*UPDATED January 7, 2024 to include mention of the 2023 bio-film MAESTRO.
a gay man who dabbled in the straight world
Bernstein photographed in 1988 at home in Connecticut.
Leonard Bernstein* (1918-1990) was a celebrity American conductor and composer. As principal conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was without peer, so much so that the orchestra had a difficult time recovering when he departed the podium. He composed music for the concert hall, cinema and the theater, making him the most celebrated American composer since George Gershwin.
*He pronounced his surname BURN-stine, not BURN-steen.
In the green room at Carnegie Hall 1951, with sister Shirley.
His personal life, however, was one of deception. Bernstein’s homosexual proclivities were undisputed and well documented. Because he married and had children, many people assume he was bisexual. But Arthur Laurents, who collaborated with Bernstein on West Side Story, related that Bernstein was simply "a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about his sexual orientation at all. He was just gay." Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were the four gay Jewish men, all working at the very top of their craft, who created West Side Story, one of the most enduring musicals of the 20th century. Like many gay men of his generation, Bernstein appeared to be a devoted husband and father in public while carrying on a promiscuous homosexual life behind the scenes.
While still a student at Harvard, Bernstein had an affair with his mentor, famed conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, and after a sexual dalliance he became close to gay composer Aaron Copland. Many say that Bernstein chose to marry to dispel rumors about his homosexual activity, which would have made it difficult to secure a major conducting appointment, given the conservative nature of orchestra boards. Bernstein had an on-again, off-again relationship with his future wife Felicia, a Chilean actress, but Bernstein broke off their engagement, telling Felicia that he was homosexual. In spite of this, she continued to pursue him. Their arrangement was such that, so long as he did not embarrass her publicly, he was free to pursue his homosexual affairs.
With wife Felicia and children 1956.
A major event in Bernstein's personal life was his decision that he could no longer repress his homosexuality; he left his wife in 1976 to live with Tom Cothran, his male lover at the time. Bernstein was going to Paris to spend half a year with Cothran, whom Felicia detested. At the Carnegie Hall holiday concert of Peter and the Wolf that year, Lenny conducted and Felicia narrated. The two had been booked long in advance of their personal turmoil, but there was no question of the Bernsteins not fulfilling their obligation. When Bernstein 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 Felicia, but as he did so, she pivoted on her heel and stormed offstage. The giant bouquet fell to the floor with a thwump, and the audience gasped. Afterward, Bernstein was disconsolate, but went through with his plan to join Cothran in Paris. The next year Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Bernstein moved back in to care for her until she died in 1978 (Bernstein himself was to die of progressive lung failure). Most biographies of Bernstein relate that his lifestyle became more excessive and his homosexual activities cruder and less discrete after her death. Cothran died of AIDS in 1981.
Just three years before his marriage, Bernstein visited Israel (1948) and had an affair with Azariah Rapoport, a stunning young Israeli soldier who was his guide. Bernstein was madly in love: "I can't quite believe that I should have found all the things I've wanted rolled into one. It's a hell of an experience – nerve-racking and guts-tearing and wonderful. It's changed everything."
*In late 2023 Netflix released MAESTRO, a biographical film starring Bradley Cooper (with a prosthetic nose) as Bernstein. The screenplay focused on Bernstein's relationship with his wife Felicia and the impact his dalliances with men (often his younger students), alcohol and drug abuse had on their marriage. Cooper directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay.
Professionally, however, Bernstein felt that his homosexuality was a curse. He underwent psycho-analysis with Hungarian-born Dr. Sandor Rado, whose specialty was "curing" homosexual men of their "inversion". Bernstein felt marriage could “save” him from a homosexual life style. (A personal comment here: homosexuality is not a life style. “Preppy” is a life style; homosexuality is a sexual orientation)
A friend of the Bernsteins who was visiting their home recalled finding Bernstein in a hallway making out with a beautiful twenty-year old boy while his wife was sitting by herself in the living room. His wife also suffered the humiliation of receiving phone calls and discovering love letters from her husband's many boyfriends. Shortly after 1973, when Bernstein met the young Tom Cothran (musical director of Radio KKHI-FM in Denver), he became so infatuated with the boy that he allowed his wife to catch them in bed together.
With young gay conductor
Michael Tilson Thomas 1974
After his wife died Bernstein abandoned all caution. By this time addicted to alcohol and drugs, he became open and crude about his homosexual activity. Pianist William Huckaby, after performing at a White House recital, was talking with President Carter when he "felt these hands clamped on my shoulders.” He was whirled around and forced into a deep French kiss right in front of the President, who walked away in astonishment and embarrassment. During his sixties and seventies, Bernstein surrounded himself with an entourage of beautiful boys, each one as intoxicated and obnoxious as his patron.
Many who knew him suggest that Bernstein became frustrated and cantankerous in his later years because he had never able to match the brilliance and popularity of West Side Story (1957), composed when he was in his late thirties. He was forever chasing and trying (unsuccessfully) to live up to his own fame. He also became increasingly intolerant of being called "Lenny" by those outside his inner circle and forever corrected those who pronounced his last name Burn-steen; he pronounced his name closer to the German way, BURN-stine. Bernstein means "amber" in German. In truth, Bernstein had changed his first name to Leonard when he was fifteen years old; he had been born Louis Bernstein.
After Felicia's death, Bernstein dealt with much guilt over how his homosexual activity adversely affected her. Some of this guilt and conflict was expressed in his 1983 opera, A Quiet Place, which tackled issues close to Bernstein’s life. Its story is one of suffering the loss of a loved one and a father’s acceptance of a gay son.
Bernstein's obituary in the New York Times (1990) made clear mention of his homosexuality. Since then many fans still visit his grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Bernstein at the piano in 1944 at age 26.
Most of the information in this post comes from Meryle Secrest’s “Leonard Bernstein: A Life” and Charles Kaiser's “The Gay Metropolis.”
Note: Bisexuality is a thorny label. Do we call Bernstein bisexual because he married and fathered three children? The recently deceased Arthur Laurents did not think we should. He said Bernstein was a "gay man who married." I go about it this way. If a person has sexual relations regularly with both men and women, then I call that person bisexual. Bernstein's sexual relations before, during and after his marriage were overwhelmingly homosexual, so I agree with Laurents' assessment. The same with actor Anthony Perkins, who did not have a sexual experience with a female until he was 39 years old (he was so closeted and paranoid prior to that time that he insisted on parking blocks away from the homes of his male lovers and arrived at events and restaurants well before or after his boyfriends). Those who knew Perkins said that he'd let nothing stand in the way of his career, and getting married served his career goals. Once he sampled married life, he was so relieved that the gay rumors and suspicions no longer haunted him that he at last settled into a zone comfortable for him. If the gay rumors about George Gershwin proved true, I'd label him bisexual, because he was known to have regular sexual relations with women. Pete Townshend? I call him bisexual, too. Bernstein? Not so much.
And to those many responses in the comments section (below) who tell me that it is not my business to mention Bernstein's sexuality, I draw your attention to the first paragraph at the top of this blog, which I created to give encouragement to young men who were bullied, discriminated against, and/or shunned by their teachers or parents. You can succeed in realizing your life goals -- and it really does get better with age. May you be inspired by the life stories of the men feature here.