Did Leonard Bernstein have a James Levine problem?

Did Leonard Bernstein have a James Levine problem?


norman lebrecht

December 13, 2017

Ever since the first allegations broke against the former music director of the Metropolitan Opera, there has been a rustle of hints, whispers and smears to suggest that James Levine’s alleged conduct resembled that of the great New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Coming as they do on the eve of Bernstein’s centenary, these assertions could strip the gloss off what ought to be a joyous year-long reminder of one of America’s foremost home-bred talents.

So what’s the substance?

Bernstein certainly pursued young men all his adult life. He was mostly gay and totally out in all he did. There was no hidden side to Lenny except his business activities, which were handled by Harry Kraut at Amberson Productions. On the personal front, Lenny would kiss orchestra men on the lips, shocking some older members of the Vienna Philharmonic. He was often seen going off with handsome young men for non-platonic discussions. In an age when male sex was unsafe, Bernstein was reckless to the point of abandon.

No complaint ever reached the public domain. No report of a pay-off ever came to light. That’s all we need to know.

The difference between Bernstein and Levine is that Bernstein was, for most of his life, physically attractive and intellectually compelling. His charisma was such that he did not need to proposition men for sex. They flocked to him. There was nothing seedy or underhand about his transactions. All was out in the open for everyone to see.

Bernstein’s life has been trawled by several good biographers, none of whom came up with serious misdemeanour. His letters, published unadorned, reveal nothing untoward.

Any resemblance between Levine and Bernstein is purely superficial. The Lenny Year can go ahead without fear.

Bernstein in his Dakota apartment with Levine, 1987. photo: Music Division, Library of Congress




  • Been Here Before says:

    A non story.

    “His charisma was such that he did not need to proposition men for sex. They flocked to him.”

    • Ross says:

      Is Norman suggesting that he thinks Bernstein was more handsome and charming than Levine?

      • Been Here Before says:

        No. But he does ask “Did Leonard Bernstein have a James Levine Problem?”

      • Been Here Before says:

        Sorry for the typo. Yes, he did suggest LB was more handsome and charming than Levine. He did not need to harass anybody.

      • Andy Lim says:

        not only Norman would think that.
        Anybody thinks the opposite?

        • Nick says:

          Thank God Bernstein is not alive today. It is hard to imagine what the left idiots would do to him!!!
          Rest In Peace dearest Lenny!!
          I am glad you did not live to see the nightmare idiocy the world is witnessing now.

          • Nick says:

            Oh boy!!! I do agree with you 100%. The left fascists would degrade Lenny beyond belief.
            Thank god he did not live long enough to see these disgusting times and equally disgusting left fascists of America

  • Ungeheuer says:

    All I know is that, with few exceptions, I’ll take a Bernstein performance over a Levine one anyday. Especially in Mahler. No comparison.

    • Tristan says:

      of course no comparison but Levine was brilliant with most of the opera repertoire!
      Nothing special in concerts, I agree! All in all Lenny is definitely in a league above Jimmy!

    • Nick says:

      Your comment is totally pointless. Thousands of others would say exactly the opposite and would be also as right or as wrong as you are! Matter of taste, nothing else!
      Bernstein’s Mahler, Levine’s Wagner, etc., etc. the list is endless!!
      Needless to say, both Maestro Bernstein and Maestro Levine are the two greatest conductors and musicians of our generation! Both deserve praise and praise ONLY!!!
      After all, there are plenty of cute boys and girls out there wanting fame and glory, who offer themselves to anybody who is in the position to bring them into spotlight, but there are ONLY ONE Bernstein, ONE Levine and/or ONE Pletnev.
      So, let us leave these phenomenally talented people alone since what they do for the world’s culture well over-compensates their (not always proven) shortcomings, and let’s get to our politicians, who are a bunch of nobodies at best like Bill Clinton, Al Franken, and the ilk. These should be called to order!! Because they are USELESS for the public and they ABUSE their political power.

      • Have You No Shame? says:

        What crap.

        Complete disregard for the rule of law, and a belief that people considered to be super talented are above that law, even at the expense of other “lesser” people (of any age).

        Maybe you have never been assaulted, but some of us have and it is NOT due to “wanting fame and glory” or offering ourselves to “anybody who is in the position to bring them into spotlight” – pull your head out, and breathe some oxygen, man.

        There is NO human being who is a “god” and above treating others with respect. You think it’s the victim who’s at fault?

        Well then I hope you become a victim and find out just how “great” it is and how “far” it gets you, and who “really” was in the wrong!

        • Nick says:

          What an idiotic name? NO, I have NO SHAME when it comes to complete human idiocy. There is nothing shameful about sexual attraction. It is common for all living creatures, plants, animals and Homo Sapiens. People have weaknesses and strengths. You, Left fascist hacks – have only weaknesses. People have sexual attractions and there is absolutely nothing unnatural about it, whether homo or hetero-sexual. And everybody has a different level of control over one’s sexual instincts. It is NOT CRIMINAL!
          You are just a regular Left fascist hack! And obviously a nobody, who is envious of the God given talent of some people.
          Someone here corrected me by adding a couple of names: Sinopoli and Abbado!! Thank you. I STAND CORRECTED. I should have said “two of the tight circle of legendary conductors”. Needless to say, Carlos Kleiber, Celibidache, Karajan, Kondrashin, Tennstaedt, Solti, as well as Abbado, Sinopoli, Bernstein, Levine and I am sure I miss a couple…… – are all great musical personalities of our time. And we owe them a lot!!!!

          And yes, you, IDIOT, these people ARE above anything your damn idiotic law prescribes!! The law is invented by greedy idiots like yourself – lawyers for their own good and their money making machine.
          For you, Left Libtards, there is nothing sacred, nothing outstanding, nothing above average, nothing God-like, because YOU are below average, on the bottom of biological ladder. Learn respect and understanding of Human Genius and then open your stupid politically correct mouth.
          People you dare to talk about ARE ABOVE even your understanding let alone judgement.

      • martain smith says:

        “The two greatest conductors of our generation” ..in terms of filling their bank accounts and full-front PR.
        Any thoughts about Sinopoli and Abbado, to mention but two?

    • martain smith says:

      Totally agree!

  • Sue says:

    I’m so totally fed up with reading and hearing about homosexuality!!!

    • Non of your business says:

      Simple solution, stop reading about it.

    • MWnyc says:

      Imagine how tired we get, having to hear about heterosexuality day in, day out for our entire lives.

      • Sue says:

        Yes, I realize it’s totally abnormal hearing about sexual congress between men and women; you know, that rubbish experience that insists on being heard about.

        • Bruce says:

          It’s not abnormal, it’s just tiring.

          I even know heterosexual people who get tired of the endless stream of “relationship -> engagement -> wedding -> pregnancy -> baby” updates and photos, both on Facebook and in real life.

          But wait, before you go — let me show you this really cute video of my niece eating a cracker…

          • Sue says:

            I’m sorry that you find the notion of procreation and children boring and narcissistic. You’d like this film:


          • Bruce says:

            “Procreation and children” is not a boring topic in itself, but there are those for whom it seems to be so fascinating that they lose the ability to communicate about anything else.

            Anything becomes boring (hadn’t thought of narcissistic, but OK) if it goes on and on without changing… like this conversation 😉

    • May says:

      Pity you aren’t eligible to vote in Alabama. Roy Moore could have used a few more fossils like you at the polling booth.

    • anmarie says:

      I’m neither gay nor male, but cannot imagine what is wrong with you.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I’m reading everything about the subject I can find, newspaper articles, tabloid rants, website stories – everything, I even go to the public library to find books about it, and it is indeed all outrageous and got me totally fed-up and nauseated. It should be prohibitied!


      • RW2013 says:

        Sue, do you know what your three sons are doing tonight?

        • Sue says:

          I give up; watching the Fred McMurray series re-runs from the 1950s. Let’s hear all about it from you otherwise, in grim detail if you don’t mind.

          • QUODLIBET says:


            Maybe you could get a job, or volunteer, at one of those living museum places like Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg, or Plimouth Plantation, where people pretend that they are living in “olden times”. That way you could feel right at home. You’d probably like to be in a time and place where simply being gay was punishable by death; your feelings would be protected as no one would dare even mention it. What a relief!!!! Of course, assuming (by your name, Sue) that you are a woman, you wouldn’t be permitted to speak your mind in public or speak in a public forum (such as this one) or do much of anything except procreate. But you’d be just fine with that, I’m sure.

        • John Borstlap says:

          There are only two, a third ran-off with the postman.


    • William Safford says:

      Think about how gay people must feel having to read and hear incessantly about heterosexual people. Try putting yourself in their shoes.

  • Gennady says:

    J.Levine used to speak that he was Bernstein’s protege

  • Cynical Bystander. says:

    Who next on the trawl through the dirty linen of innuendo and guilt by association? Levine is being hung out to dry, and time will tell whether he deserves it. Speculation and tittle tattle will drag more and more people into this net of curtain twitching Mrs Grundyism. The dead should be left in piece. incidentally, I seem to remember rumours about HvK and his susceptibility for….. See how easy and totally scurrilous it is.

    • Mike_T says:


    • Sue says:

      I feel the same way you do. This whole topic is obviously vicariously thrilling to people otherwise they wouldn’t be anxiously looking in every little nook and corner for the next salacious piece of gossip. Eeew.

      And while we’re at it, why not blacken the name of George Bush Snr. in his 93 year old dotage. We must pay for our mistakes!! Retribution is at hand. The judges here are helping bring the offenders to the scaffolds.

      • Cyril Blair says:

        So the victims of the pawers and gropers should consider first and foremost the delicate feelings of their attackers before leveling accusations? You should be locked in a room with Bush Sr, Weinstein, and Cosby.

      • Ruben Greenberg says:

        Harold, when I google Slipped Disc, the following suggestion on the Google list is “slime machine”! Funny, isn’t it?

      • Lynn says:

        Do you know the truth about “Poppy”? It’s scary.

  • May says:

    here’s the photo in higher resolution:

  • Clevelander says:

    The short version:

    Bernstein was a horny toad.

    Levine is (apparently) a predator.

    • Nik says:

      No, the short version is:
      When it’s Lenny it’s flirting.
      When it’s Jimmy it’s harassment.

      • Bruce says:

        Please point us to the plethora of stories where Lenny coerced young vulnerable men into doing things they didn’t want to do. Thanks.

        • RW2013 says:

          “I was one of those young musicians who Bernstein inspired. In March of 1985, I was in New York to perform at Alice Tully Hall. Lenny invited me over to his apartment in the Dakota for a drink afterwards. I walked into his studio, he poured us drinks, and the two of us sat talking into the wee hours of the morning about, well, everything.”
          Here is someone who (if you google for a second) would have been 13 at the time of his story.
          But it was only for drinks.

          • Scarbo says:

            Not even 13. He was born in October 1972. In March 1985 he would have been not quite 12-1/2. Seems pretty young to be drinking with Bernstein into the wee hours.

        • Mr. Schwa says:

          Bernstein was also into teenage boys. When he conducted in Paris, he was constantly fishing around for info regarding 15- or 16-year olds. He made it sound as if he were only horsing around, but he was interested and obsessed in/with this. We on the inside, working in the business, have known this for a very long time. I recall him being on the prowl in this manner when he guested with the Pittsburgh Symphony in the mid 80s. Whether he was successful in his pursuits is less clear, and thus I suppose he is entitled to his own fantasies and desires. This business is full of pervs. It is simply a question of their self-control and actions. Maybe people in the arts tend to be unstable in such ways??…..

          • John Borstlap says:

            No, but when they get ‘famous’, they feel protected by it and find it easier to let go.

        • Bruce says:

          Interesting. I had not heard any of this.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Leonard Bernstein may well have been out to everyone who imagined they were all the everyone that mattered but he wasn’t out to the public.

    It wasn’t until 1987 that Joan Peyser’s biography put that on the record. I’m not aware of any public acknowledgement by Bernstein. Is there one?

    Apparently never really out to his children. I recall his daughter insisting in an interview that the gay stuff was just a brief fling he went through, led astray by a younger man, and that he expressed regret for it all and just longed for a normal married life again.

    Claiming he was proud and out is a dishonor to the few people who had the courage to be truly out in the 1980s when there was a serious penalty to be paid for it. Anyone who was really out then would probably have regarded Bernstein as a closet case.

  • Peter says:

    The long and the short: this is not about being gay. Did Bernstein have sexual relations with underage teens or not? If yes, then he had a Levine problem. If no, then he did not.

    • Eaglearts says:

      “Did Bernstein have sexual relations with underage teens or not? If yes, then he had a Levine problem.”

      Stick to facts. All of the recent allegations concerning Levine involve men over the age of consent. In 1968 at Meadowbrook Levine was 24. The men who have come forward ranged in age from 17-20.

      • Sue says:

        Can we talk about the music, please, instead of the prurience?

        • QUODLIBET says:

          Sue, these discussions seem to up set you so much! Maybe you ought not to read these threads and just stick to the ones about the music.

          Isn’t it funny? Although you insist that you deplore this conversation, you are one of its most frequent contributors; in this thread alone, as of 4PM EST, you’ve posted five comments to tell us how much you hate reading and talking about all this. Such a martyr! 😀

  • Piscatella says:

    Enter Miracle Max

    Whew ooo hoo, look who knows so much, eh? Well it just so happens your friend here is only mostly gay. There’s a big difference between mostly gay- and ALL gay. Now, mostly gay- he’s slightly straight. Now, all gay, there’s really only one thing left to do.

    What’s that?

    Go through his clothes and look for loose cock rings.

    Have fun storming the castle!

  • OttoRhino says:

    Yes, my life
    It was to be the one who blows, – and forget!
    Do you remember the night when Lenny spoke to you
    under the balcony? Well! all my life is here:
    While I was staying down, in the dark shadow,
    Others went to pick the kiss of glory!
    It is justice, and I approve at the threshold of my tomb:
    Norman has genius and Lenny was beautiful!

    By: Edmond Rostand
    Inspired From: Cyrano de Bergerac (1897)
    Acte V, Scène VI

  • Sharon Beth Long says:

    Gore Vidal says in his autobiography that when he and Bernstein met in Hollywood he (Vidal) procured male prostitutes for Bernstein. One time, according to Vidal, the prostitute said that Bernstein did not have sex with him, he just talked about music! A former arts editor of New York magazine (I forget the name) also said in his autobiography that he had a brief fling with Bernstein in Italy when the editor was working on a publicity photo book about Bernstein. In fact the autobiography is called “Callas kissed me, Lenny too.”
    Bernstein hung out with a kind of a bohemian East Village crowd in the 1940s when he was still single where many men were bisexual–he admitted to Vidal that he had had sex with Jerome Robbins. However, he was pretty closeted until his wife died (although they were estranged before then). Later I recall seeing him conduct a performance on TV in the late eighties where he was downright swishy.
    However, I do not think that Bernstein would dare, even when he was younger and single, say to a music student or subordinate something like “in order to help you with your music I need to understand you sexually”. Bernstein, unlike Levine, was before the “make love not war” generation

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thought that Vidal was a quite untrustworthy person in all his utterances, so any story coming from his mouth or pen should be treated with the greatest suspicion.

  • anonanon says:

    Bernstein had sex with Copland, Mitropoulos, MTT. Not Levine. Not each other’s type at all.

  • musicoloygman says:

    Questions about Bernstein are, I think, fair game. Yet we shouldn’t stop with questions about gay and bisexual conductors. What about heterosexual conductors, alive or not, who have a record of sexual harassment?

  • Bruce says:

    It’s funny, with all the decades of salacious rumors about Bernstein, I never heard a single one about underage males (neither legal-adult nor age-of-consent) or anything predatory; and never heard a single one about Levine that concerned anyone of age or anything not predatory. You’d think that with all the eagerness to make Bernstein look like a pervert, someone would have come up with some kind of abuse-of-power story about him…

    A quibble: “In an age when male sex was unsafe, Bernstein was reckless to the point of abandon.”

    Sex didn’t become unsafe (as far as people knew) until the early 80’s, by which point Bernstein was in his mid-60’s. I didn’t know him, but it’s possible-slash-likely that the jets had cooled a bit by that time.

  • Stephen Munslow says:

    I’m shocked to hear that yet another well-known human being was imperfect. Whatever next!

  • KSB says:

    “The difference between Bernstein and Levine is that Bernstein was, for most of his life, physically attractive and intellectually compelling. His charisma was such that he did not need to proposition men for sex. They flocked to him”

    This is a ridiculous assessment of the dynamics involved in sexual harassment or other abusive behaviors. People don’t sexually harass because they are physically unattractive or otherwise unable to secure partners through non-coercive means. Its not a sense of frustration that drives this kind of horrible behavior but rather a sense of entitlement and power.

    This is in no way meant to implicate Bernstein, BTW.

    • Hilary says:

      The three interviews with James Levine on the Charlie Rose show reveal a magnetic personality. Moreover, physial attractiveness is by no means a clear-cut issue as tastes vary.

  • Indeed – whatever next? How tedious it is to read it every day!!!

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    So: the Princes don’t need to be pedos. Just the toads are.

  • NSW says:

    Can we just hold on for a second – did Lebrecht just argue that you can’t harass someone if you are handsome? Because that seems to be the key justification here, and that is some specious old-guy nonsense.

  • Ninian Fergus says:

    If ever there was a ‘non-story’ this is it. No allegations, no proof, all the story tells is that Bernstein was more handsome than Levine is, and was bi-sexual. So what?

  • Nick says:

    I’m another who wonders why this has been dredged up. It’s a non-story. Yes, of course most in the business knew that LB was gay. Even his wife acknowledges this in a letter written shortly after their marriage and revealed in the recently published The Bernstein Letters. She writes that she knows he is gay. “You are a homosexual and you may never change.” We know that he left his wife to live with another man for a while, but returned to look after her when her final illness was diagnosed.

    As far as I am aware there has never been any allegation against LB regarding sexual impropriety with minors or abuse of position. This thread should not have been started.

    As for his death, it was clear that emphysema was the major cause. As a chain smoker he had suffered from it from his mid-20s. For Esfir Ross to state above that he died of AIDS is a disgrace and completely unfounded. I challenge him/her to come up with any public evidence of that.

  • esfir ross says:

    Mikhail Pletnev and young boys in Thailand. He went on trial but was acquitted. End of story?

    • Nick says:

      Yes, IT IS THE END OF STORY, particularly FOR YOU, Esfir Ross!!
      Dig into Bill Clinton pants! You will it much more interesting I assure you.

    • Nick says:

      Esfir Ross continues to peddle hugely damaging misinformation and fake facts.

      As I have said in two threads now, what he writes above is rubbish! Pletnev was never put on trial. He had been named – falsely – as a person who would be of interest for police questioning. In Thailand, the police have a duty, as they do elsewhere. If a name is mentioned, they are required to interview the named person. However, since MP was rarely in Thailand (to suggest he lived there is nonsense), they were unable to conduct an interview. In that country, failure to locate someone on 2 or 3 occasions results in the police notifying the courts which then issue an arrest warrant. MP was therefore wanted for questioning – plain and simple.

      This case that Esfir Ross implies he knows so much about was never a case. MP never went to trial. Instead of attempting to squash the case, he elected to face the courts. Note – he “elected”, despite the the world knowing and the hugely damaging attacks on his character and career! He attended six bail renewal hearings over several months whilst the police did their duty in assembling evidence. None was found. No case was ever prosecuted. Has any other public figure similarly accused in the current round of sexual and harassment cases ever submitted himself/herself to the courts? This artist did and the result was emphatic!

      I flew to Thailand to investigate this episode. Did Esfir Ross? His claims amount merely to what he thinks he read, on outright falsehoods and damaging innuendo. He lies!

      Esfit Ross had better be careful that if he renews such allegations elsewhere in a public forum where he can be identified, he could be subject to the laws pertaining to slander and libel.

      Footnote: I have been contributing to this blog for years using the handle Nick. I commented to NL a couple of years ago that another Nick had appeared and suggested there should be a means of ensuring no two posters had the same handle. Then the other Nick disappeared for a long, long time and I felt there would be no need. Now he has reappeared above in no uncertain terms. I wrote the comment immediately above that of Esfir Ross – the comment on LB’s wife telling him she knew he was homosexual. The other ‘Nick’ wrote the one following. So in future I will use the handle Nick2.

      • Nick says:

        TO: Nick (2) Sorry to use the same handle as you, but I did not see yours to begin with.

        I agree with you 100% about Pletnev. I have never been to Thailand, but of course anybody who is close enough to musical circles knows that this “Pletnev Thailand Story” is NO STORY. Esfir Ross pushes fake news just as her numerous Leftist colleagues. It is now IN: to push FAKE NEWS. Another pathetic fashion is to consider someone “guilty before proven guilty”. It used to be “INNOCENT until proven guilty”! The Left has changed that!
        You are right again about Bernstein. He was indeed a chain smoker all his life and an avid whiskey consumer. And he suffered from emphysema for years, coughed and had shortness of breath attacks.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I remember a rehearsel where he appeared at the door fragile and sad, took a gulp from a small flacon he kept in his pocket, and appeared at the rostrum radiant, confident and filled to the brim with musical explosives.

  • Blair Tindall says:

    Bernstein was an ethical person who was also lusty and passionate. He treated musicians and students with respect — and celebration. Not at all the same situation.

  • kathleen quinn says:

    One of the things to note is that people harp on Levine’s mentoring of young males and accuse him of exploiting the structural advantage he had as a musician with professional power, to make or break careers, thereby creating a distorted toxic environment for young musicians.

    But I was in a position to observe Leonard Bernstein in the late 60’s when very young male student musicians who obviously knew of Bernstein’s sexual orientation competed for his attention and favors. I don’t think they were doing it because they found him the sexiest guy in the room. They were offering themselves sexually in hopes of career advancement. I did not have the impression Bernstein was discouraging this or unaware of their motives. What I don,t know is if he accepted those offers.

    I still think for those unwilling to present themselves to Bernstein as sexually willing, male or female, this was not a happy situation, even among those who had nothing against homosexuality. Levine’s alleged behavior with young males who had reached the age of consent is slammed as predatory and pedophilia, bur Bernstein’s apparent acceptance of sexual seduction as a way of accessing special professional treatment from him deserves scrutiny as well.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It seems to me that all this unsavory behavior is, apart from the perpetrators’ impaired awareness of civility and decency, also linked to the so-called ‘sexual liberation’ since the sixties. Maybe by now people would better understand the normal suppression mechanics which channelled erotic drives into inhibited romance, resulting in writing poems under candle light and uselessly positioning oneself, on rainy nights, behind a tree under the window of the beloved’s bedroom.

  • rebajas españa says:

    Thanks! Good post!

  • Bruce Johnson says:

    Bernstein was loved, respected, honored. It is ridiculous to suggest that men flocked to him to have their cocks sucked by Bernstein. Please, be respectful. Sexual sharing is a highly personal thing. Bernstein had a wife who knew, from the beginning, that he husband was gay and that he would have sex with men who he also had love for. He was not an animal. Please, it is the music that matters. Bernstein did not treat others in a disrespectful way, like Levine. Levine is an intellect and is charismatic. Sexual attraction is a personal viewpoint. So, your criticism of Levine is repugnant, even if he was repugnant. Let’s just appreciate Bernstein’s great music. I AM GAY. WHAT I DO WITH MY PENIS IS NO ONE’S BUSINESS AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY PERSONALITY. I do NOT pick my friends, because of what they do with their genitals. What a tired and ridiculous article.

  • Roger Stimson says:

    I have been concerned ever since, travelling in the 1980s with a conductor who had been no.2 to Bernstein he told me that LB liked little boys! This has coloured my whole approach to his music, I am afraid. I sincerely hope he was exaggerating when he said he ‘liked’ ‘little boys’. Yet, as the previous write says no-one has come forward to complain!

  • StevieTV says:

    Today French Kissing someone without their consent would be considered a sexual assault. Doing it to your children which Lenny did would be considered pedophilia. Make no mistake I love Lenny and his energy as a conductor and educator. But he clearly had some major issues .But because he was so open loving and enthusiastic people took it in stride.
    Some of the best composers and musicians were and are gay. It makes sense in that the difficulty in expressing themselves in a mostly heterosexual world would disappear in their musical world and their internal conflicts could result in great compositions.

  • ABIndy says:

    Nothing to see here concerning LB. I’ll believe you, millions wouldn’t.