America's Maestro Bows Out

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

On his 70th birthday—a gala occasion in 1988 that drew colleagues such as Beverly Sills and Quincy Jones to the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts—Leonard Bernstein was honored by a grand chorus of admirers. Lauren Bacall serenaded him with a Sondheim composition called "The Saga of Lenny"—an irreverent song about his professional and sexual profligacy. The London Symphony Orchestra sent a videotaped version of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," and Phyllis Newman sang a number from Bernstein's 1953 hit musical, Wonderful Town. Later, during a black-tie dinner co-hosted by Gordon and Ann Getty, Bernstein's 90-year-old mother, Jennie, confided that she had given the birthday boy a Chinese scroll. "The translation on the back says, 'Listen to your mother. Stop smoking. You'll live to be 120,' " she said.

Exuberant, willful, driven, Bernstein was too busy to take anyone's advice—whether about his protean career or his failing health. He once said that making music made him feel immortal, and he acted as if it were true. He liked to boast that he had outlived the doctor who first diagnosed his emphysema when Bernstein was still in his 20s. Two years ago he said contentedly, "God knows, I should be dead by now. I drink; I stay up all night; I'm overcommitted everywhere."

On Oct. 14 that reckless joie de vivre caught up with the charismatic Bernstein, 72. Struck down by a heart attack caused by progressive lung failure, he spent his last hours in his capacious apartment at the Dakota, on New York City's Upper West Side, where he was attended by friends, relatives and assistants. In the end he displayed the same sort of bravado that had marked his life: Two hours before he died, he received a visit from his protégé Bright Sheng, resident composer for the Chicago Lyric Opera, who found him watching a Yo-Yo Ma concert on television and humming along with the Rachmaninoff concerto. "He was very lucid," says Sheng, 34. "His secretary had said, 'Don't be shocked,' but I thought he looked very well." Although Bernstein was connected to oxygen and had difficulty breathing, only once, says Sheng, did the maestro refer to his illness. "He told me, 'All of a sudden the body is giving up.' "

The music world had been prepared for his death. During Bernstein's final concert, at Tanglewood last Aug. 19, he had seemed appallingly weak and barely able to walk to the podium. Six days before he died, he announced that he was retiring from the concert stage because of health problems, and colleagues went into a kind of mourning. Still, it was a shock to many when Bernstein, hard at work on an opera and a chamber piece, lost the final battle. "This has been an incredible body blow," says lyricist Betty Comden, an old friend and frequent collaborator. "I knew he was sick, but I didn't know it was this imminent."

It seems possible that his family and friends could simply not imagine a man of such extravagant energy and talents coming to rest. "He hasn't mellowed at all," son Alexander told a reporter at the 1988 birthday celebration. Bernstein would sleep only two or three hours a night when he was on a creative high, and he literally threw himself into conducting—churning his arms and even occasionally falling off the podium. ("The audience enjoys it because he does crazy things, but his actions are deeply felt," cellist Yo-Yo Ma once said. "Beethoven and all those guys had wild thoughts. Bernstein thinks on the same level.") As original as he was irreverent, Bernstein once instructed the brass section of the Philharmonic to play a passage of Tchaikovsky as though they were "hunky brutes." (Later, they turned up in T-shirts emblazoned HUNKY BRUTE and presented one to the maestro.)

Flamboyance and eclecticism were Bernstein's leitmotivs. Some critics urged him to concentrate on conducting; others begged him to write more musicals. But Bernstein refused to pigeonhole his prodigious talent. "He had a terrific imagination and a knowledge of music that just went everywhere," said friend Adolph Green. Comden's co-lyricist on several Bernstein projects. Over his long career-in addition to performing with the world's great orchestras as a riveting conductor—Bernstein composed three symphonies and a violin concerto, wrote music for three ballets, turned out three Broadway hits (including West Side Story and On the Town), produced two operas and an operetta, established himself as a piano virtuoso, wrote several books, won Emmys, Grammys and Tonys, and mesmerized TV audiences with educational programs such as the Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts. And those were just his public achievements. He also mentored dozens of young musicians and enthralled a legion of friends. "Once he walked into a room, you just knew you were going to have a terrific time," says Comden. "He was thrilling and fascinated by life."

Bernstein came to music rather late, as geniuses go. Born in Lawrence, Mass., to Russian immigrants Samuel and Jennie Bernstein, young Lenny had been expected to take over his father's business supplying beauty shops. Instead, when he was 10, an aunt's old upright piano arrived at the house for storage, and Lenny, one of three children, demanded lessons. Sent to Boston Latin School and then on to Harvard, he studied piano and composition. In 1939, when he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he began to conduct.

On Nov. 13, 1943, Bernstein's life changed forever. "I was 25," he remembered. "In her debut, the mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel sang some songs I'd written, and they were a smash. I thought, 'Higher than this a person cannot go.' " But he was wrong. The very next day, hung over from the rivers of Scotch consumed at Tourel's postconcert party, Bernstein (by then an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic) was awakened by a call: Conductor Bruno Walter was ill, and Lenny was needed to conduct the matinee. With little sleep, no rehearsal and a splitting headache, he earned a thunderous ovation—and a front-page notice in the New York Times.

From that point forward, Bernstein was a celebrity. He was married in 1951 to Felicia Montealegre Cohn, a Chilean-born actress, and the couple had three children (Jamie, now 36 and a rock musician; Alexander, 33, a teacher; and Nina, 28, an actress), as well as a high social profile. The couple separated in 1976 after 25 years of marriage, but Bernstein remained in close touch with Felicia until her death in 1978 from lung cancer.

Although his bisexuality became public knowledge only in 1987, when Joan Peyser's controversial Bernstein: A Biography appeared, his involvements with other men were always an open secret in the music community. As composer David Diamond told Peyser, Bernstein walked away "with all of my boyfriends"—once climbing into a rumpled bed with Diamond's lover even before Diamond left the room. According to Peyser's book, Felicia was madly in love with Bernstein when she married him and hoped that at the very least he would use discretion. For many years he did. But a combination of events, including the gay liberation movement and his father's death, made him less circumspect in the '70s. Thereafter, writes Peyser, his relationship with Felicia was strained, though her death was very painful to him.

"Bernstein wanted it all," says Peyser. "He was a composer and a conductor. He did both Broadway and concert music. He was a homosexual yet enjoyed a family. And he got more out of life than most of us ever will." But that seems only fair because Bernstein gave more too: the music, of course, but also the inspiration of his personality—a dynamo of passion and talent and curiosity and caring rarely equaled in any field.

Michelle Green, Toby Kahn and Sam Mead in New York City

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