Leonard Bernstein: "Charismatic, Pompous -- and a Great Father'

It's hard for a child, of whatever age, to see his or her parent through the eyes of the world and it becomes clear that Nina Bernstein has pretty conflicted views of her father.
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His daughter Nina tells Ginny Dougary about the joys and traumas of life with one of music's greats
From The Times March 13, 2010
- Ginny Dougary

Had you been fortunate enough to be in the company of the most charismatic American conductor-composer- teacher-broadcaster of all time for long enough, it is likely that you would have heard this explosion at regular intervals in living rooms and auditoriums across the world: "That's STEIN!" whenever someone affronted the late, great Leonard Bernstein by introducing him incorrectly as "BernSTEEN."

His youngest child, Nina, now 48, is talking to me about her father, whose life and art is being celebrated all year at the Southbank Center. It's a tantalizing and illuminating process attempting to channel such an exuberantly talented man through the women who were close to him (I also speak to Marin Alsop, the conductor, who was his protégée) but ultimately frustrating since everything you hear -- good and bad -- just makes you wish, even more, that you had met him.

Bernstein's appetite for life and people and music, as well as his reckless disregard for his health and the judgmentalism of the bien-pensants, can be summed up by this statement: "I was diagnosed with emphysema in my mid-twenties and [was supposed] to be dead by 45. Then 55.

"Well, I beat the rap. I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I'm over-committed on all fronts." And this was on the eve of his 70th birthday. Two years later, the rap finally did beat him but, as Nina says: "Conductors are supposed to live for ever but he packed several lives' worth into one. I think he had a good innings."

It's hard for a child, of whatever age, to see his or her parent through the eyes of the world and it becomes clear that Nina has pretty conflicted views of her father. While she obviously adored him and had huge respect for his musicianship, she still seems bruised from the fallout of his notoriously complicated personal life.

Bernstein was born of Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1918 in Massachusetts. After studying music at Harvard he swiftly claimed a reputation as a thrilling and flamboyant conductor, sometimes frowned upon, often leaping up from the podium or swooning in a lover's ecstasy.

He brought classical music to millions -- writing the great American opera West Side Story, conducting at the Berlin Wall in 1989, helping to popularize Mahler -- and championed radical political causes, including, notoriously, the Black Panthers.

Nina is aware of how attractive her father was: "He was quite, yeah ["quite" in the American sense of "very"], and charismatic, and telegenic and photogenic." But when I ask whether she was aware of his amazingly (by all accounts) sexual presence, she says, "No, not particularly." Well, he was sexy -- he even equated sex with music, famously asking a colleague, when considering whether to conduct Mahler's reconstituted Tenth Symphony: "I have one question. Will it give me an orgasm?" But Nina says: "That's not the card he played. That's not what he led with in life. At least, not as far as I could tell."

Alsop, 53, the artistic director of the Bernstein Project at the Southbank Center, was reared on the maestro's enthralling Young People's Concerts, which were televised from 1958 to 1973, and describes him as her childhood hero. They met when she was a teenager and her father was playing violin in West Side Story with José Carreras as Tony.

In her twenties she played violin with the New York Philharmonic in a couple of concerts that Bernstein conducted but she was 30 before, as she puts it, "he actually acknowledged that I existed". Alsop was one of the young conductors who was selected to work with him, and they worked closely together in his final years.

She talks about "life going into slow motion for me -- whether I was playing with him in the orchestra or even attending rehearsals, I still remember every moment". I ask her did she, like so many people who came into his orbit, fall in love with him? "Absolutely," she says. "It was the lure of his charisma and his enormous appeal. Even at 70, when he was not in the best physical shape, there was an attractiveness to his personality. He had the ability -- which sent me over the moon -- of making you feel that no one else but you existed.

"That summer of '88, when I was accepted as a conducting Fellow at Tanglewood, I felt a magical connection with him. I felt very close to him and tried to be around him whenever I could. He used to love to write poetry and he wrote me a birthday poem which was very personal, and which I have in a book at home."

I remind Alsop of something rather less flattering that she disclosed about Bernstein's tutelage when she participated in a discussion about women and leadership at the Southbank. (As the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she knows a thing or two about the subject; in 2007, when she became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, there was an outcry -- "You'd have thought the destruction of Rome, or at least Baltimore, was imminent," she recalls.) As Bernstein's conducting student at Tanglewood, she was told by him: "I can't understand it. When I close my eyes, I forget that you're a woman."

To this she replied, possibly rather tartly: "Well, if it makes you more comfortable, why don't you just keep your eyes closed." Bernstein may have been very generous with many people but, she says, "he was a man who was both ahead of his time and of his time, and he was not really comfortable with a woman being on the podium.

"He was conservative in his own particular way. Clearly, he was comfortable with being sexual in many different ways and yet he wanted a traditional life, with a wife and children to whom he was devoted. He was a complex, complex man, and complex people have complex personal lives."

One of Berstein's enduring quotes, perhaps because it exemplifies his approach, is: "Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace." His daughter Nina's film, which is called Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace, is part documentary -- following her sister Jamie, ten years her senior (Alexander, their brother, is also a bearer of the Bernstein flame), around the world, from China to Cuba, as she spreads the maestro's message to young musicians, while they are taught the complex rhythms of West Side Story -- and part family memoir.

The old home movies show Lenny -- as he was almost universally known -- at the family house in Fairfield, Connecticut, being a captivating dad, rolling around with his children on the lawn, playing the prankster, tootling ditties on the piano and appreciating his beautiful wife, Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean actress, to whom he returned from his affairs with men, again and again, until, one day, he didn't.

Nina was 13 when her parents split up. "My mother was a fairly conventional lady and so she expected to be treated like one. The deal was that he would be discreet and that she would maintain her dignity. And then he was not discreet [Felicia found him in bed with his lover, a young music researcher, Tom Cothran, whom he had met in San Franciso in 1973], and so that was that."

Bernstein and Cothran moved in to a New York apartment together, in Central Park South in 1976, then Felicia found that she had lung cancer and, guilt-stricken, her husband moved back to be with her until she died, too young at 56, in 1978.

Nina knew Cothran (who died of Aids) and liked him. "The whole thing was terribly awkward and painful." I say to her that many marriages do come adrift and yet, with enough care from the parents, the children can emerge relatively unscathed. But she does not agree, retorting quite sharply: "I don't know that that's possible."

For all the Bernsteins, the break-up was compounded not only by it being conducted under the full floodlights of fame but, more significantly, the onset of Felicia's terminal cancer; as though the shock of the final public humiliation had led to her premature death. And it was Nina, with her older siblings having flown the coop, who was left to bear the brunt of her mother's despair, followed by her father falling apart after her mother's death.

When I ask her whether she has forgiven her father for leaving her mother, she says: "That's a complicated question. Initially it was all much too confusing for me. My 13-year-old mind didn't really understand what was going on except that I knew my mother was in terrible pain. But then, of course, he came back after she got sick and by then it was all too late. And ... it was a ghastly business, just awful."

Are you still scarred by it? "Probably. But, you know, we've all had our opportunities at therapy." Now when you think of him, is it still complicated? "Of course. It will always be complicated." Do you swing between thinking, "You were just unbelievable" to "You bastard!" "All those things, yes." Is there anything you would have liked to have said to him? Would you have been able to tell him that he was a selfish person? "No, because it wouldn't have done much good. I was only 28 when he died -- so I wasn't really in a position to say that."

What about your sister, who I can imagine being quite feisty? "She may have had it out with him. And don't get me wrong, I was no mouse. I stood up to him a great deal and somebody even said he was afraid of me.

"I guess it was because I wasn't shy about telling him how I felt sometimes -- and that wasn't always met with appreciation either. But it was only on a couple of occasions that we rowed."

She talks about his depressions, as well as his manic moments, but when I ask whether he suffered from manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it's called now, she says: "I don't know whether that's a useful question, sorry. Well, what would we have done about it? Would he have been put on some kind of medication? And then what would have happened?" After Felicia died, he was in "a slough of despond" for many months: "It was so bad. And then, I remember this very clearly, he snapped out of it and we all went on vacation over Christmas, to Jamaica, and we finally had him back."

Fairfield seems to have been the place where, certainly when his wife was alive, Bernstein was at his most uncomplicatedly happiest; enjoying his lively young family, who kept him in his place. "He could be pompous and it's one thing to be pompous for the fans and put on that persona, but don't try it around us. You know, 'Save it for the podium', was the family credo." There was a lot of laughter and game-playing involving words, such as anagrams.

The family also had its own language of sorts: Rybernian, which Bernstein and a childhood friend, Eddie Ryback (the lingo was an amalgam of their names) invented: "It's basically a way of mispronouncing things -- Yiddish words as well as people who just talk funny." It's hard for an outsider to fathom quite how it works but Bernstein would launch into Rybernian until the day he died, and his offspring still use it. "I love you" becomes "Mu-la-du", to which the correct response, apparently, is "Mu-la-dumus", which means "I love you more". And when Bernstein took on airs, his kids would speak to him in Rybernian -- "We'd say 'La-lutt' [shut up] and that would bring him right down to earth."

I wonder what it's like being the offspring of someone so famous; Rebecca Miller, for instance, daughter of Arthur, battled with feelings of being a "bottom-feeder" until she found her own voice as a writer.

"You grow up and all your life people are saying, 'Are you musical? What do you play?' It's the inevitable question. We all took piano lessons but ... Well, here I am in a line of work that is completely, diametrically, different from anything to do with Leonard Bernstein. I teach kids to cook and love food and there's nothing about Leonard Bernstein in that."

She is married to Rudd Simmons, a film producer (High Fidelity, The Road) -- and at work she is known by her married name.

"When I fell in love with him, I was so proud because he was nothing like Leonard Bernstein -- almost the other extreme. And now ten years into the marriage, I realize he's a lot like him -- not in his behavior but in the dynamics of our relationship. How could I have known?"

All three siblings do their bit to keep their father's name alive: Nina is the archivist; Alexander runs the family foundation; Jamie does concerts for young people "much in the style of our father; although she's not musician enough to handle the musical examples -- she does the talking, and she's really good at it".

What was her father like about aging? "He was miserable about it. Terrified. When he turned 70, there was all this fuss being made and he was in a terrible mood because he felt he had reached his biblical span of three score years and ten, and anything beyond that was borrowed time.

"It might have hastened his end -- but what do I know? His last words were, 'What's this?' And 'this', of course, I like to think, was just the next big thing."

Bernstein died without having created work on the scale of, say, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. "What he really wanted to do was the big opera, and that never came," Nina says. He didn't even get a Tony for West Side Story (Music Man, with its hit song 76 Trombones, did): "My father had written a big aria -- you'd have to call it an aria -- for Maria at the end of the show. But it got cut, and so now she just speaks the lines: 'How many bullets are left, Chino? How many bullets can I shoot and still have one left for me?' It was decided that it was inappropriate to have a big dramatic operatic ending. In his correspondence to my mother he writes that 'All my favourite parts, the best parts, are being cut for being too operatic'."

Oh dear. He sounds quite jaundiced? "I think he was plenty proud of what ended up on stage. Jaundiced? Heavens, no!"

Although it's probably fair to say that Bernstein is still best known for West Side Story -- part of the thrust of the Southbank celebration is to introduce audiences to his other works, from The Age of Anxiety to his Mass. "Of course, I don't even need to put the CD on, as I've got Radio Nina in my head. Some days, I think, 'I'll hum through Candide from start to finish', for instance, and that's a lot of fun."

In this way she can stay close to her father for ever: "I was thinking, when we were talking about the film, how damn lucky we are. Most people when they lose their parents have a few photographs or home movies to cling to by ways of remembering them. But we are so surrounded by images and videos and music; it's like being able to visit him.

"I find it comforting and then heartbreaking because what you crave is just to sit and have a laugh with him. He was a great hugger -- a real neck-breaker -- and that's what you really want because, in the end, I'm not a scholar of Bernstein, I'm just his daughter."

* * *

Leonard Bernstein's What Does Music Mean? is screened in the Clore Ballroom, Festival Hall, tomorrow. Marin Alsop conducts The Age of Anxiety with the London Philharmonic on April 21, and Mahler's Symphony No 2 on May 9.

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