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 (1918−1990) 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.