Leonard Bernstein was born today, August 25, in 1918. He was an American composer, conductor, author, Music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the US to receive worldwide acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history."
His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for West Side Story, Peter Pan, Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town, On the Waterfront, his Mass, and a range of other compositions, including three symphonies and many shorter chamber and solo works.
Bernstein was the first conductor to give a series of television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard. He was also a critical figure in the modern revival of the music of Gustav Mahler, the composer he was most passionately interested in.
As a composer he wrote in many styles encompassing symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano. Many of his works are regularly performed around the world, although none has matched the tremendous popular and critical success of West Side Story.
After much personal struggle and a turbulent on-off engagement, he married the Chilean-born American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre on September 10, 1951. One suggestion is that he chose to marry partly to dispel rumors about his private life to help secure a major conducting appointment, following advice from his mentor Dimitri Mitropoulos about the conservative nature of orchestra boards.
In a book released in October 2013, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, his wife revealed his homosexuality. Felicia wrote: "you are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?" Arthur Laurents (Bernstein's collaborator in West Side Story) said that Bernstein was "a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about it at all. He was just gay." Shirley Rhoades Perle, another friend of Bernstein, said that she thought "he required men sexually and women emotionally." But the early years of his marriage seem to have been happy, and no one has suggested Bernstein and his wife didn't love each other. They had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and later Nina. There are reports, though, that Bernstein did sometimes have brief extramarital liaisons with young men, which several family friends have said his wife knew about.
A major period of upheaval in Bernstein's personal life began in 1976 when he decided that he could no longer conceal his homosexuality and he left his wife Felicia for a period to live with the musical director of the classical music radio station KKHI-FM in San Francisco, Tom Cothran. The next year Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer and eventually Bernstein moved back in with her and cared for her until she died on June 16, 1978.
Bernstein announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and died of a heart attack 5 days later, brought on by mesothelioma. He was 72 years old.