Anyhoo, there are so many levels on which to appreciate Bernstein in this volume - son, parent, sibling, student, mentor, artist, husband, Jew, American, traveler, lover, friend. He is certain and groping, bitchy and warm, wise and naive, generous and selfish, feverishly industrious, and endlessly seeking rests in warm climates. Maybe it is not the letter form itself. Maybe it is Bernstein's ferocious need for companionship that makes him such a rich writer, as it is just one more way to connect. As he writes to his college friend Kenneth Ehrman in 1939:
You may remember my chief weakness - my love for people. I need them all the time - every moment. It's something that perhaps you cannot understand: but I cannot spend one day alone without becoming utterly depressed. Any people will do. It's a terrible fault. And in New York, the people who would fill that place with me would inevitably be those wretched people who haunt the Village Vanguard by night, and each other's studios by day, and act positively in only one way - as a destructive and retarding force in their societies. This, by the way, is not bitter or dramatic in any way. But it is this great horror of taking my place with these people, and becoming an"artist" that half kills me.Methinks the lady protests a bit much, but he was 21 years old at that writing.
His correspondents include movie stars, First Ladies, lyricists, choreographers, fellow conductors, a veritable Who's Who of American composers. They are noticeable for a facility with and joy of playing with words. From lyricist Adolph Green from Hollywood, 1943
Hollywood is the weirdest country in he world. I'm only afraid you would love it here. One day Aaron [Copland] & I were envisioning the way you might take to it - a mad swirl of parties and gatherings, with you the life of the [party]. Then you awakening in the morning with a hangover - or fluff on your lungs, a fly on your tongue, etc., etc. - and filled with remorse. "My God, I'm not getting any work done - Oh God, what the hell am I doing - it's fantastic, I'm not accomplishing anything. Oh, my God!"Some of them, in addition, are prophetic, as this one from Aaron Copland around 1940.
Of course, I should not talk. Almost everyone I've ever known is out here and everyone is rich as Croesus, and life for me has been that self-same swirl - not terribly mad but the liquor and the thick steaks flow. It's a terribly unreal life out here, if you with prosperous people who've decided you're a comer & sort of take you up. At first your conscience bothers you that these swimming pools and groaning boards exist while the whole world is starving and dying &generally tightening its belt. After a while, you relax & enjoy it...
Dear PupilA flirtatious and mutually admiring exchange between Bernstein and actress Bette Davis is simply delicious. Those between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre reveal the depth of love that existed in their devoted but complicated marriage (that Bernstein was gay was no secret). Jacqueline Kennedy writes touchingly and appreciatively of Bernstein's musical choices for her brother-in-law Robert's funeral. Bernstein writes a truly loving tribute to his dear friend Aaron Copland on his receipt of the Kennedy Center honor. Journalist Martha Gellhorn writes a heartfelt critical appreciation of West Side Story, and Stephen Sondheim a lengthy description of the original Broadway cast recording session that are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.
What terrifying letters you write: fit for the flames is what they are. Just imagine how much you would have to pay to retrieve such a letter forty years from now when you are conductor of the Philharmonic. Well it all comes from the recklessness of youth, that's what it is. Of course I don't mean that you musn't write such letters (to me, that is), but I musn't forget to burn them...
That Bernstein's body of correspondence could fill nearly 600 pages was never burdensome, I was only left wanting more, which, editor Nigel Simeone informs us, is entirely possible. I am thankful that Bernstein not only lived in an era when one wrote juicily newsy letters, but when one kept them. As lyricist Betty Comden writes to Bernstein in 1950
Dearest LennyThank goodness she did.
Knowing, as I now do, that you save every scrap of correspondence you get, from Koussevitzky's pages on life, music, and your career - to Auntie Clara's hot denunciations of meant, I write this letter with the full burden of realizing that it must top my incomparable "Musicraft"... As if this were not enough, I have the added load of trying to tell you what has been happening these last weeks with you so far away - and successfully bridging the gap of time and miles. Need I add that when I say "I", I am really referring to a certain dark fellow [Adolph Green] as well as myself - although somehow, through some odd trick of fate, it is I, only myself, who is stuck with actually writing the letter.