand piano. Cost: $3.50 a week each.

#42, 1939: Now a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, LB mentions that he is studying with Isabelle Vengerova, "the greatest piano teacher in America." She has ordered Curtis to move a Steinway grand into his dorm room, since "Madame insists I have that to practice on."

#54, 1940, from Betty Comden: The Revuers appeared on an experimental TV broadcast, with Bernstein at the piano. Comden informs him that they were mentioned in Leonard Lyon's column in the New York Post. He didn't mention Bernstein, but he pointed out that "the unbilled stranger who turned the pages for the accompanist was Aaron Copland, the noted American composer." Comden reports that "Adolph has spoken to Aaron and he was amused and amazed — and not the least bit angry."

#71, 1940, from Copland: "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...I don't mean that you mustn't write such letters (to me, that is). But I mustn't forget to burn them." This was written, incidentally, 18 years before LB was hired as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Also incidentally, none of Bernstein's "flaming" letters are included in the book.

#82, 1941, to Copland: LB writes of his grief after the death of his 21-year-old former roommate at Harvard. "I can't tell you how numb I feel. As if part of me had died, refusing to accept the fact. The phenomenon of music on the brain, which has always been with me (you know that) has stopped. I have no tune to sing. My head feels like dry, brown, cracking wood."

#99, 1941, to Copland: LB reports that he has received a permanent draft deferment. "Not so much the asthma, either (tho that was the legal excuse) as the fact that the particular doctor who examined me insisted on preserving the cultural foundations of the USA, not killing all the musicians. And so I am in class IV! Go, attend to your career, said the great M.D., and that will be yr greatest service. Osanna in excelis!" In the same letter, he mentions a contretemps with one of his girlfriends: "I explained all, like a ghoul, to Kiki" and "she wants to marry me anyway, and accept the double life, or try for my recovery." He also tells Copland "how I longed for you! I never thought it possible to miss anyone so."

#103, 1942, from Judy Holliday: The not-yet-renowned actress, still a member of the Comden-Green act, warns LB that she had to tell Green "a few things about you that may not be strictly the truth." It seems that Adolph's then-wife Lizzie vindictively "threw it in his face that she was very much in love with you and had spent every moment with you in Boston." Trying to console their dear mutual friend, "I told him that you not only were not in the least bit in love with Lizzie but that the idea of any contact with her horrified you." Holliday in 1948 married LB's intimate friend (and clarinettist) David Oppenheim, who himself is well-represented in the book.

#154, 1943, from Adolph Green: An astronomical and remarkable letter, taking up five full pages (and who knows, originally, how many pieces of stationery). Green describes the whole Hollywood experience as The Revuers were turned down by every studio until they had an audition at 20th Century Fox. Darryl Zanuck sat stone-faced for four songs, then he suddenly grinned, then chuckled, then roared — as did all his assembled assistants, allowing Adolph & Co. to walk out with a movie contract. He lacerates the Hollywood scene and offers in passing a perceptive discussion of Frank Loesser (who at the time was merely an up-and-coming Hollywood lyricist). Most interesting is his description of Charlie Chaplin. Green soon became a close and loyal friend to Chaplin throughout his exile, but his first impression was not favorable: "a fattish, ageing man" who "was a little more frightening than amusing, mainly I think because there was more of an air of desperation than joie de vie in his cutting up. The guy just didn't look cute and I kept thinking, Who does this mincing fat-necked little fellow think he is, imitating Charlie Chaplin?"

#164, 1943, to Jerome Robbins: In a series of seven letters, LB describes his progress on the ballet "Fancy Free" to collaborator Robbins (who was on tour at the time). He sent off letters as he hurriedly finishes each section, describing the music as best he can. "God, what a race with destiny!" The PS: "By the way, 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!" He adds: "Ran across Agnes de Mille last night, & she's really rooting for you and the ballet."

#181, 1943, to Copland. While in the throes of composing his first musical, On the Town: "The show is a wild monster now which doesn't let me sleep or eat or anything; in fact the world seems to be composed of the show the show the show, and little else... Maybe it will be a great hit, and maybe it will lay the great egg of all time."

Pardon if I've gone on too long; I wanted to give you enough to suggest just how much you will enjoy "The Leonard Bernstein Letters." There is plenty more, of course; another 50 years worth. Plenty — and I mean plenty — on the long and winding road to West Side Story. (Who was it who once said something about "no fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos, amigos"?) This section is capped by a thoroughly fascinating four-pager (#404) from lyricist Stephen Sondheim filling in the composer — who left to conduct in Israel directly after the opening — on the recording session, various backstage matters, and assorted West Side Story items. Sondheim being Sondheim, this gives us an honest and candid view of the show as it was when it opened; not in memory, but in real time.

Two other items left me more or less open-jawed. There is a vicious 1955 letter (#364) from composer Marc Blitzstein, another close friend/mentor since 1939, when Bernstein produced the Boston premiere of The Cradle Will Rock while a twenty-year-old Harvard student. (Blitzstein was godfather to Bernstein's first child; the other two were named after the heroines of Blitzstein's Regina and Reuben, Reuben.) Blitzstein castigates LB for "your outrageous treatment in subjecting me to a private meeting in your drawing-room with the worm Robbins" and goes on to explain just why. Blitzstein also quotes Bernstein on Robbins: "My stomach turns at the thought of working with him again." Questions about Bernstein and his marriage are answered in an extraordinary letter (#320) from wife Felicia, shortly after their marriage in 1951: "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? I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr... Let's try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!"

Maybe we should leave it with Jule Styne (letter #410 — or rather a telegram, on the occasion of his debut as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, just after the opening of West Side Story): "I need a fella who can play in a publisher's office for singers, who can write a ballet and play the dance rehearsals and then orchestrate it, who can write the music for a new musical comedy and then orchestrate it, and who can write a ballet and play for Agnes de Mille and Michael Kidd and Jerome Robbins too, and who can take this ballet and orchestrate it the hard way with the orchestra sitting the wrong way and the horns pointing into the trombone player's ear... Do you know of such a fellow? I do. Good luck. Can you cook?"

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)