I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter – The Leonard Bernstein Letters

Leonard Bernstein

It is always a wonder, when doorstop volumes of letters belonging to dead icons are released, that people who led such gargantuan lives in scope and depth, found the time to achieve so much and still be such conscientious correspondents to so many people. But we are talking about a different time here, when you had to write to stay in touch. One of the considerable losses the social networking age will inflict on the generations it has hoodwinked will be to deny them a physical stash of handwritten letters. Thankfully though we can enjoy the archives of past notables who were not so deprived.

Such was the bountiful nature of Leonard Bernstein’s musical output and such was his influence as a conductor and a teacher internationally, that it is unsurprising to see that his correspondence, newly compiled by Nigel Simeone, takes up a whopping 600 pages. Bernstein’s letters are conversational and informal, surprising, given that he was an excellent writer. Strangely though many of the stand out letters in this collection are actually ones that Bernstein received, rather than the ones he wrote.


Of particular note is the letter Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Lennie in the early hours of June 9th 1968, the night after Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Bernstein had conducted an excerpt of Mahler’s 5th Symphony during the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Jackie, moved by the performance, wrote to Bernstein to thank him. Jacqueline, who would of course go on to become a literary editor herself, reveals an elegant turn of phrase in her writing, describing her late brother-in law as ‘kaleidoscopic’, before going on to note that Bobby’s wife, Ethel, loved him ‘mystically’.

The Kennedy link is a strong one throughout the book, a childishly excitable Frank Sinatra writes on the 12th of January 1961 of the rehearsals for a gala performance he is organising for the Inauguration of President Kennedy in which Bernstein is to participate. The description of the social element of the Inaugural brouhaha is quintessential Sinatra: “Now for the social side of this hoedown,” he writes. “Exhibit A will be a supper party that Ambassador (Joe) Kennedy is giving in honour of the entire cast. This will be black tie for the fellows and something dazzling for the girls.” He goes on to sign off with a charmingly menacing “Love and kisses and I’ll be waiting for you.”

The correspondence between Jerome Robbins and Bernstein is of particular interest. Robbins was one of the co-creators of West Side Story and was a major influence on Bernstein, cajoling him to work, in often brutal terms, while striving for a punchy, exciting show. “In general,” Jerome writes, “suddenness of action is something we should strive for.”

His letter after receiving one of the first drafts of the show is the politely written equivalent of tearing up the score and shouting ‘no, no, no, take it back and start again!’ He disdains the downbeat nature of the early drafts, “We’re dead unless the audience feels that all the tragedy can and could be averted, that there’s hope and a wish for escape from tragedy and a tension built on that desire.”

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.
Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Stephen Sondheim, another co-conspirator on West Side Story, also comes across as a sparkling letter writer. “You have the distinct privilege,” he writes to Lennie, “of being the first person in these Continental United States to receive correspondence typed on my new and not completely paid for IBM Electric Typewriter. How about these margins?”

Berstein’s exchanges with his contemparys in the composing world are also illuminating. There are a number of letters to and from Aaron Copland, the composer of the famous Fanfare for the Common Man and the better, but lesser known Appalachian Spring. Bernstein is an affectionate, informal corespondent in his letters to Copland. “I’m a dawg, a dawg, a dawg not to have done this before,” starts one letter dated 28th of September 1944. He goes on to talk about how his work on what would go on to become On the Town is dominating his life and reveals a shaky confidence in the piece: “The show is a wild monster now which doesn’t let me sleep or eat or anything, maybe it will lay the great egg of all time. It’s an enormous gamble.”

His marriage to his wife Felicia Montealegre was not always a happy one, although they were naturally in tune musically, collaborating on performances of Bernstein’s own Kaddish Symphony and Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. Her letters, written during long periods of separation when he was off on foreign tours, are often the more fragile, but his don’t want for longing either. He writes from the Grand Hotel Duomo in Milan in February 1955: “I miss you terribly and love your letters. They carry a whiff of something warm and familiar and joyful.”

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein
Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

These letters matter because Bernstein matters. He understood and articulated the power of music better that anyone, not just classical music, but any kind of music and that, among many other things, makes him extremely important. “I am very happy tonight for music,” he said, on collecting a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1995 “And I’ll be even happier and maybe even ecstatic if tonight can be a step toward the ultimate marriage of all kinds of music, because they are all one.”

The breadth of his musical creation, which stretched from musical theatre to boundary breaking classical music, was awe inspiring, but much of it is often overlooked. The collection features a letter from President Reagan, sent to the composer on the day of his seventieth birthday, celebrating his achievements from “West Side Story to Wonderful Town” two valedictory bookends Bernstein would have found dubious. Despite the greatness of his theatre work, he wanted to be remembered for so much more.

Leonard Bernstein died on October 14th 1990 at the age of seventy one and was outlived by his mother, Jennie. One of the last letters in the book is from her, dated 5th of September 1990, “I have confidence in you,” she writes, simply a mother worried about her son’s health, “I think you’re on the right track.”

The Leonard Bernstein Letters – Edited by Nigel Simeone – Is available from Yale University Press now.