Leonard Bernstein's centenary two years ago was marked by many celebrations, rightly honoring this extraordinary composer/conductor, who led a life in the arts equal to none. And with a career such as his, he should continually be honored — or at least remembered — for his multifarious contributions, especially today, as August 25th is his birthday.

Louis Bernstein (1918-1990) was born one hundred and two years ago on this date in Lawrence, Massachusetts. As the story goes, it was the wish of his grandmother he be named Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard; later Lenny, as he would come to be known by all who knew him. Bernstein was (naturally) a child prodigy, which began when his Aunt Clara needed a place to store her piano while going through a divorce. The ten-year-old sat on its bench, fascinated by the instrument, which did nothing to impress his father Samuel who wouldn’t pay for any lessons. However, Lenny's desire to play was so strong, it drove the boy to seek odd jobs in order to pay for lessons on his own. Over time, his father recognized his son’s talents and for his Bar Mitzvah, Samuel purchased him a baby grand piano. The young maestro was on his way.

The young Leonard Bernstein with his sister Shirley in the background

Private schools for music, Harvard University and important apprenticeships contributed mightily to Bernstein’s education. As a result, throughout his career he was always giving back, especially to young people. Although a composer and conductor of the first rank, if Bernstein were only known today as the television host of his groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts in the 1950s and ’60s, it would be enough to guarantee him a place as an important force in the world of music. These lectures, thankfully preserved on black & white videotape, were specifically designed to bring classical music to young people as the vibrant and living thing it is. Fifty and sixty years later, these shows continue to inspire and celebrate the joy of music from the perspective of a man whose life was music. If you've never seen Bernstein in this setting, check some of them out on YouTube sometime.

Bernstein with some most appreciative children.

Because I was seven years old in 1964 (and my parents made me watch it), this served as my introduction to classical music. Leonard Bernstein was my guide, and like so many of my generation, we are all the better for it. It instilled in me an appreciation for it, but there's no question my taste and listening preferences were the music from Broadway shows. So, I also have to thank my parents for introducing me to some of the great musicals Bernstein was responsible for.

Between the years 1944 and 1957, Bernstein composed the scores for On the Town, Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Candide and West Side Story. There are still musical theatre fans who can’t forgive him for leaving the theatre for what was close to twenty years (his return was the heartbreaker, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which ran one week in 1976). After that thirteen-year peak run, he concentrated exclusively on his classical compositions and conducting, resulting in the theatre’s loss, even if it meant opera and symphonic music’s gain.

Bernstein (with "West Side Story" lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the piano). Photo by Martha Swope.

His life played out, in many ways, like a movie, even with the requisite backstage story which, when you see it on a big screen, makes you squint in disbelief. But Bernstein's drama really happened when, on November 14, 1943, he was dramatically pulled out of bed and told he would have to be a last-minute substitute for the German-born conductor, pianist and composer, sixty-seven year old Bruno Walter, who had taken ill. It was up to the assistant conductor— the twenty-five year old Bernstein — who would have to lead (with no rehearsal) the New York Philharmonic in a live radio broadcast from Carnegie Hall. He didn't even own the proper formal wear and appeared that afternoon in a gray business suit. Heard by millions, Bernstein caused a sensation. The next day the story hit the front page of the New York Times: a star was born—just like in a movie.

Bernstein didn't even have the time to conduct a rehearsal.

No matter what picture is painted of his life, Bernstein’s work energy, his focus and his prodigious talent always took center stage. There were many sideshows to his long and illustrious career: his famous parties, his natural flamboyance and his affairs with men (on top of a devotion to his wife, Felicia Montealegre, to whom he was married for twenty-seven years until her death in 1978). The notoriety he and Felicia received when they held a fund raiser for some jailed members of the Black Panther Party, a socialist organization, then at the height of its radicalism in January of 1970, was so intense they received hate mail and death threats. The gathering was at their home on Park Avenue and the whole affair was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s bitchy essay “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” which appeared in New York Magazine five months after the event. Wolfe took the Bernsteins to task for what he perceived as their insincerity and faux “chic.” In fact, according to information online at the official Leonard Bernstein website, “The angry letters and hate mail sent to the Bernsteins were orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program. The Jewish Defense League protesters outside the apartment were heavily infiltrated by F.B.I. operatives. And the relentless assault by the press was in part instigated by the FBI’s carefully placed confidential news leaks to their cooperative press contacts.”

Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein and Don Cox, an activist and guest, at the party Tom Wolfe attended, excoriorated in his "Radical Chic" story in New York Magazine, June 8, 1970.

Colorful? Certainly. A genius? Definitely. All one has to do is listen to his recordings to take his measure, be it his own compositions, or what insights he brought to the works of Mahler or Copland. He was a giant among men and his enthusiasm and joy of life was contagious. Even as a spectator, he would engage with complete and total abandon. It is not for nothing, that as one of the very first recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, the image of Bernstein standing in his box and receiving his tribute is always shown at the start of every broadcast since the awards began in 1977. He spreads his arms, luxuriating in the love and affection in an open and unabashed way that is truly infectious. Or watch him on the PBS Broadcast of his 70th birthday celebration at Tanglewood for his reactions to all his friends on stage paying him tribute. At the time, he is seated beside his eighty-nine-year-old mother, and the mutual rapture they share is a sight to behold, especially when Lauren Bacall sings “The Saga of Lenny,” a spoof of “The Saga of Jenny” from Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s Lady in the Dark (the lyrics are a birthday present from Stephen Sondheim):

Lauren Bacall sings “The Saga of Lenny” (1988).

In fact, his renowned talents in every area of entertainment should have made for a hell of a movie by now. Although back in the days when composers were deified on celluloid, most films were produced based on their “so-called” lives. The full biopic treatments made in the 1940s and 50s of George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, as just two examples, were sanitized and boring. Bernstein’s life (if told uncensored and truthfully) would make for a fascinating film. Not for a minute would that story be dull. Not with the life he led.

The Maestro.

And believe it not, it would appear it's finally happening. Earlier this year it was announced that Bradley Cooper is going to star as Bernstein in a film for Netflix, that he will co-write with Josh Singer. And, as he did on A Star is Born, Cooper will also direct and produce as well, which sounds promising. Will the stepping in for Bruno Walter story be in the film? Cooper might be too old to pull off twenty-five, but I can't imagine they won't find a way.

There are many books about him well worth checking out. Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton is especially good and a more recent one by Jamie Bernstein, the eldest of his three children, is a loving and honest account about the highs, lows and exasperations of being Famous Father Girl.

Published in 2019.

For as long as there is music in this world, Leonard Bernstein will never be forgotten for the shining example he set as a musician, and for the light he shined on so many through his teaching and through his work.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."