Leonard Bernstein’s Tragedy

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Peter Drucker

Leonard Bernstein:
The Political Life of an American Musician
By Barry Seldes
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009,
276 pages, $24.95 cloth.

FOR SOMEONE LIKE like me who attended Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in the 1960s, he summed up almost everything my family admired. As director of the New York Philharmonic he was a high priest in a temple of music. Yet far from being a stuffed shirt, he was handsome and fun, irresistibly communicating his infectious enthusiasm. As the Philharmonic’s first Jewish leader he symbolized Jewish New York’s arrival at the summit of high culture, to which it had so long aspired.

Bernstein’s identification with the left endeared him to people like my parents, who like him had been close to the Communist Party when they were young. Yet he showed that a progressive could be a glamorous insider, especially through his closeness to the rich, elegant Jackie Kennedy. He seemed to have effortlessly resolved all the contradictions in a generation’s progress from youthful hard times and radicalism to middle-aged, middle-class liberalism.

Barry Seldes’s biography reveals that the contradictions in fact plagued Bernstein his whole life. So did another contradiction: between Bernstein’s apparently model heterosexual family life in the 1950s and ‘60s and his persistent desire for other men, leading only late in life (in 1976) to his coming out as a gay man.

Seldes shows that Bernstein’s adherence to the CP line throughout the 1940s was followed in the 1950s by a humiliating self-criticism, and that Bernstein’s renewed commitment to progressive causes from the 1960s on masked disorientation and doubt. Although Seldes is not a musicologist but (like me) a political scientist, and his book focuses on Bernstein’s politics not his music, he also shows that Bernstein was frustrated during his last decades by his failure to produce the musical masterwork of which he was convinced he was capable.

Seldes argues convincingly that since Bernstein was very much a social animal, not a composer who could work in isolation, his musical shortcomings were to some extent a reflection of the failure of his left-liberal cultural milieu to define a clear and consistent attitude to U.S. culture.

Given that Seldes provides so much evidence that Bernstein’s glamor and success hid several unresolved contradictions, it is curious that Seldes himself seems to share many of his subject’s illusions. Seldes is often an uncritically admiring chronicler of Bernstein’s romance with the CP, the Kennedy family and the state of Israel. He reserves some of the more unflattering information about Bernstein for footnotes.


Bernstein’s striking early success on the New York cultural scene came in a milieu where neither leftism nor homosexuality were disadvantages. If ever the pun “Homintern” referred to something real, it was in the New York music scene in the 1930s and ‘40s. Among the period’s most prestigious composers and musical pundits, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, Virgil Thomson and the young Ned Rorem were all gay, and all close to the CP. They were among young Lenny’s friends or mentors. So was the choreographer Jerome Robbins, also gay, also initially close to the CP, with whom Bernstein collaborated on many projects over the years.

Unlike the movies and TV, Broadway and the classical music scene were never decimated by the McCarthyist purge. Many leftist musicians in and around New York managed to survive the 1950s without sacrificing either their convictions or too many commissions (though there were attacks and there were sacrifices).

Bernstein too seemed at first to be sticking to his beliefs, supporting Henry Wallace for president in 1948 and joining Paul Robeson and Lillian Hellman at the 1949 Waldorf conference for peace while the stampede of friendly witnesses to the congressional witch-hunting committee HUAC was already well under way.

But Bernstein was not content to be a composer; he also wanted a career as a conductor. That required approval by CBS, which held the New York Philharmonic’s recording contract, and his passport, which the State Department had revoked. So in 1953 he buckled, signing a affidavit that said that as a Jew he was “necessarily … a foe of communism” and that he was sorry that he might have been “a source of possible embarrassment to the government of the United States.” (70)

Compared to many others Bernstein got off lightly and did nothing terribly shameful. He did not have to renounce his beliefs in public and did not turn anyone else in to the anti-Communist inquisitors. And the politics that he could no longer express directly were still manifest in enduring works like Candide and West Side Story. Nonetheless, he did pay for his career as a conductor — which, ironically, he later blamed in part for holding him back as a composer — with a decade of political silence.

The consequences for Bernstein as a man attracted to other men were more insidious. He seems to have deeply loved Felicia, who became his wife in 1951, and their children. Other men have combined heterosexual marriages with discrete same-sex relationships without too much deceit or unhappiness. More shocking was his letting the trustees of the Boston Symphony know in 1949 (according to Dimitri Mitropoulos’s biographer) that Mitropoulos, then his rival for the post of music director, was homosexual and therefore presumably unsuitable. (213-4 n116) Unsuccessful in Boston, the same tactic apparently helped in the late 1950s to convince the New York Philharmonic board to replace Mitropoulos with Bernstein as music director. (225 n84)

A half-century later, it is hard to fathom the mentality, in not only the cultural establishment but also much of the left, that found such tactics acceptable. In view of Bernstein’s own sexuality, he must have paid a psychic toll for the edge he got as an apparently respectable family man.

“Radical chic”

These then unknown episodes did not undermine Bernstein’s progressive credentials in the 1960s, when he emerged as a supporter of civil rights and an opponent of the Vietnam War. This time he remained true to his convictions throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, continuing to be a reliable backer of liberal causes.

Seldes shows, however, that lacking the compass of the CP line, Bernstein often doubted whether he was doing the right things. In a world “on the verge of collapse,” he told an interviewer in 1967, he no longer had “any really deep convictions,” felt that he knew “absolutely nothing,” and could not feel that he was “part of anything real.” (108-9) His optimism of the 1940s was increasingly giving way to despair.

Wanting to be loved, he was ill suited to a society and a left that were increasingly being torn apart. Seldes suggests that Bernstein’s major, late compositions, like Kaddish and Mass, while well meaning and ambitious, suffered from his uncertainties.

Tom Wolfe’s notorious 1970 article charging Bernstein with “radical chic” for hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers failed to note that when Bernstein said “I dig” in response to Donald Cox’s advocacy of putting “the means of production … in the hands of the people” — a sentiment that every socialist can endorse — he was in fact hovering ambiguously between a forthright “I agree” and a mere “I understand.” (115)

He fell prey to agonized speculation: If only Jack Kennedy had lived, surely he would have wanted to get the United States out of Vietnam. (109) Surely the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land were “perilous” for its “democratic character.” (157)

Much of Bernstein’s work bears abiding witness that inspiring music can also be popular and socially engaged. His tragedy was that after he largely lost his moorings in the 1950s, he never fully regained them.

ATC 144, January-February 2010