The Last Long Interview With Leonard Bernstein
(Oxford University Press, 2013)
The dinner begins in mid-afternoon, with your gregarious host pressing a glass of vodka into your hand and dropping the needle on one of his favorite records. It doesn’t end until past 2:30 a.m., with your host still flipping LPs on the turntable, “One more glass of wine,” he insists, “and then it’s a night.”
The host is Leonard Bernstein: conductor, composer, social activist, and one of the outsized personalities of 20th-century America. The dinner is captured in late 1989 by journalist Jonathan Cott, one year before Bernstein succumbed to lung disease (a collection of hacks and wheezes adds a melancholy accompaniment to the conversation). Dispatched to Bernstein’s Connecticut home for an interview by Rolling Stone magazine, Cott eventually whittled their marathon session down to 8,000 words for publication. But the full text ran to four times that length and is only coming to light 24 years later.
It was worth the wait. Dinner with Lenny offers an intimate, at times almost claustrophobically vivid sense of what it was like inside Bernstein’s head late in his life. A brisk, engaging read, it is especially recommended to fans who may be hesitant about committing to the hefty Leonard Bernstein Letters, published by Yale University Press a few months after this book.
Cott opens with an eye-opening reminiscence of his first personal encounter with the great man. In November 1979, having just heard Bernstein conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall, Cott and his date decide to unwind at Studio 54 (the old New York!). Out on the dance floor, the pair turn to find a startling apparition: the grinning, 61-year-old Bernstein, bare-chested under a leather jacket, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, surrounded by a whirling entourage.
That image of Bernstein shaking his groove thing encapsulates perceptions of the late, monstre sacré phase of his career, when his muse seemed to have deserted him and his former movie-star good looks had evolved into a gargoyle cragginess, testament to years of dissipation. Equally crucial to the notion of Bernstein as a shell of his younger self are the controversial recordings he made in his last 15 years, as he pushed the music of his beloved Brahms, Mahler, et al. to expressive extremes. (String players of the Vienna Philharmonic have testified he had them play so slowly they simply could not produce any sound).
But Dinner with Lenny belies this notion of Bernstein as burnt-out hulk. Within just a few pages Cott places us inside a whirlwind of talk, at the center of which is an alert, inquisitive, hyperactive mind ready to expound on everything from what went wrong with a Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, starring Sting, to the influences on Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1, to the shofar call hidden in West Side Story.
This is interview as performance. Bernstein addresses Cott as “honey child” and “my interlocutorial [sic] friend,” and confides, “I don’t talk like this to everybody, but I talk like this to you because you know what I know.” No slouch himself, Cott holds up his end with allusions to Picasso, Rilke, and kabbalah. Meanwhile, for all the pedagogical and philosophical excursions, there is still time for the occasional put-down (Boulez fans, steel yourselves) and for gossipy asides about Glenn Gould and Alma Mahler.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about Bernstein here is not the musical erudition so much as the impression he gives of a man who lives in several different decades at the same time. Every experience—every concert, rehearsal, encounter with a musical great—recurs and overlaps simultaneously inside his head over the course of a long night. It is a trait reminiscent of the temporal swirl that surrounded James Brown in Jonathan Lethem’s dizzying 2006 Rolling Stone profile. Late in their lives, these master musicians exist on a different temporal plane.
For all the backward glances, Bernstein was always looking ahead. Assessing the health of the orchestral tradition and classical music as a whole, he tells Cott, “the nature of the events will undoubtedly change. You can’t remain locked into the tradition of handing down subscription tickets from grandfather to son to grandson.” He continues:
“Of course an orchestra should still continue to perform Beethoven’s Seventh and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique: wouldn’t it be awful if the ‘museum’ dies? But it will have to change if it itself isn’t going to fade away. There shouldn’t just be the museum concerts with the token new piece now and then … It’s just that there should be different kinds of museums for different kinds of stuff.”
Dinner with Lenny is the latest sign of a rise in Bernstein’s reputation. While there remains something poignantly unfulfilled about his compositional career, his eclectic 1971 Mass (once derided as “Mess”) has been reappraised by Marin Alsop onstage and in a 2009 recording, and New York City Opera produced his brilliant 1983 opera, A Quiet Place, in 2010. It’s premature to say whether those revivals will prompt a full-scale reassessment of Bernstein’s overall achievement. In the meantime we are privileged to have this glimpse of the maestro in late efflorescence.
JEFF TOMPKINS is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn.