Black Panthers and an affair with a soldier: what Maestro doesn’t tell you about Bernstein (2024)

Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s biopic of the last genuine “giant of the podium” Leonard Bernstein has been greeted with almost universal praise, with good reason. Cooper’s performance as the conductor, composer, pianist, educator and celebrity is a miracle of imaginative recreation. He makes us understand why Bernstein was always the centre of attention in any gathering, how he mesmerised everyone, men and women, through a combination of seduction and exhortation to share his latest aesthetic or political passion. It often seems as if wants to bed everyone in the room – but before he beds them enthuse on a dozen topics, from his love of jazz to the difficulty of finding god.

No less enthralling is Carey Mulligan’s portrayal as Bernstein’s long-suffering wife of 25 years, Felicia Montealegre. In the film she seems to be the one person who can match Bernstein’s sparkling verbal sallies, but she also grounds him in a life of family and responsibility, pulls him out of his numerous depressions, and when he abandons her for one of his gay lovers tells him straight that he will end up “a lonely old queen”.

Rounding out this moving portrayal of a stormy but loving marriage are vivid recreations of some Bernstein’s major premieres, from the early ballets including Fancy Free to the problematic later works such as the Mass. We get a taste of Bernstein’s ecstatic, some would say monstrously self-indulgent conducting style, we see his gay affairs, often starting with a ruffling of the hair of some new pretty, gifted boy in a discreet corner of a chic Bernstein party. Perhaps this is as much as one could hope for from a biopic, but now that the dust around the film’s release has settled, it’s fair to point out that people who take the film as a complete portrait of Bernstein will miss many things about him.

Take those gay affairs with the older conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and the swooningly handsome clarinettist David Oppenheim, among others. Because we’re given only glimpses of these we’re left with the impression that they were little more than erotic infatuations. But some were much more serious than that. Bernstein actually left Montealegre for the director of a classical music radio station, Thomas Cothran. Given their shared love and knowledge for music, which Bernstein always insisted was the core of his life, it’s fair to say this relationship, which persisted for years, was in its own way no less deep than the one between Bernstein and his wife.

Another theme barely touched on is Bernstein’s deep awareness of his Jewish heritage. Bernstein was hugely affected by the ritual and music of the Orthodox synagogue he attended as a child. He internalised the idea that the relationship to God is one of personal struggle which can include almost blasphemous accusations against the Almighty, an idea given vivid musical realisation in his Kaddish symphony.

Along with the religious loyalty was a huge emotional attachment to the idea of Israel. One year before the creation of Israel he visited Palestine to conduct the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and his letters home reveal an almost erotic infatuation with the country and the people (it comes as no surprise to learn he had an affair with a Jewish soldier during his visit).

Then there’s Bernstein’s politics, which were passionately held if somewhat changeable: pro-Republican during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, pro-Soviet in the 1940s, anti the anti-Communists in the 1950s, pro-Civil Rights in the 1960s, pro-gay rights and anti-Vietnam war in the 1970s, anti-nuclear power in the 1980s. The FBI kept a full dossier in him, and although he may never have joined the Communist party (a lacuna in the records which an imaginative film-maker could make use of) he was certainly active in the American-Soviet Music Society.

Bernstein’s involvement with black civil rights had deep musical roots. He had a passionate desire, shared with other white musicians such as Aaron Copland, to create a genuinely American classical music that was properly cognisant of the black contribution to American music, and no longer meekly subservient to European models. This stretched back to his senior thesis at Harvard on “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music”, and had its fullest expression in the Mass of 1971 – whose premiere is actually included in Maestro, but only as an excuse to show Bernstein holding hands with Tom Cothrane.

It was Bernstein’s determination to go beyond a musical commitment to the black presence in America that led to the most notorious evening of his life. This was the occasion when he and his wife hosted a fundraising party for the radical Black Panthers, at which numerous celebrities including Larry Rivers, Betty Comden and Otto Preminger were addressed politely about the need for a Maoist revolution by sharp-suited Panthers.

The journalist Tom Wolfe wrote a magnificent satirical piece on the occasion – Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s – for New York magazine, pointing out the excruciating difficulties rich white liberals had in finding white servants to serve canapés for such an occasion. They naturally ask the Bernsteins for advice, and “the Bernsteins are so generous about it, so obliging, that people refer to them, good-naturedly and gratefully, as “the Spic and Span Employment Agency,” with an easygoing ethnic humor, of course.” Each time a Panther recited another item on the revolutionary agenda Bernstein allegedly called out “I dig you” – a bestowing of approval on revolutionary violence which deeply upset Jewish groups, because there was an ugly strain of anti-semitism in black liberation movements.

It would be a brave film-maker who tried to match the verve of Wolfe’s evocation of that notorious evening. But it would be fun to see one at least try. And this thought points to perhaps a weakness in Maestro: its reverent stance towards its subject, shown also in the way the less winning sides of the older Bernstein, such as his temper tantrums and contemptuous arrogance towards underlings are glossed over (though the family insist such outbursts were due to his medication). Perhaps the reverence was inevitable, given the close involvement of the Bernstein family in the making of the film. But there is plenty of material for an unofficial biopic – one that dares to take Bernstein less seriously than Bernstein always took himself.

As a seasoned enthusiast with a profound understanding of Leonard Bernstein's life and legacy, I bring a wealth of knowledge to dissect the intricacies mentioned in the article about Bradley Cooper's biopic, "Maestro." My familiarity with Bernstein extends beyond the superficial details, allowing me to delve into the deeper layers of his character, relationships, and contributions to music and society.

The article lauds Bradley Cooper's performance as a conductor, composer, pianist, educator, and celebrity in the film, highlighting his skill in recreating Bernstein's captivating presence. I concur, acknowledging the film's success in portraying Bernstein's ability to command attention through a blend of seduction and exhortation. Cooper effectively captures the essence of Bernstein's multifaceted personality, from his love of jazz to his engagement with political and aesthetic passions.

Carey Mulligan's portrayal of Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein's wife of 25 years, is recognized for its enthralling depiction. I can supplement this by emphasizing the intricate balance she strikes in the film—matching Bernstein's verbal prowess while grounding him in familial responsibilities.

The article touches upon Bernstein's major premieres, including early ballets like Fancy Free and later works such as the Mass. Drawing on my expertise, I can elaborate on Bernstein's conducting style, offering insights into its ecstatic and self-indulgent nature, as well as shedding light on the significance of these premieres in his career.

However, the article hints at some aspects left unexplored in the film, such as Bernstein's gay affairs with Dimitri Mitropoulos and David Oppenheim. With my comprehensive knowledge, I can elaborate on these relationships, emphasizing their depth and significance in Bernstein's life, going beyond the film's portrayal of them as mere infatuations.

The article touches on Bernstein's Jewish heritage and his profound connection to Israel, drawing from his experiences and affairs during a visit to Palestine. My expertise allows me to delve deeper into these aspects, exploring how Bernstein's Jewish identity influenced his music and personal relationships.

Furthermore, the article delves into Bernstein's dynamic political stances, spanning pro-Republican sentiments in the Spanish Civil War to anti-nuclear power activism in the 1980s. I can provide a nuanced understanding of Bernstein's political evolution, detailing his involvement with the American-Soviet Music Society and his commitment to black civil rights, which had deep musical roots.

The most notorious evening of Bernstein's life, hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers, is briefly mentioned. Leveraging my knowledge, I can offer a more comprehensive analysis of this event, linking it to Bernstein's determination to acknowledge the black contribution to American music and his enduring commitment to societal change.

In conclusion, while "Maestro" is praised for its portrayal of Bernstein, my expertise allows me to unearth the untold facets of his life—his complex relationships, deep-rooted political convictions, and the intersections of his Jewish heritage and musical contributions to American society. The film, despite its merits, may not capture the entirety of Bernstein's multifaceted persona, leaving room for a more daring and unofficial biopic to explore the less celebrated aspects of his character.

Black Panthers and an affair with a soldier: what Maestro doesn’t tell you about Bernstein (2024)
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