An intimate friendship with Leonard Bernstein became one man's guiding light
Just two months ago, I wrote about how my obsession with Elizabeth Taylor colored my choices and changed my life. While that is certainly true, it was an “outside” manifestation, lighthearted and fun. Inside, though, at a much more profound place, it’s my relationship with Leonard Bernstein that altered—and perhaps even saved—my life.
I used to go to Arthur, the granddaddy of all discotheques, which Richard Burton’s ex-wife Sybil Burton opened in New York in 1965. I would come home to Long Island for the weekend from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, where I was in my second year. My parents were Modern Orthodox Jews, meaning no driving on the weekends. So when I arrived before the Sabbath on Fridays, I parked my car two blocks away. After dinner, my friend Toby and I would head straight for the car, change into our “disco drag,” fly off to Manhattan and sweep past the incredibly handsome blond doorman, Lynn, who would lift the red velvet ropes, and we would dance the night away.
My father, no idiot he, discovered my chicanery and cut me off. I told my tale to the elegant Sybil. “Oh, darling,” she said in her deep, crisp South African voice, “you know we only hire handsome young men to serve the celebrity table in the backroom, and I’d say you quite fit the bill. Waiters make a thousand dollars a weekend in tips alone.”
I soon became a favorite at the celebrity table, and everyone—men and women alike—flirted nonstop. Most attentive of all was Leonard Bernstein, with whom I had been fascinated since 1956, when I was 11 and first heard West Side Story. I used to brave violating the Shabbat to watch him on his TV shows Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts at my friend Harvey’s house.
On May 22, 1967, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran and effectively choked off the southern half of Israel. The next month is described in the Israeli history books as Ha’Metach (“the tension”). My parents were both seventh-generation Israelis—I had more than 1,000 first, second and third cousins living there. So in June of 1967, when my cousin Aryeh called and said, “Israel’s at war,” I knew exactly what I had to do: I volunteered for the Six-Day War. Because I was a med student, I was assigned to a medical field unit.
Suddenly, there I was, participating in Israel’s reunification. Since my family was known as the Vatikay Yerushalayim (“the ancients of Jerusalem”), my commanding officer in Rafiach invited me to escort the troops into the Old City. I was there when Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, blew the shofar on the Temple Mount. All my ideas of Judaism were suddenly transformed. I was the new paradigm, not powerless like the Jews of the shtetl but a poet and a fighter. I threw my kippah from the roof of my hotel and wrapped myself in the blue and white flag of the new reunited Jewish Empire. This is the person who was about to meet Leonard Bernstein—again.
Bernstein had come to Israel to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection on the newly reconquered Mount Scopus, and his first order of duty was to visit the volunteers...most of whom were Scandinavian. He walked down the line directly toward me, then cupped his hand under my very recognizable square jaw and cleft chin and said, “I know a young man just like you, who is a waiter at Arthur—a famous discotheque in New York City.”
In perfect Hebrew, I answered him, “Adon Bernstein, ani hayeeti ha’meltzar shelchah” (“Mr. Bernstein, I was your waiter”). Bernstein, who spoke fluent Hebrew, kissed me on the lips—he was famous for kissing both men and women on the lips—and invited me to the concert.
On the downbeat of Resurrection, with the New City of Jerusalem behind me and the Old City, which some of my family had to leave in 1948, in front of me, my brain broke into a billion fragments, and I’ve been collecting them ever since.
After the concert, I was invited to be a gofer on a documentary Bernstein’s great pal Mike Mindlin and Irwin Yablans were making of him conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Then one night, the maestro invited me to have dinner with him in his tent, and my life was forever changed.
I’ve never met, before or since, any person with such depth of knowledge in so many disciplines. He was dazzling. Lenny introduced me to a world of sophistication, erudition and culture, and I was more than eager to sit at his feet and soak it all up. What was truly amazing was his ageless, infectious enthusiasm for all that he taught. Although he was nearing 50, his energy was that of a 25-year-old.
It was a two-way fascination: Lenny was interested in my background and the fact that my parents were Israeli. I traced my descent from four Chassidic dynasties. Lenny’s own Chassidic roots both informed and shaped much of his composing. That I was a medical student with a hunger for knowledge, that we both loved Israel and spoke Hebrew and that we both loved old movies only piqued his curiosity about me.
When the filming in Israel was completed, Lenny asked me to accompany him and his wife and children to Italy for a vacation. I met Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein, Chilean Catholic from her mother’s side and Jewish from her father’s. She was an actress...blond, perfectly coifed, elegant and dainty. At the dinner table she would be smoking (always), an ivory cigarette holder in one hand, charging effortlessly from French to English to German to Spanish to Italian to Russian and back.
They met in 1946 and instantly fell in love. They became engaged, but the following year, he broke it off, telling her he was gay and that he felt she wouldn’t have a very fulfilling life with him. It was in this period that he created Peter Pan and The Age of Anxiety. Felicia continued to pursue Lenny. In 1951, he decided to marry her and raise a family. I can only think they must have had an unspoken pact: As long as he didn’t embarrass Felicia publicly, she would let him do what he wanted.
Lenny and I spent hours talking. He was caught between the conventional push of his desire to raise a family and live an orderly, almost bourgeois life and the pull of his own sexual desires. Long before he met Felicia, when he moved to New York’s West Village in 1942, he was very involved with Aaron Copland, his great friend and mentor. There he met everyone in Aaron’s crowd: Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thomson, George Davies, Paul and Jane Bowles, Wystan Auden and Oliver Smith—most of whom were homosexual.
Many years later, he would re-create this movable salon of like minds with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), Mendy Wager, Azaria Rapoport, Ned Rorem and, although I shudder at my hubris, me. It was Lenny who connected us all. He was consistent in the choice of his special friends...always bright, with a passion for the past and a love of Judaism and Jewishness. Rapoport met Lenny in September 1948. Called the handsomest man in Israel, he was the young Israeli Army officer assigned to Lenny as a personal guide. It was love at first sight. In one of life’s delicious ironies, I knew Azaria separately because he was a fundraiser for Bnai Zion, a Jewish fraternal organization with which my parents were very involved. I’d always had a secret crush on him. That Lenny became our mutual friend was very amusing to us both, as Azaria was a full generation older than me.
That summer of 1967 was a turning point. It’s not so much that I discovered who I was, but I realized who I wasn’t. Lenny had done more than encourage me—he had influenced my life and career path. Those halcyon days in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and Ansedonia were spent discussing my dreams and my passions. And after spending time with a bona fide genius who poured all of his creative energy into work, I had to at least see if I could explore the possibility of my own creative dreams. I was a natural storyteller who loved movies, so I decided to come up with ideas and develop them into screenplays. Knowing Lenny gave me courage, so when I got back to New York, I quit med school and immediately called him. “Hi! I’m here. I did what you recommended—I left medical school.”
“That’s a very daring move. Why don’t you come over to spend Friday night with me and my family?”
Thus began a tradition of Friday-night gatherings at Lenny and Felicia’s apartment. Lenny maintained relationships with most of his “friends”—MTT, Mendy, Azaria, me...and there were more. Also in attendance were Lauren Bacall; Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green; Stephen Sondheim; Hal and Judy Prince; Betty Comden and her husband, Steven Kyle; Arthur Laurents; Jerry Robbins; and Lenny’s beloved sister, Shirley, a literary agent. The familial feeling of the couple and the constancy of their friends was something special beyond easy description.
As the years went on, and Leonard Bernstein became a legend and a cultural icon, his sexual and career ambivalences only grew. Should he conduct or compose? Was he the dignified conductor and teacher or the flamboyant artiste? Was he gay or should he stay married with kids? He was driven by these contradictions, and it’s what made him so exciting. Maybe the weight of the dualities caught up with him, but eventually he couldn’t contain himself, and he began lacking the discretion he had previously shown.
In late 1976, notorious gossip columnist Suzy ran an item with the headline, “West Side Story ’76: Bernstein and Wife Split!” She wrote that Leonard was going to Paris to spend half a year with Tom Cothran, his companion at the time, whom Felicia detested. In the pre-Internet world, news didn’t travel like it does now. I had been living in L.A., so I didn’t know any of this as I took my seat at Carnegie Hall for the holiday concert of Peter and the Wolf, conducted by Lenny and narrated by Felicia.
In the classical-music world, concerts of that caliber are booked years in advance, so there was no question of the Bernsteins not fulfilling their obligation, even though they were personally at odds. Felicia came out to a great round of applause. The audience was electrified, but I thought this intense “feeling” in the audience was the fascination with the Maestro.
When Lenny took the podium, the audience went wild. At the end of the concert, an assistant brought a hundred red roses to him. Lenny walked across the stage to hand the roses to his “diva,” but as he did so, she pivoted on her heel and walked offstage. The giant bouquet fell to the floor with a thwump, and the audience gasped. I did not know what was going on until the man on my left related the whole sorry story. Afterward, Lenny and I had dinner, and he was disconsolate but still definitely going through with his plan. I just felt terribly sorry for both of them.
Indeed, that December, Tom Cothran was off in Paris looking for an apartment for the two of them. Lenny’s friends took Felicia’s side, and Tom was bitter. Eventually Lenny broke it off with Tom and attempted to reconcile with Felicia. And they did get back together but not in the way Lenny planned—Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer. Lenny immediately returned from Europe, moved back in and took over her care. They remained together, with Lenny also fulfilling all of his appearances over that terrible year.
There is a film of the Maestro conducting Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131, where his anguish and rage are painfully apparent. The scientist and former medical student in me knew that cancer was a disease, but I wondered about the link between the mind and health. Yes, Felicia smoked for years, but was the progress of her disease accelerated by her need to bring her beloved back from his wanderings and keep him at home with her and the children? If that was the case, was she paying the ultimate price to get her heart’s desire?
These two were so in love that after Felicia finally passed away on June 16, 1978, in her bed in Easthampton, New York, Lenny was never, ever the same—emotionally, spiritually or creatively. His own health deteriorated over the next 12 years, until the day he passed away at the Dakota on Sunday, October 14, 1990, at 6:15 p.m. He was buried next to Felicia at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
I think about the Maestro often—who he was, what he was and the impact he had on so many. But to be honest, I think mostly about his impact on me. When I first met Leonard Bernstein, I was on a lark—a temporary respite from what I knew my life would be: doctor, husband, father. Meeting him again after my experience in the Six-Day War lead me to a different destiny. What if we hadn’t crossed paths? Would I have had the tools to reconcile the man I was to become with the one I was meant to be? Probably not.
Someone once said to me, “Love nothing but what comes to you woven into the pattern of your destiny.” For me, that was Lenny.