A Frank Biography Finds That Leonard Bernstein's Passions, Like His Talents, Are Boundless

UPDATED 05/04/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/04/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

Leonard Bernstein may be the Muhammad Ali of classical music—the best-known, most flamboyant and most lavishly gifted artist in his field—and not shy about letting anyone know it. Bernstein has been a celebrity since 1943 when, as a 25-year-old assistant conductor, he was called on to substitute for the ailing Bruno Walter on a few hours' notice and to lead the New York Philharmonic in a national broadcast. Today, at 68, he conducts about 70 concerts a year. He has composed hit Broadway musicals (including West Side Story) as well as about a dozen classical works. In her forthcoming book Bernstein: A Biography (Morrow, $22.95), writer Joan Peyser depicts a man whose conflicts and motivations are as extraordinary as his undeniable talents. A four-time winner of the prestigious ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, Peyser, 55, is also the author of an acclaimed biography of composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. She discussed Bernstein with senior writer Eric Levin.

Is Bernstein a genius?

People have reported conversations to me in which they've told Bernstein that they never use the word genius, and he has said, "Not even for me?" I don't like the word either, but he may well be entitled to it. He didn't start playing the piano until age 10, which is late, but if he had wanted to, he could nave had a brilliant career as a pianist. He can read through the most difficult orchestral score for the first time as though he had studied it for years. His musical memory is awesome. He loves challenging people to Name That Tunetype games, and he is virtually unbeatable, whether the passages are classical or pop. In 1941 Bernstein heard a piece by the American composer Samuel Barber. Twenty-five years later, to prove a point, Bernstein, who had not heard the piece since, sat down at the piano and played the opening without an error.

Is he a great conductor?

I don't think many musicians would dispute that he is one of the two greatest living conductors, the other being Herbert von Karajan. I would say Bernstein is the greater, because of his unpredictability and fire. Many conductors are good only with a limited historical period, but Bernstein has tremendous range. What he does so remarkably is submit to the identity of the composer. He actually becomes the composer when he conducts. He says he fantasizes he's making up the piece as he goes along.

Do his podium histrionics influence the musicians or just the audience?

A friend of mine who played for Bernstein in the '40s said the musicians didn't look at him—that it would be too distracting. But Bernstein says that one time when he was being criticized for his theatricality he did a Beethoven piece and just beat the time. He says the piece never took off, and afterward the musicians all asked him if he was sick. On the other hand, he once watched a tape of himself conducting. At one point he buried his head in a colleague's shoulder and bemoaned the "grotesque...way I carry on up there." He gets carried away. That's his nature. He is said to lose seven pounds during a performance, and immediately afterward he typically cannot remember what city he's in or what orchestra he's just led.

How did Bernstein's battles with his father, Sam, set a pattern for his life?

Sam Bernstein, who was in the beauty supply business, was a domineering man who deprecated his son's talent. The whole theme of the son's life seems to me to have been to triumph over this man and show him up. In Bernstein's first opera, Trouble in Tahiti, in 1952, he depicted the father as a money-hungry capitalist bully. The truth is, Sam eventually did contribute to his son's musical education, but Bernstein has a hard time acknowledging it. Throughout his life, Bernstein shows a pattern of rebelling against or besting authority figures while at the same time adopting their ways.

For example?

Like Sam, Bernstein has always been very interested in making money and very good at it. He was a millionaire back in the '60s. I call him the first industrialist in music.

Your book deals at length with Bernstein's promiscuous homosexuality. How does knowing about this help understand him as an artist?

Almost all people who have achieved greatness have had a tremendous sexual drive—Mozart, Picasso, Stravinsky. And Bernstein is certainly one of them. Whether he is heterosexual or homosexual is not of primary importance. What's fascinating is that when Bernstein has been promiscuous he really hasn't created much. After being rampantly homosexual in the '40s, he married in 1951 and raised a family. From 1952 to 1957 he composed an opera, a violin concerto, the film score for On the Waterfront, plus Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story. More recently he has again been promiscuously homosexual, and he has done work that is less likely to last.

What is his problem?

Bernstein is hugely gifted, but his problem in directing his energy comes from his refusal to inhibit himself from anything he wants at the moment. Sexual liaisons are only part of it. He does the conducting because he cannot resist the adulation and the money. In fact he openly equates sex and musical performance. When he was considering whether to conduct Mahler's reconstituted 10th Symphony, he said to a colleague, "I have one question. Will it give me an orgasm?" Going back to his childhood, no one was able to discipline Bernstein. His mother, Jennie, who didn't get along with Sam, gave her son everything. At Harvard he cut classes all the time and never submitted himself to rigorous study with a great teacher, as was the norm for budding composers of Bernstein's caliber. The only person who controlled him for any length of time was his wife, the late Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. When Bernstein's artistic and financial demands were excessive, she could get to him and soften him.

What is Bernstein like to be with?

He has to be on center stage all the time. He thinks nothing of bringing 10 uninvited guests to a party. Someone who was at a small dinner party with him recently said to me, "You would have thought we all had IQs of 40, because none of us dared open our mouths once he took off."

What are his personal habits?

He smokes several packs of cigarettes a day and drinks large quantities of Scotch. He never seems to need sleep. At the summer music festival in Tanglewood, his kids stay up with him until 6 a.m.; then he gets irritated because at 9:15, when he is ready to leave for rehearsal, they are still asleep. People tell me how he eats fowl: He grabs up the bird, and when he's finished there are just little bones left.

Is he satisfied with what he's achieved as a composer?

No. He is a tormented man. He wants a place in history as a continuation of, say, Mahler and Wagner. But I think he would have had a better chance at immortality if he had followed his own Gershwin-esque bent for the American popular idiom and worked steadily on Broadway. That's part of his unresolved conflict. Early in his career he submitted to the will of powerful, artistic father figures who held Broadway in contempt. Instead of relaxing with what he did so brilliantly—in 1953 he wrote Wonderful Town in less than five weeks—Bernstein listened to his mentor Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who told him he better stop that at once if he wanted to succeed him at the BSO. The tragedy is that Bernstein didn't go back to Broadway for more than 10 years, until after Koussevitsky died. And he didn't get the BSO anyway.

How will history regard Bernstein?

Since the end of the 19th century classical music has been petering out, and in another 75 years I think it will be gone. There is no need for this kind of high-art music anymore. When they want to relax, people can put on Schubert and Mozart and Beethoven. So I think Bernstein—who sometimes curls up on the couch for hours in a fetal position—is berating himself for something he shouldn't be. He hasn't frittered away his life. Some composers work years on a piece, and if the critics pan it they're crushed and don't do anything for 15 years. Bernstein allows himself to fall flat on his face. But then he picks himself up and conducts the next day. He has enough money so that he could lie by the pool in his Fairfield, Conn. house and do nothing ever again. But his energy remains formidable. Given all his conflicts, what is remarkable is not how little Bernstein has achieved, but how much.

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