THE BOOK SHELF: "The Leonard Bernstein Letters"

By Steven Suskin
06 Oct 2013

#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?"