Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) may well be more famous among the general public than any other orchestra conductor in history before or since. He also composed three symphonies, two operas, five musicals, a mass, three film scores and numerous other pieces including popular songs.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein was undoubtedly the most visible proponent of classical music in American culture. Like many kids of my generation, I became acquainted with Bernstein from watching his CBS television series Young People’s Concerts. For over a decade, Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic Orchestra introduced and popularized classical music to a generation of Baby Boomers like me. It held special interest for me as a young player of a string instrument in my school’s orchestra. His style of conducting always had me mesmerized when I saw him on television, with its extreme emotion and balletic movements. Through his charismatic personality, good-looks and resourceful uses of the media, particularly television, Bernstein brought “highbrow” culture into the homes of middle-Americans like mine, while at the same time defending rock music, while supporting radical political causes.
Bernstein, along with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were four very smart, young gay Jewish guys, all at the very heights of their talents in 1957 when they created West Side Story, one of the most groundbreaking and important musicals of the 20th century.
Bernstein was unafraid to be outspoken on the issues of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, but he was, for much of his career, unwilling to risk exposing his gayness. Indeed, life in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, even in the arts, meant that revealing his queerness would probably have destroyed the celebrity and influence he had worked so hard to gain.
Typical for his era, Bernstein was simply another gay guy who got married to a woman because that was what you did. Like many gay men of his generation, Bernstein appeared as a devoted husband and father in public while carrying on a promiscuous gay sex life behind the scenes. There was an arrangement with his wife that if he did not embarrass her publicly, he was free to pursue his affairs with other fellas. Among his many lovers: famed conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, fellow composer Aaron Copland, a hot Israeli soldier Azariah Rapoport, musical director Tom Cothran, and fellow orchestra conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
At one point, he actually left his wife, the Chilean-born actor Felicia Cohn Montealegre, for Cothran. He had fallen so hard for him that he didn’t hide their affair and even allowed his wife to catch them in bed together. No longer able to pretend otherwise, his wife threatened to “make a public scandal”. New York City society, who really should have known better at this point, was shocked when Bernstein moved into an apartment on Central Park South with Cothran, who he proclaimed the love of his life.
But, he moved back with his wife when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1978. After her passing, Bernstein was known to be rather brazen about his sexcapades with hot young guys, often involving drugs and backroom bars.
In his last decade, Bernstein was surrounded by beautiful boys, each one as intoxicated, drug-addled and wild as he was. Bernstein was busy making up for lost time. He was finally comfortable with his gayness, and so were his collaborators Laurents and Sondheim. It is even possible that he would have settled down into a long-term relationship with another man.
Bernstein announced his retirement in 1990. He took his last breath just five days later, gone from a heart attack. He was 72 years old. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, the people on the streets removed their hats and yelled “Goodbye, Lenny!”. He had dominated postwar New York City culture in a way rivaled only by Andy Warhol.
Bernstein is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery, with the score to Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony lying across his heart.
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
Bernstein left behind an unprecedented number of recordings and videos, plus films and stage revivals of his musicals, leaving a legacy to be experienced for today, and the future, if we get to have a future.