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Lenny: an Evening with Leonard Bernstein

Lenny: an Evening with Leonard Bernstein

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Published by David Moser
My one and only encounter with the late, great conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein.
My one and only encounter with the late, great conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein.

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Published by: David Moser on Feb 17, 2012
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02/17/2012

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ca. 1982
Lenny
“This must be about where John Lennon was shot,” said Don. We were in frontof the Dakota apartment building, 15 minutes early for our date with Leonard Bernstein.The Dakota was nothing like I had imagined it. There was nothing as far as I could see todistinguish it from all of the buildings around it.Except the number of security guards. Security was pretty tight, as you canimagine, since the Beatle had been killed there about two years earlier. We werescrutinized by half a dozen armed guards (my backpack was thoroughly searched), askeda lot of questions, and kept in a small, wood-paneled room while someone phonedBernstein’s apartment. Someone on the phone (not Bernstein) told us he was expectingus, but we would have to wait. After maybe a half-hour of uncomfortable small talk witha balding security guard, there was a phone call, and the guards told us we could go up.Don had brought along a wobbly, glittered pair of costume antennae to wear onhis head, and had bent a plastic straw into a small triangle and wedged it over his nose tocomplete the effect. We rang the doorbell and waited. When the door swung open,standing there was not the Maestro, but rather his diminutive Hispanic maid, who staredat us suspiciously.“Yes, what is it?” she said, eyeing Don’s goofy-looking antennae and drinkingstraw. Don cleared his throat and earnestly told her we were here to see Lenny. Shemotioned us into the corridor and told us to wait while she went to get him. The placehad an antiquated look about it — old-fashioned light fixtures, dark wood paneling,somber-looking furniture — which surprised me. I guess I was expecting somethingmore glitzy. We stood there, half in the entryway, half in the adjoining dining room,afraid to venture any further, whispering as if we were in a museum. There were ceiling-high bookcases filled with hardcover books, all neatly arranged. A Sony TV and VCR sat blinking in a corner looking very out-of-place. It was late afternoon, and we could seethe light of the setting sun in the trees of Central Park through the expansive tintedwindows (which we later found out were made of bullet-proof glass).After a few minutes Lenny showed up, bellowing out a welcome to Don andgreeting him with an aggressive bear hug and a full-mouth kiss. He was much shortethan I had imagined, and his famous leonine gray locks seemed thinner than they do onall the album covers. He was dressed in a style I can only characterize as “dapper” — aloose-fitting pastel leisure suit, with a European-looking scarf tied around his neck, and blinding white tennis shoes. In his hand was the obligatory cigarette in an absurdly long,corny-looking cigarette holder (Lenny is a notorious chain-smoker). He held Don atarm’s length, suddenly noticing the antennae and straw-bedecked nose.“Well, well, what did you come as today?” he said. “As Don Byrd, who else?And who have you brought with you?” He moved toward me as Don introduced me as agood friend of his and Doug’s. Lenny gave me the same bear hug and a short but passionate kiss, with just a little tongue in it. I could feel the amazing strength of hisupper arms and barrel-chested torso, no doubt from years of conducting. He didn’t
 
release his grip right away, but continued to appraise me, his face just an inch from myown.“Splendid face, splendid face,” he said.“You should see it up close,” I said, trying to avoid squirming. He laughed andreleased me. He went back to Don and threw an arm around his neck in a championship-wrestling hold.“Don, my boy! Good to see you,” he said, planting another kiss on Don’s cheek.He pulled Don into the dining room and I followed. We sat down on some plush chairsand I stashed my backpack in a corner. Don took off his antennae and drinking straw.“Well, what can I get for you, Don?” said Lenny. “Anything, anything at all.Food? Dope? Love?”“Only a dope would give him love,” I said, wincing at this inexplicably pointless joke even as I said it. Why in the world would I say such a stupid thing? Lenny winced,too, and then looked puzzled, repeating my words slowly, as if trying to decipher somehidden meaning in them.“Only... a... dope... would... give... him... love. Hmm... Is there something I’mmissing?” he said. Don said something or other to change the subject, and Lenny’sattention turned back to Don.“So how’s our friend Doug?” asked Lenny. “Still as unsatisfied as ever?” Wetalked a bit about Doug’s book 
Gödel, Escher, Bach
, which Lenny was a big fan of.Lenny had met both Don and Doug at Indiana University in Bloomington recently duringa weeklong workshop in which he was conductor/composer/teacher-in-residence. Lennyexpressed concern about Don, whose mother had just recently died. (Lenny didn’t seemto want to pursue this topic too much, though.) The topic of conversation changedconstantly and erratically, with Don and Lenny doing most of the talking. Which wasfine with me. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask me any questions. I had never even seen
West Side Story
. I couldn’t sing you a single theme from, say, Beethoven’s 2ndSymphony. All I could think of was the old proverb “Better to keep one’s mouth shutand be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” I’d already opened mymouth twice, once to admit Lenny’s tongue into it, the second time to utter that stupid joke. Maybe if I kept it closed from now on, he would assume I was smart like Don, but just shy and socially inept, like Kafka or Wittgenstein. Or Beethoven.Lenny couldn’t sit still. He was constantly standing up and sitting down again,and constantly lighting yet another cigarette. The maid came in several times to ask if hewanted to talk to so-and-so on the phone. There was some question about why the barber hadn’t come today as he was supposed to. It turned out he had come, but an hour late,after Lenny had already left the apartment for an appointment. Lenny complained abouthow hard it was to get a barber to come to your house on time. I tried to imagine what itwould be like to be able to truly sympathize with that problem.Lenny left the room a few times, which gave us the opportunity to look around a bit. There was a harpsichord in the dining room, and a grand piano in the living room.On top of the piano were several framed and autographed photos
  
John F. Kennedy,Aaron Copland, various musicians and writers. I wondered if Lenny had kissed any of them. Well, Copland yes; Kennedy, probably not. Just a handshake, no doubt. He probably kissed Jackie’s hand, though.
 
Over the phone the day before our visit, Lenny had told Don that one of the thingshe wanted to do tonight was to go attend a dress rehearsal of a play which his sonAlexander, an aspiring young New York actor, was appearing in. The cast of the playhad arranged a special dress rehearsal just for Lenny, but Lenny said we would bewelcome to come along. The dress rehearsal was at 8:00, and the theater was somewherenear Washington Square, quite a distance away from the Dakota. At 7:30, Lenny lookedat his watch and said, “We better eat a light supper. The dress rehearsal starts in half anhour.”Lenny called the maid, requested supper, and we continued our discussion.Within minutes there were miraculously plates and food on the kitchen table.“What kind of beer do you want?” Lenny asked us.“What kind do you have?” I asked.“Any kind,” said Lenny.“A Beck’s dark, then,” I said. The maid appeared with it a few moments later,along with everyone else’s drinks, and we sat down to eat. One unusual dish on the tablewas pickled okra.“Do you like this stuff?” said Lenny, popping one in his mouth. “I love it.” Doncommented that many people don’t like okra, because they find it unpleasantly slimy.“So what?” said Lenny, “Lots of things are slimy. Snot is slimy. Semen is slimy.We eat those things. It doesn’t bother me at all.” He kept a lit cigarette by his plate as hetalked.At one point he turned to me and abruptly said “I have just one question for you.How do you stand on circumcision?” I gulped the rest of my okra down and answeredthat I wasn’t sure what he meant, exactly.“I mean,” he went on, “that I know about Don, but I’m not sure about you.” Asmy face was still blank, he continued. “I mean, do you consider your ancestry to includethe likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Are you of the Hebrew persuasion?”“He’s not Jewish, no,” Don answered for me.“Then I have another question,” Lenny said. “Why are you trying to look likeJesus Christ?” It’s true that I had a beard, my hair was somewhat longish and parted inthe middle, and I was wearing a kind of buttonless muslin shirt which I suppose lookedvaguely Biblical. But my looks were the result of a penchant for comfort, convenience,and entropy; I may have looked messy but not Messianic. I began to mumble the beginnings of some account of my sartorial tastes.“It doesn’t matter,” Lenny interrupted, “I like Jesus Christ. He was a wonderfulman. My wife was a Christian. We had a priest by her bedside when she was dying. Ihad no objections. Jesus is great. I love Jesus, as a matter of fact. When you find outwhat the real Jesus was like, the historical Jesus, you can’t help but fall in love with theman.” This led to a discussion of the Essenes, the ascetic, monastic brotherhood of Palestinian Jews which Jesus was supposedly a member of. Lenny had just read a book about them, so he was full of information. The Essenes, who existed from the 2ndcentury B.C. to about the 2nd century A.D., held all property in common in a quasi-communistic social arrangement. They pretty much shunned women. They lived incaves. They fasted a lot. The more I found out about the historical Jesus, the more Irealized any resemblance between him and me was purely superficial.

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