First there were rumors: Leonard Bernstein was an egomaniac who interviewed prospective assistant conductors sitting under a huge photo of himself. He’d attend concerts by other conductors and critique them in a voice loud enough to be heard above the music. He was gay; he’d abandoned his family to chase pretty boys.
Stories just like these surfaced for all the world to read in 1987, when Joan Peyser, the Kitty Kelley of the classical-music world, published a best-selling Bernstein biography. And now along comes Humphrey Burton, with a thick, new Leonard Bernstein that will inevitably serve as an answer to Peyser-whose work, he writes, is ”biased” and marred by ”inane psycho-babble.” Burton was Bernstein’s friend; maybe because of that he got exclusive access to the official Bernstein archive.
So how does he deal with the dirt? In a word, discreetly. He does have revelations of his own. But he won’t dirty himself to contradict Peyser’s spiciest allegations-that an arrogant Bernstein repeatedly cut in on JFK at his inaugural ball, for instance, or that Bernstein’s relationship with his sister may have verged on incest.
And when Burton won’t draw conclusions even from the things he does say, his discretion gets frustrating. He’ll chronicle Bernstein’s triumphs-how the maestro became the first American ever named music director of a major symphony orchestra, wrote hit Broadway shows, and earned nationwide adoration when he talked about music on network TV. But then, without even stopping for breath, he’ll toss in something troubling. Bernstein couldn’t sleep, spoke with a psychiatrist nearly every day, and practically had himself crowned emperor at a performance of West Side Story, when, with a spotlight on him as the audience cheered, he strutted down the aisle wearing a black silk cape. Could a writer who swallows all that without even one word of comment be in serious denial?
But toward the end of the book everything changes. Bernstein, who at the height of his early fame settled into what looked like a storybook marriage, decided he was gay and left his wife. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and died less than two years after the marriage ended. Bernstein, consumed with / guilt, then took lover after lover. As his own health failed, he stayed up nights torturing himself thinking he hadn’t measured up as a serious composer, smoking cigarette after cigarette even though he was racked with emphysema, which eventually killed him.
Here Burton’s narrative grows so affecting that it’s hard not to weep. But still there’s a problem. If Bernstein worried about being a failure, shouldn’t a biographer tell us whether he was-and, above all, whether his serious works really were as derivative and embarrassing as a large part of the classical- music world always thought they were?
Burton can’t-or won’t-do that. And that means he can’t do Bernstein justice. Bernstein spent half his time running away from himself, and the rest of it trying to find himself in his art. A biographer who can’t probe that art is unable to show us what such a contradictory musical genius was really about.