Life with Lenny

Dinner with LennyFor nearly all of his professional life, journalist Jonathan Cott has written for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1988, he pitched the idea of an interview with Leonard Bernstein to the editors, and a year later, Cott and Bernstein spent twelve hours together at Lenny’s home in Fairfield, Connecticut. They drank vodka (to better enjoy Lenny’s recording of a Sibelius symphony), ate chicken pot pie (Lenny to vegetarian Cott: “Vell, it vouldn’t hoit!,”referring to the old story…)

You don’t know the story? It really happened in the great days of Yiddish theater when the leading actor collapsed onstage during a performance. And a doctor rushed up to help him, but the actor was already dead. And out of the audience came a woman’s voice: “so gif him a little chicken soup!” And the doctor announced that the actor had died…and the woman called back to him, “Vell, it vouldn’t hoit”

For Lenny, it’s all about passion, the great story, the phenomenal breadth and joy of life. That’s the abiding theme of the whole conversation, one that spans, in book form (“Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein,” written by Jonathan Cott and published by Oxford University Press). Here, he speaks of Alma Mahler–the famous composer’s wife. Cott begins with a question: “I’ve heard that Mahler had to talk to Freud about that problem…”, then Lenny answers:

“You know, Mahler made four appointments with Freud, and three times he broke them because he was scared to find out why he was impotent. His wife, Alma, was then ***ing everybody was was coming by–Gropius, Kokoschka, Werfel, and Bruno Walter, among others–sent him to see Freud. He was twenty years older than she, and she was the prettiest girl in Vienna,–rich, cultured, seductive… She tried to get me to bed. Many years ago, she was staying at the Hotel Pierre in New York–she had attended some of my New York Philharmonic rehearsals–and she invited me for “tea”–which turned out to be “aquavit”–then suggested we go to look at some “memorabilia” of her composer husband in her bedroom. [Laughing] She was generations older than I. And she had her hair frizzed up and was flirting like mad… She really was like a wonderful Viennese operetta. She must have been a great turn-on in her youth. But anyway, Mahler didn’t pay enough attention to her–she needed a lot of satisfying and he was busy writing his Sixth Symphony in his little wood hut all night…”

Cott is a long-time Bernstein fan. The infatuation began when Cott, then eleven years old, on November 14, 1954, watched Bernstein explain Beethoven’s  Fifth Symphony. The the first page of the score had been painted on the studio floor. Musicians, with their instruments, were standing on each stave. Bernstein explained Beethoven’s creative process by dismissing specific instruments from the score–here’s how it sounded with and without this woodwind, that brass instrument–and then, Bernstein conducted the first movement as Beethoven wrote it. Cott “made sure to watch Bernstein’s other Omnibus programs, such as “The World of Jazz,” “The Art of Conducting,” and “What Makes Opera Grand?” At age 15, Cott took Beth (his first “real” date) to see Bernstein’s Broadway smash, “West Side Story.” He became a lifelong fan.

After listening to the solo clarinet that begins his own Columbia LP recording of Sibelius’s first symphony, listening, with Cott, to the clarinet solo that begins the piece, Bernstein announces that the president of Finland had appointed him “Commander of the Order of the Lion,” then “started to sing–humming, crooning, moaning, shouting-out gospel style–as he conducted and danced along to the four movements of the symphony…All the while he added recitative-like interpolations, explanations, words of approval and disapproval, and assorted comments for my benefit about this impassioned, mercurial, wildly inventive work. ‘Listen, child!’ the maestro announced to me. ‘Here’s the Jewish rabbi theme…There’s Beethoven…There’s Tchaikovsky–it’s Swan Lake–and just wait for some Borodin and Mussorgsky later on…Some Grieg (but better than Grieg)…And now comes Sibelius. [L.B. sang and quickly wrote out for me on an old envelope the distinctively Sibelian rhythmic cell we’d just heard…] Now a wind…sighing…And now a pop song…”

So that’s a taste of it. Twelve hours of conversation with one of the 20th century’s iconic figures in music, free-associating with a compadre who was smart enough to keep the conversation going and catch just about all of the references (in fact, Cott called Bernstein for a followup just to make sure he understand everything that Bernstein had said). Lenny is a larger-than-life character in every decade. He was the boy wonder who leaped at the opportunity to first conduct the New York Philharmonic, on national radio, with far less than a full night’s sleep and a reasonably serious hangover. He was the teacher who brought classical music to the baby boomer generation through the clever use of the new TV medium. He was the conductor who performed Beethoven’s Ninth on both sides of what was, moments before, the Berlin Wall. He was the conductor who led the Israel Philharmonic as a celebration of the glory of a new Jewish homeland. He was deeply committed to  Civil Rights and the movement to stop the Vietnam War, despised Nixon, and, as an intellectual, still struggles to understand what happened and why:

That was a very bad time. There was nothing positive about that time. We were living under the thumb of Richard (****ing) Nixon, one of the greatest crooks of all time. But the point I want to make is that anybody who grows up–as those of my generation did not–taking the possibility of immediate destruction of the planet for granted is going to gravitate all the more toward instant gratification–you push the TV button, you drop the acid, you snort the coke, you do the needle. It doesn’t matter that it makes you impotent… Anything of a serious nature isn’t “instant”–you can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel in one hour. And who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?”

Cott answers, patiently, “I do.”

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