In her acknowledgments, Meryle Secrest admits up front to a handicap that is particularly serious for the biographer of an enigmatic giant so recently deceased. The estate of Leonard Bernstein awarded the authorized biography to another writer, and Secrest was denied access to the Bernstein archives and to key figures in Bernstein’s life. Even so, Secrest discovered an impressive number of people willing to share their memories of a man who never failed to inspire awe in those around him. LEONARD BERNSTEIN: A LIFE is a vast reservoir of Bernsteiniana, a largely anecdotal, almost folklorish account of one of the few American cultural icons to achieve international veneration.
Bernstein never adopted the affectation “Maestro.” Yet he embodied the image of the great conductor: the tousled hair, the flailing, slashing, jerking gestures, and the shamelessly emoting face. In performance, he wore a cape in imitation of his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, and the ebony cross (despite his defiantly Jewish heritage) of his late friend and lover Dmitri Mitropoulos. His was the perfect great American conductor’s success story: As a young assistant conductor, he stepped in for an ailing maestro and was catapulted to stardom. He tamed unruly orchestras and infused stale repertoires with startling verve. He was television’s great explicator of symphonic music and the composer of ON THE TOWN, WEST SIDE STORY, and CANDIDE.
There is much to criticize about the not-very-private life of Bernstein. He was apparently as awed by himself as everyone else was, and he did not, for all his generosity, treat people very well. Secrest defends his early career scramble by noting that he genuinely tried to like the people he used. Nevertheless, his later sexual coercion of hopeful young musicians is disenchanting. His genius and his character were impaired by his fame. In his later years, he disintegrated morally, emotionally, and physically. Secrest admirably attempts to present a balanced portrait.