“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
People who knew Leonard Bernstein in life remember him as a cross between a lion and a firefly. He electrified the atmosphere of every room he stepped into, and concert halls packed to capacity welcomed him for nearly 50 years. Later in life, Leonard Bernstein’s drug use and alcoholism began to overwhelm him, but he continued to perform as a conductor until less than three months before his death.
Bernstein Beginnings: A Child Prodigy
A second-generation American, Bernstein was the son of Ukrainian immigrants Samuel and Jennie Bernstein. He was born right after the Great War in 1918, and his parents called him Louis to appease his grandmother, who loved the name. His own folks called him Leonard, or Lenny for short, which stuck with him for life.
When he was 10, Bernstein’s aunt gave the family a large upright piano. Having been inspired by a piano performance several years earlier, young Bernstein jumped at the chance to play. His father refused to pay for tuition, so Bernstein saved up for lessons and took to the instrument like a pro.
Bernstein loved the classics, but he also loved the popular tunes he heard on the radio. By the time of his bar mitzvah, 13-year-old Leonard could play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and all of Chopin’s preludes and nocturnes. Deeply impressed, his father bought him a five-foot baby grand.
Lenny’s Illustrious Career
Bernstein’s piano teachers included Helen Coates and, from 1935 onward, Heinrich Gebhard. After he left high school, Bernstein attended Harvard and then the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied music and began to write his own compositions. He spent all of the 1940s and most of the 1950s conducting world-famous orchestras, including the Boston Pops, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
During the same time period, Bernstein also wrote music, including scores for Wonderful Town, Candide and the iconic West Side Story, which premiered on Broadway in 1957. He poured himself into his work, appearing on PBS’s Omnibus series and beginning his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.
Bernstein’s friends and associates recall that he almost always held a tumbler of scotch when not on the podium. Composer and diarist Ned Rorem once said, “I remember he even drank for breakfast. That impressed me.”
Despite an asthma diagnosis, Bernstein also smoked heavily from an early age and, torn asunder by his own identity, regularly burned the candle at both ends.
After a tumultuous engagement, Bernstein married Chilean actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre in 1951 and had three children with her. The couple stayed together for over 25 years, and friends maintained that they cared for one another. However, their union hid an open secret: Bernstein was gay, or at the very least, bisexual.
Everyone in the American arts scene knew about Bernstein’s sexuality, including his wife, who tolerated his affairs with men throughout their marriage. In 1976, he left his wife and moved in with a lover; in 1977, Felicia developed lung cancer, and Bernstein moved back in to care for her until her death in 1978.
After Felicia’s death, Leonard Bernstein’s drug use started to spiral out of control. Her passing left him devastated, and he became consumed with guilt; in turn, his behavior became more and more outlandish and unpredictably crude. As he descended into severe depression, he sought attention in unhealthy ways and found it hard to maintain a respectful physical distance from people, particularly when drunk.
Unhappiness and Acting Out
Given his predilection for shock value and his poor behavior, you might assume that Bernstein finally became a persona non grata. Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t happen. Bernstein’s associates certainly had codependent relationships with him and often peeled him off the floor, but most of them spoke to Lenny until the end of his life.
One particularly memorable Bernstein rescue, described by classical music critic Mark Swed, happened in 1988. Shortly before the beginning of a concert at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York, Bernstein went AWOL. His colleagues at the Chicago Symphony eventually found him, tremendously intoxicated, in his apartment at the nearby Dakota Hotel. They threw him into a cold shower and then brought him to the concert hall, where he successfully conducted Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
Analyzing Leonard Bernstein’s Drug Use
Leonard Bernstein’s issues probably sprang from various seeds, some of which were sown during his youth. As a musical virtuoso — a child prodigy, really — he inspired an unusual level of deference among adults. When grownups abandon normal adult-child relationships in favor of veneration and appeasement, they leave gifted children without the guidance they need to mature.
Regrettably, Bernstein also couldn’t live openly as a gay man in America — where public sentiment was still repressive of such people — until later in life. Several sources suggest that his mentor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, encouraged him to quash rumors about his private life by getting married. Orchestra boards, said Mitropoulis, were notoriously conservative and were unlikely to give him a contract if they found out about his sexuality.
In 1960, Bernstein broadcast a Young People’s Concert titled “Who is Gustav Mahler?” In it, he described Mahler as “one of the most unhappy people in history.” Why? Because Mahler was both a composer and conductor and therefore held two different people inside him. Bernstein maintained that the conflict between these two entities left Mahler heartbroken.
While interesting and insightful, Bernstein’s description of Mahler might have been a depiction of himself, too. As a conductor and a composer, Bernstein certainly embodied Mahler’s dichotomy. He regularly struggled with his Jewish faith, enjoyed both classical and popular music and vacillated between generosity and unkindness in his personal relationships. Finally, he tried in vain to tamp down his own dualistic sexual feelings.
From a physical standpoint, Bernstein’s last decade was his hardest. He’d begun suffering from emphysema in his 50s, which gradually got worse as the years went on. At some point in his 60s, he became incontinent and insomniacal. His hygiene declined as an addiction to painkillers — which he’d been prescribed to combat lung cancer pain — took hold.
Leonard Bernstein died of a heart attack in October 1990 at the age of 72.
During his lifetime, people found Bernstein deeply inspiring — despite his behavior and his struggles with alcoholism and addiction. His opinions really meant something, even when they were controversial. Audiences dubbed him “the greatest American musician who ever lived.” Many music fans still feel that way today.
In 2009, an Italian study found a strong link between heavy drinking and lung cancer risk in smokers. With that in mind, it’s possible that Bernstein’s alcoholism compounded his lung cancer risk and led to his mesothelioma diagnosis.