Famous Bis: Leonard Bernstein

By Jennie Roberson

January 10, 2024



Like every schoolgirl, I loved those days when we watched a movie instead of doing our normal classwork (yes, even straight-A goody-two-shoes like me loved a good flick). Every Friday in junior high, Señor Martin would make popcorn and have us all watch West Side Story (1961) instead of our normal Spanish lessons. Since the classes were less than an hour, plus the fact that the film had to be constantly rewound because kids were chit-chatting during scenes, it took us about a semester to get through the whole classic. But it was also my introduction to the work of Leonard Bernstein, one of the foremost composers and conductors of the 20th century.

It wasn’t until 15 years later that I learned Bernstein was bi. Before I get too deep into exploring the life of this musical genius, it should go without saying there are moments both major and minor in Bernstein’s life I won’t be able to cover, so please don’t come after me with pitchforks. I want this article to serve as a jumping-off point on the man’s story and not a final destination.

Born on August 25, 1918 to Jennie Bernstein (great name, gotta say) and her husband Sam, a hair and beauty supply company owner — both Ukrainian immigrants — Bernstein was originally named Louis, though everyone called him Leonard or Lenny. (He eventually changed his legal name to Leonard when he hit 18.)

At the age of 10, his Aunt Clara dropped off a piano at Bernstein’s house for them to store while she was going through a divorce, and the future maestro became fascinated with the instrument. Although he was dying to learn, his father was not encouraging at first, so little Leonard raised funds for piano lessons himself. Within three years, he had become so proficient that he won his father over — so much so, in fact, that he bought Lenny a baby grand piano as a bar mitzvah present.

During his college years at Harvard, Bernstein continued his craft by playing accompaniment for both the glee club and the silent movie club. He went on to study at both the Curtis Institute and Tanglewood Studio, where he took master classes and began learning the art of conducting.

By the time World War II rolled around, Bernstein could not be drafted due to being asthmatic, and spent a few years looking for work before landing the position of assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Then, on November 14, 1943, the guest conductor fell ill and Bernstein was called up at 9 a.m. to conduct that evening’s program. He did so — and with such enthusiasm and aplomb that the performance became a New York Times front-page story the next day, launching his career as a world-class conductor.

Bernstein spent the next few decades not only conducting with the NY Philharmonic, but touring as a guest conductor in the US and abroad. (Sometimes he would play piano and conduct at the same time, such as this smashing rendition of “Rhapsody In Blue” he did in the ‘70s.) He also worked on composing and musical collaborations at this time, his most famous of which was with Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim on the score of the beloved musical classic, West Side Story. Bernstein also created and hosted the television show Young People’s Concerts (1958–1972), designed to get children interested in classical music — often including young chamber music performers alongside their elders in the NY Philharmonic.

As far as his bisexuality, Bernstein was known for his same-sex affairs throughout the earlier part of his career in the ‘40s and ‘50s. However, when it became possible that this could hamper his burgeoning success, his mentor advised him to marry — which he did, to actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre in 1951. The two would go on to have three children, and while he did have affairs with men during their marriage and after her death, none of his friends, colleagues, or family ever denied the fact that Bernstein loved his wife deeply. Close friend Shirley Rhoades Perle noted she thought that Bernstein “required men sexually and women emotionally”. Likewise, his children have not shied away from the fact that Bernstein was bisexual during an era that had difficulty with that label, and with the particular form of parenting that brings.

Bernstein was also known for his political activism, protesting the Vietnam War, calling for nuclear disarmament, and raising money for the defense of members of the Black Panther Party. His left-leaning views led him to being blacklisted by the FBI during the Red Scare and getting banned from performing on CBS — but, unlike with other performers during the 1950s, this did not put a huge damper on his career.

Later in life, Bernstein also took a liking to teaching and taught at his old alma mater, Tanglewood. Determined to instill a love of music in children, he used his lifetime achievement award prize money to work on opening a school in Nashville to guide teachers into better integrating music into their lessons.

A lifelong smoker, Bernstein developed emphysema in the ‘70s and passed away from mesothelioma on October 14, 1990 — five days after he retired. His legacy as a conductor, composer, and musical mentor lives on to this day. If you are curious to learn more about his musical influences and some fun facts (like the time he got in a fight with master Bach interpreter and pianist Glenn Gould), I highly encourage reading up more about him at your local library.

Leonard Bernstein was an inimitable conductor, composer, and teacher who changed the course of American music. And he was bi.


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