Jackie Kennedy writes him a letter about ‘your Mahler’ at four in the morning

Jackie Kennedy writes him a letter about ‘your Mahler’ at four in the morning


norman lebrecht

November 01, 2013

The vital new collection of Leonard Bernstein letters delivers revelations of the most intimate nature on virtually every page. Here’s my review in Standpoint magazine.



  • R. James Tobin says:

    “He tells the song composer, Ned Rorem: “The trouble with you and me, Ned, is that we want everyone in the world to personally love us ” This is what he told his friend Harold Shapero was his big ambition, when they were very young and living in Newton. He surely meant it.

    I received a note from Helen Coates once, after I had written to Bernstein about the possibility of re-recording Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra. She said on his behalf that this was a favorite work of his also, but even if he programmed it again, current business realities would not make that possible. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have the letter any more.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I have read in a recent biography of George Szell that LB idolized Szell along with Koussevitsky, Mitripolous and Reiner. The two saw each other frequently and LB was one of Szell’s last visitors in hospital in Cleveland just before his death.

  • This is a superb piece, Mr. Lebrecht.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    Very interesting article! But – do we really need to know all these things “of the most intimate nature” about Bernstein, even though he was a very public, at times even somewhat exhibitionist personality?

    “In an effusive affidavit, sworn in 1953 when Senator McCarthy inflicted terror across the arts and Bernstein had his passport withdrawn, he declares: “I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party, nor have I ever subscribed to communist doctrine or ideology.” He adds: “I have in the past spoken out against the inhibitions imposed upon creative artists, particularly composers, under the Soviet regime.” Do we hear an ironic snipe at his own, American inhibitors?”

    I don’t. To me it looks more like he just caved in under the fear of being investigated by the “House Committee on Un-American Activities”. Not that I would “blame” him for that. We are lucky that we live in easier times today. This subject comes up often on this forum when we talk about how people behaved in totalitarian regimes. The US wasn’t exactly a totalitarian regime in those days, but the pressures felt by many who were investigated must still have been enormous.

    That should just remind us once again not to be so quick to judge people who lived through more difficult times.

    “His death in October 1990 hushed Manhattan to a moment’s silence. Weeks before the end, he receives a letter from his aged mother, Jennie. “Dear Son,” she writes, “I have confidence in you that you are on the right track.” ”

    So Bernstein was actually survived by his mother?

    • Steve says:

      yes, it would seem he was survived by his mother. The dangers of smoking weren’t flagged up in those days and LB complains of health problems in the late 1940s.

  • It is a minor tragedy that the art of good letter-writing is no longer required.

    Future generations will be unable to access the passing thoughts of great people.

    • Larry W says:

      Not so. Emails, Facebook, blogs and tweets allow for the most random passing thoughts and deep musings to be shared with one or all.

      • I am sure your knowledge of current technology is superior to mine, but I am under the impression that the intangibility of these mediums means a lifetime of writing letters leads to a more measured and reliable collection.

        • Larry W says:

          When you referred to passing thoughts, I did not immediately think of a lifetime collection. As for access by future generations, you may take comfort that what you write in emails, blogs, and online will be there virtually forever.

          • Steve says:

            and yet a huge amount of these letters ended up on the cutting room floor so inevitably it’s a very partial take on LB. Less than a 1/6th of the complete collection.

            Had this book been compiled by Norman Lebrecht or someone else, a very different picture would have emerged.

            I’m enjoying it very much, and hope there’s scope for another volume.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. Also ‘DInner with Lenny – the last long interview’ by Jonathan Cott, which was recently published in book form, after a 20+ years wait, is a fine read.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    I’ve started looking at it. It’s amazing LB ever got anything done with people always hussling him for favours and advancement. From the young Yo Yo Ma to the venerable Aldous Huxley proposing a collaboration, everybody wanted something.

  • Steve says:

    The enthusiastic letter from Xenakis about Bernstein’s performance of Pithoprakta is a reminder of how wide ranging his programming could be.

    Also, I was struck by the conciliatory relationship with conductors who previously had associations with the Nazis. There’s a lovely letter to Bohm towards the end, and full of praise upon meeting Karajan for the first time.