The Leonard Bern­stein Letters

Leonard Bern­stein; Nigel Sime­one, ed.
  • Review
By – February 25, 2014

Who would have thought that read­ing a musician’s mail might be a reward­ing way to learn about his life and his music? But that’s just what this remark­able vol­ume of the let­ters of Leonard Bern­stein (19181990) offers read­ers. A biog­ra­phy of Bern­stein might try to resolve his many con­tra­dic­tions, particu­larly the sex­u­al ones, to present a coher­ent point of view; instead, these let­ters dis­play his com­plex­i­ty, with­out impos­ing a sim­ple resolu­tion. A trea­tise on Bernstein’s aes­thet­ics might have pleased oth­er musi­cians, leav­ing gen­er­al read­ers unen­gaged; his let­ters, on the oth­er hand, allow read­ers access to his feel­ings on a broad range of sub­jects — from his pas­sion for Israel to his fears of McCarthy­ism and the black­list, from his love for oth­er men to his love of his wife and children.

Most of the 600 pages here are devot­ed to let­ters to and from Bern­stein from 1932 until his death in 1990, arranged with brief fore­words to the var­i­ous peri­ods of Bernstein’s life. The let­ters are pre­sent­ed chrono­log­i­cal­ly, with care­ful foot­notes iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple and per­for­mances. Let­ters with his wife, sis­ter, and key col­leagues (Aaron Cop­land, Jerome Rob­bins, Steven Sond­heim, and Bet­ty Com­den, to name a few) extend over long stretch­es of time, each becom­ing a nar­ra­tive of a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship. There are detailed let­ters on well-known projects, like West Side Sto­ry, and count­less let­ters with Bernstein’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, dis­cussing how par­tic­u­lar works were to be per­formed. And Lenny being Lenny, there are let­ters from Frank Sina­tra, Ronald Rea­gan, Bette Davis, Yevge­ny Yev­tushenko — even Jacque­line Kennedy! While the celebri­ty let­ters give us a sense of Bernstein’s fame, the more inti­mate notes, filled with acros­tics, mu­sical doo­dles, and clever nick­names, give us a sense of Bernstein’s wit­ty, cre­ative charis­ma. Read­ers come away with a feel­ing for both the man and his times, a taste of what it was like to have lived and worked as one of America’s lead­ing twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry musi­cians. Bra­vo! Appen­dices, bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Leonard Bern­stein Read­ing List

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions