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Banishing Bernstein

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

Many of the quirks and talents, the ruffles and flourishes, that defined Leonard Bernstein as the public later knew him were already manifest when he was a student. The prodigal facility with music, the superabundant warmth, the elaborate drawling and miming of courtesies, the flamboyant cigarette, the flaunted hair, the managed accent—they were all there. In virtually all respects, the student was the adored Lenny of a later time.

I was a year behind Bernstein at Harvard and met him perhaps two dozen times in all, but there was a disproportionate incidence of disaster in that small number. The first encounter was entirely aural, without benefit of a sighting. In my freshman year, 1936, I went one evening to see an antique classic advertised by the student film society.(I was later to be called by friends “Captain of the Movie Team.”) It was a silent film with piano accompaniment. During the performance, it became obvious that the pianist was guilty of neither planning nor rehearsal and had probably never before laid eyes on the film. His high drama over-ran comic moments; his light interludes lapped tragic sections. There was good-natured laughter in the audience and some friendly hectoring. It was obvious that he was known to many in the hall. Later, I learned that the player was a student named Leonard Bernstein, that he was conceded to be gifted, brilliant, and somehow amusing. Apparently, he filled the role of accompanist often.

Bernstein lived in Eliot House, where I had friends in my own class. He was sometimes with them at dinner when I happened to be visiting and so I met him. He seemed above all else a performer. Easy, friendly, good-natured, but a performer. No comment was merely colloquial, no reaction stoic. All was charged with feeling and conviction, but since his intensity was carefully modulated, it was difficult to judge how deep the feeling and conviction went. No one, neither Bernstein nor the others, questioned the undefined aura he wore. It was simply a given. Some said he knew celebrated conductors of the day, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulis, on a first-name basis. When one of his roommates asked me up to their rooms after dinner one evening, I was surprised, in that time of the Great Depression, to find a very handsome piano sitting there, and I showed my surprise. His roommate explained that a professor, whom he named, one not in the music department, had given it to Lenny. But no one was supposed to know that. I was more than a little curious and wanted to ask the circumstances of the gift, but I went away sensing only that my level of sophistication sadly lagged the demands of a great university community.

Our acquaintanceship moved to a new phase in my junior year when I took a course in political theory given by Carl Joachim Friedrich. Friedrich had a considerable reputation and it was said the course was the toughest in the college. Probably both judgments were overblown. At the first session, I found that Bernstein had also signed up for the course. We left the class together and, with the irreverent superiority of the young, expressed low opinions of both Friedrich’s lecture and his course. There was no requirement to attend classes, and it became de rigueur for us, when we met, to confirm that neither of us had attended another session or was doing any of the course reading. But it was necessary to take the final exam. We agreed to cram together. We stayed up the entire night before the exam, working with a high school text on political theory and some cram-school notes Bernstein had borrowed. We drank Coke to keep awake. When we left the examination room, I saw that Bernstein had turned in a single slim blue book while I had written feverishly and filled three. We both walked away from the course with A’s, to the utter disgust of everyone we knew, but I had to conclude privately, on the evidence of his apparent economy and pertinence in writing and thinking, that Bernstein was a good deal more acute than I was. So much, too, for political theory and undergraduate teaching at Harvard.

The first small hint of potential disaster in our relationship followed on the heels of Orson Welles’ arrival in Boston sometime during my junior year. Welles had pasted together a play he called “Five Kings,” melding several of Shakespeare’s best into one of Welles’ worst. I think it was Bernstein who passed the word that extras, spear-carriers, were wanted and would be paid for their trouble. Burgess Meredith, John Emery (a husband of Tallulah Bankhead), Welles himself and several fair young ladies were in the cast. The combination of pay, luminaries, and change of scene was too seductive. A number of us, without a responsible thought, turned our backs on the classroom and spent two weeks in rehearsal and another (as much as the play lasted) lolling about the theatre and beering between acts at Jake Wirth’s nearby emporium, glorious in our costumes. Bernstein told us that the organist who provided a behind-the-scenes accompaniment to the play was Aaron Copeland. I realized I was supposed to be impressed but it was 1938 and I had never heard of the gentleman. Welles provided a full measure of the tantrums and histrionics to be expected from an adapter-producer-director-actor struggling to deliver his baby. Emery and Meredith conspicuously despised each other, in both rehearsals and performances. I gathered that each regarded the other as the wrong variety of Irishman. Rumors of alcoholic goings-on in the corridors of the cast’s quarters at the Ritz were not only rife but entirely believable. At the long overdue closing performance, when we extras were to sing our nightly Latin chorale for the nuptials of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, it was only a small incremental madness for us to substitute Fair Harvard. The Boston audience was convulsed. All in all, those manic three weeks removed from the classroom came as close to wrecking my college career as was tolerable. Bernstein was only partly responsible, but it was he, wasn’t it, who recruited me to carry a spear for those crucial weeks when I should have been studying for my junior comprehensives? It was beginning to dawn on me, but only dimly, that Bernstein might operate closer to the edge than was safe or comfortable for anyone reared as conventionally as I had been.

We met next by chance walking over to the Weld Boathouse to row. On the boathouse deck we shed trousers and sweaters and, in knit drawers and sneakers, shoved off separately in singles. I was an enthusiastic rower but well short of expert. He seemed somewhat better and soon outdistanced me and disappeared around the bends of the Charles. I don’t know exactly what I then did wrong but it was sufficient suddenly to upset the tender craft and dump me into the river. Happily, no one was in sight. It was a unique experience, and I had no idea what the protocol might be to retrieve the situation. I simply swam toward shore, pushing the shell ahead of me until I could stand and re-enter it. I rowed back to the boathouse dripping wet, got out onto the deck and looked for my trousers and sweater. Nowhere to be found. Bernstein’s also were gone. I concluded that he had gotten back before me and returned to his rooms. But some s.o.b. had taken my clothes.

I could think of no recourse but to go up to Bernstein’s rooms, right at hand in Eliot House, borrow some clothes and get back to my rooms at Winthrop. But Eliot lay across Memorial Drive, teeming with late afternoon traffic. I squished my way through the boathouse trying not to look at anyone, snaked across Memorial Drive, hoping the commuters were too busy driving to see the complete revelation of my most private parts through the clinging wet shorts, and bounded up to Bernstein’s rooms on the top floor. He was in. He was amused by my condition but gave it little sympathy. He was more taken with what he fancied to be his own consideration in spotting my clothes and taking them away with him for safekeeping. He assumed I had returned earlier and left without them. “In my shorts?” I said in utter disbelief. “You thought I willingly walked away in these shorts?” He was completely uncomprehending and unrepentant. I choked with disbelief and indignation.

Chance again brought us together for the final denouement. On a cold winter’s night, we were both recruited by third parties for an impromptu (and pointless) drive from Cambridge to New York. I was always ready at the drop of a hat to travel in that direction. My home was in Westchester and I had a girl in New York. My memory is that there were six of us in an open Ford, I in the front seat, Bernstein in the back. We hadn’t been driving long when Lenny began singing the Mikado. All of the Mikado. All the parts. He had no voice but we were all entranced by the tour de force. No one objected and he was perfectly happy to continue, though no one asked him to do so. His agenda was perforce our agenda, and no one interrupted with whatever might have been on his own mind. Lenny might have settled for doing a single act or so, but he was Lenny and he didn’t.

As we approached New York, some of the others began trying to match out-of-town visitors with area locals so that everyone would have a place to stay. I was asked to put Bernstein up in my home and, with some misgiving, I agreed. We arrived after midnight, well after my parents had gone to bed. I got Lenny set up on a studio couch in the small study on the first floor and went up to my room to sleep.

My family were usually late risers but not that next morning. I was awakened in terror from a deep sleep by cascades of piano music rising up from the nether regions of the house—scales, runs, rills, arpeggios, all at full volume. In horror, I looked at the clock. Seven-thirty. My God, my father!! I raced from my room toward the stairs, but Father was already staggering out of his bedroom in his bathrobe, his sparse hair tousled, his eyes wide in disbelief. He wasted no time on greetings to me, his son, so unexpectedly returned a truant from the ivied precincts of Cambridge. He went straight to the point, choking, and demanded, “What in hell is going on?” Desperately, lamely, I started to explain, “Dad, this is a very talented young man. . . .” But he brushed all that aside, “I don’t give a damn how talented he is! It’s the middle of the night. Stop him! Just stop him!”

With Dad gone back to his room, probably to shake his head at Mother for the son she had given him, I went down and explained to Bernstein that my parents were not accustomed to early alarums and excursions. I led him toward the kitchen, thinking coffee might help restore calm all round. The kitchen floor was wet and sticky when I walked in in my bare feet. It seems that Lenny had anticipated me. He had gone to the fridge for orange juice. Unfortunately, he found it and, the task of pouring a glass for himself more than he could manage, spilled a good deal of it. Thoughts of my redoubtable father prompted a speedy clean-up of the mess. Then, breathing a bit easier, I turned to start the coffee going. The Silex, the glass coffeemaker preferred in the late ’30s, lay in large fragments, some on the counter, some on the floor. Lenny had anticipated me there, too.

There was no concealing the absence of orange juice and coffee at breakfast. It was an unparalleled double blow for Father. The meal was polar in all respects. Only Bernstein seemed unconscious of the social climate. He expended his charm without stint—and without success. But he was neither bothered nor aware. He was simply incapable of empathizing with ordinary middle-class metes and bounds. After the worst breakfast of my life, my father took me aside (thank God for that) and instructed me to “get that young man out of the house and never let him back.” And that is how the future conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the composer, the public charmer, the future entertainer of Black Panthers, was banished from 65 Parkway East, Mt. Vernon, N.Y., never to return.


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