Leonard Bernstein’s daughter remembers: An interview with Nina, whose father rests at Green-Wood Cemetery

April 20, 2023 Martin McQuade
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A Maestro Reposes in Brooklyn

Leonard Bernstein, although born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1918, was the consummate New York artist. He was also a world-renowned pianist and conductor, notably with The New York Philharmonic. Bernstein composed numerous landmark scores, many of which underscore various facets of his adopted city. The violent romanticism of “West Side Story” serves as a counterpoint to the homesick sentiment of “Wonderful Town” and the war-torn melancholy of “On the Town”. The latter features a hymn to Gotham, “New York, New York,” a lyric of which is “The Bronx is up but the Battery’s down.” Points beyond is Brooklyn where, on a tranquil promontory in Green-Wood Cemetery, the beloved virtuoso’s gravesite overlooks the harbor he poignantly delineated with his score for the film “On the Waterfront.” Bernstein’s internment there is an elemental link connecting him to the borough. Funerary logistics, however, were not a major concern for a man who relished life, as Nina Bernstein Simmons explained during a recent interview.

“My father’s manager Harry Kraut, who himself was a Brooklynite, loved Green-Wood and arranged for the plot. He never wanted to discuss death and dying and the arrangements and plans. It was hard enough to even get him to write a will. He just didn’t want to discuss it. That’s where my mother was buried first in 1978. There were no special epitaphs, just names and dates. Very simple.”

Nina Bernstein-Simmons and her brother Alexander Bernstein, honored at the Green-Wood Cemetery gala. Photo: Annie Watt.

All the Beautiful Sounds of the World — in Brooklyn

As a national treasure reposes in a national landmark, nearby environs brim with reminders of people and places that spurred a vitality no podium could fully contain. “I’m sure my father went for the occasional stroll through Prospect Park and The Botanical Gardens. He certainly had a number of recordings and performances in Brooklyn. His Brooklyn debut was with The Goldman Band in Prospect Park in 1943, months before his New York Philharmonic conducting debut. There were two other concerts in Prospect Park, in 1966 and 1967. The dates would suggest that those concerts were with The New York Philharmonic.”

“My father also made recordings in The St. George Hotel Ballroom in Brooklyn Heights with The New York Philharmonic. There were several albums recorded there which included Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” Gershwin’s “American in Paris”, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” with him narrating, Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder,” Mahler’s “Ruckert Lieder” with Jennie Tourel, Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto” with Issac Stern, Beethoven’s “Seventh Symphony,” Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Suite.” Incidentally, Bernstein’s screen test may have been for a Tchaikovsky biography. “They found no acting talent in him and sent him right home. To our great consternation, the film is lost to time. That would be some find.”

Bernstein conducted The Brooklyn Philharmonia (now The Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra) at The Brooklyn Academy of Music during the 1979 season. Simmons recalls that her father conducted there nine times. “He also had a tremendous friendship with composer Lukas Foss who was the music director of The Brooklyn Philharmonic. They were students during the 1940 season at Tanglewood studying under director Serge Koussevitzky.”

In 1973, The Brooklyn Academy of Music was the venue for a heralded revival of Bernstein’s “Candide.” “My father was involved in mollifying the production because it was a radical departure from the original orchestration and staging. Now it was in the round. Everybody looked like puppets. I was eleven. That was my introduction to the piece and I fell in love with it. I remember a lot of discussions around the table about whether it worked or not. I got an education in musical theater in those days. Maybe many were not so enamored of the new book. It’s a lot lighter than The Lillian Hellman book which is all to the good. If it’s not funny, what’s the point? Hugh Wheeler wrote the new book.”

Leonard Bernstein’s tombstone at Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo: Stacy Locke.

Carried Away — by Gershwin

Appropriately, Bernstein’s final performance at The Brooklyn Academy of Music was part of a 1987 Gershwin Gala where he performed the “Prelude in C Sharp.” Simmons reflected on her father’s regard for the Brooklyn-born composer. “He had a great love for Gershwin. In 1947, he conducted The City Symphony for a Gershwin Memorial Concert. I’d bet he played “Rhapsody in Blue.” He played Gershwin all the time. The “Rhapsody” was his big party piece starting when he was twelve. Having been studying the piano for a total of two years he got that under his knuckles. Whenever he was at a party he sat down at the piano and dazzled everybody. He played it at home on Sundays when he was in the mood. He also loved all of Gershwin’s popular songs. Unfortunately, my father couldn’t sing very well.”


Fortune Smiled and Came Their Way

Bernstein seemed destined to meet one Brooklyn-born composer with whom he enjoyed a special bond. “I knew Aaron Copland when I was a kid. He was around a lot and he was a delightful person, a great spirit with humor and warmth. I loved him and I really miss him. He used to call my father “Lenny Penny,” a variation of Henny Penny. They met on Aaron’s birthday, November 14, 1937, when Aaron attended an Anna Sokolow dance performance here in town and was introduced to my father in the audience. He immediately liked him and said, ‘Oh, you got to come to the birthday party.’ Of course, he was thrilled to pieces by that. It was not in Brooklyn. Aaron was living in what is now The Empire Hotel at the tip of Manhattan. It had a Brooklyn flavor, I’m sure. My father was a big fan of Copland’s “Piano Variations” and had them committed to memory because he liked them so much. At the party, he said to Aaron, ‘I would love to play the Variations but I fear I’m going to clear out the room because I usually do with this piece.’ It’s very gnarly if you know it. Aaron said, ‘You won’t at this party!’  So, my father sat down and played the “Piano Variations” to great acclaim.  The rest is history.  They became fast friends and were incredibly close. My father loved him. In 1940 Aaron was his teacher at Tanglewood.” That year, Copland wrote the score for the film version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and dedicated the suite he subsequently derived from the score to his friend. Although Copland wrote several film scores, “On the Waterfront” was Bernstein’s only endeavor in this field. “He loathed the experience. He wasn’t used to being pushed around that way where they would say, ‘No, you can’t do more than two bars here and you have to fill exactly one minute and sixteen seconds and no more. I’m sure Aaron had the same feelings when he wrote for the movies.”

Six years later, to the day, after meeting Copland, Bernstein’s stars would align once again when he experienced another turning point, his last-minute debut conducting The New York Philharmonic, substituting for the ailing Bruno Walter.

“Music was the foundation of my father’s and Aaron’s relationship. That’s thoroughly clear. When he went over to Russia with The New York Philharmonic during The Cold War he conducted Copland and Shostakovich, whom he also greatly admired. There’s a terrific TV show about the trip where he talked about the similarities between American and Russian music. I’m sure there were moments when Aaron harrumphed about whether the flavor of certain things was purloined. That’s the way it is with music learned on the shoulders of giants.”

Composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Photograph by Heinz Weissenstein (Whitestone Photo). Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives.

What My Master Said

A giant upon whose shoulders they mutually stood was the legendary French music conductor, pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger. Simmons offered for this article portions of “L.B. and Mme.B.,” a talk that her sister Jamie Bernstein gave in Paris.

“For many years, Nadia Boulanger was a key figure at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau School. In 1953, she was appointed its overall director. She taught there for many a glorious summer, making a positively seismic contribution to the American composing world in the 20th century. Young Leonard Bernstein could not wait to meet this legendary composer and pedagogue. Mme. Boulanger was already on Bernstein’s radar while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. His professor, Arthur Tillman Merritt, introduced him to the music of Monteverdi; the new interest in Monteverdi was directly traceable to his being championed at the time by Nadia Boulanger. Bernstein also studied with Walter Piston, who himself had studied with Mme. Boulanger in Paris. Bernstein’s orchestration teacher, Prof. Edward Burlingame-Hill, also studied with Nadia Boulanger!”

Nadia Boulanger tutored many, many American composers beyond those Bernstein encountered at Harvard — including Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris and Elliot Carter — and later on, some of Bernstein’s own closest musical colleagues, such as Marc Blitzstein and Ned Rorem. And even later than that, Mme. Boulanger taught Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass, Michel Legrand and Jay Gottlieb. She really was the godmother of 20th-century American composers.”

“But the most consequential Boulanger connection for Bernstein was her three-year tutoring of Bernstein’s college idol, Aaron Copland, who became his lifelong mentor, colleague, and beloved friend. Aaron Copland’s first year working with Mme. Boulanger, in the summer of 1921, took place at Fontainebleau. Lenny met Aaron while still attending college at Harvard. Around six years later, by which time Bernstein had made his Cinderella-esque Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Philharmonic, Aaron was, at last, able to arrange for Lenny and Mme. Boulanger to meet. It was 1946, and Bernstein was on his way back from a triumphant conducting tour in postwar Europe. He stopped off in Paris, where Aaron introduced him at last to the legendary Mme. Boulanger. Apparently, the two of them hit it off famously. ‘The queen of music,’ he called her.”

“A dozen years later, in 1958, Bernstein was back in Paris, conducting “Le Sacre du Printemps” with the Lamoureux Orchestra. Mme. Boulanger attended and subsequently threw him a party that was also a birthday celebration for Aaron. Four years later, in 1962, Mme. Boulanger came to New York City to conduct the New York Philharmonic — at Bernstein’s invitation! She was the first woman to conduct the full orchestra. Her New York visit happened to coincide with the birth of my younger sister, Nina. My father took Nadia to Lenox Hill Hospital to meet his new baby daughter — and for years Mme. Boulanger enjoyed reminding him of how frustrated and furious he was that the nurses wouldn’t let him into the newborns’ room to hug his new daughter. Hospital protocol, sir! My father was never good with protocol.”

Simmons adds a wistful note, “I never met Nadia Boulanger although aside from the doctors and the nurses and my father she was the first person to see me. I feel that I have a special bond with her even though I never met her.”

Nina Bernstein-Simmons and her brother Alexander Bernstein at the Green-Wood Cemetery gala. Photo: Annie Watt.

Just When the Fun Was Starting

The songs Bernstein wrote for “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town” featured lyrics from the satirical yet tenderhearted pens of Adolph Green and Brooklyn-born Betty Comden. “My father became friends with Adolph at Camp Onota in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he was music counselor one summer. He had to have been sixteen years old. Adolph was brought in to be a ringer to play the Pirate King in the camp’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” and they became lifelong and unshakable friends. They just tickled each other to death. Adolph had an abiding love of classical music. He could really sing anything for you. One of his best tricks was to play the part of the bumblebee in “Flight of the Bumblebee.” They had a sketch comedy troupe called The Revuers, which also included Judy Holiday and Alvin Hammer. My dad would go to see The Revuers and howl with laughter. Sometimes he would play piano for some of their numbers. He may have written “The Girl with the Two Left Feet ” for The Revuers.  In her book, Betty talked about how she came home after her first night with L.B. and told her mother, ‘Mom, I just met my first genius.’ Her mother looked up and said, ‘That’s nice, dear.’ You can imagine what that crew was like when they got to singing and howling with laughter. That. Of course, this led to the creation of “On the Town” and so forth. Phyllis Newman married Adolph in 1960. They were constantly around. They were a loving core team that never parted.”

In 1943, prior to “On the Town,” Bernstein wrote, “I Hate Music: A Cycle of Five Kid Songs for Soprano and Piano.” In 1962, Brooklyn native Barbra Streisand performed the title tune when she appeared at the Bon Soir nightclub in the Village. A live recording appears on her autobiographical CD collection “Just for the Record.” On January 21, 1968, Streisand sang a new Bernstein and Comden and Green creation, “So Pretty,” to the composer’s accompaniment. The occasion was a fundraiser Broadway for Peace, which Bernstein co-hosted with Paul Newman.


“So Pretty” (Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

We were learning in our school today/ All about a country far away
Full of lovely temples painted gold, / Modern cities, jungles ages old.
And the people are so pretty there, / Shining smiles and shiny eyes and hair.

Then I had to ask my teacher why / War was making all those people die.
They’re so pretty, so pretty.

Then my teacher said and took my hand, / “They must die for peace you understand.”
But they’re so pretty, so pretty. — I don’t understand.

In 1988 Comden and Green participated in The Boston Symphony’s celebration of Bernstein’s 70th birthday.at Tanglewood. The gala’s host was his dear friend, Brooklyn native Beverly Sills.

Some might-have-been acquaintances with Brooklyn artists came to mind during the interview, “If only Mel Brooks were our friend. I’d have given anything. He was so funny. It would have been perfectly possible, I guess, for my father to pick up the phone and say, ‘Come on over for dinner. We’ll have a laugh.’ It never happened. Danny Kaye was another one I’d wish had come over to the house. I would have loved to meet him.”


Lauda Laude in the City of Churches

In 1971, Bernstein asked his protégé, Brooklyn Tech alumni Maurice Peress, to conduct the world premiere of his “MASS: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” which launched The Kennedy Center. Peress’ annotated score for “MASS” along with his preparatory materials which he created for rehearsals are housed in his archives at Brooklyn College. In 2018 The Brooklyn College Symphonic Choir and The Conservatory singers performed excerpts. Prior to that, in 2002, “MASS” had its first New York performance in thirty years when Carnegie Hall hosted The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, The Collegiate Chorale and The Brooklyn Youth Chorus for a concert version.

Simmons shared her thoughts on her father’s liturgical masterpiece. “Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the text and lyrics, was always around working with him on “MASS”. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who commissioned the work, did not show up to The Kennedy Center inaugural. She came to a restaging at The Metropolitan Opera later in the following spring in 1972. “MASS” was very difficult to stage. Of all the fine productions of “MASS” I’ve seen over the years, Marin Alsop’s have moved me like no other.”

She really gets it about that piece. She gets that you need just not a village. You need a city. You need to marshal the forces of an entire community. The Vatican put on “MASS” in the nineties. I was there. They couldn’t dance but they did everything else.”


That New American Salute

One Brooklyn-based writer, and editor of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1846 to 1848, was a personal beacon for Bernstein. “He had tremendous respect for Walt Whitman. “Songfest,” written in 1976, was a celebration of America. It had texts written by poets from marginalized communities, such as June Jordan, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Anne Bradstreet and Walt Whitman. The Whitman song “To What You Said” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things my father ever wrote. I resolutely urge you to listen to what he said. It was a poem that had not appeared in any collection. It was unpublished. I don’t know how he found it. It’s the most overt declaration of homosexuality that Whitman ever wrote. It was written for the Bicentennial during the same period he was writing “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” which was also part of the Bicentennial celebration. “Songfest” is heartbreakingly gorgeous. Whitman was a hero to my father, sort of a Whitman/Lincoln continuum of American heroes advocating for a pluralistic society and social justice.”


“To What You Said” by Walt Whitman

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
Nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships the cold guards
l am that rough and simple person
l am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
And l am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors —
What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?

Leonard Bernstein’s gravesite at Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo: Stacy Locke.

There is a Shining Garden

On Memorial Day, 2018, The Symphony of the Inter-School Orchestras of New York (ISO) performed a program of Bernstein selections at Green-Wood in celebration of the Bernstein centennial. Later, in September, The Green-Wood Historic Fund bestowed the DeWitt Clinton Award to the Bernstein children with this citation. “The DeWitt Clinton Award for Excellence this year honors Jamie Bernstein, Alexander Bernstein, and Nina Bernstein Simmons on the occasion of the centennial of the birth of their father, Leonard Bernstein. Indelibly imprinted with the energy and musicality of their legendary father, and the theatricality and activism of their mother, Felicia Cohn Monteleagre, the three siblings carry the Bernstein spirit and legacy into the twenty-first century. Their extraordinary achievements and passions range from music education to literature to social justice.” Simmons recalled the ceremony. “That was a beautiful evening and a great honor. I love Green-Wood. It’s very beautiful, especially since the recent restoration.” 

2023 will be a banner year for Bernstein devotees. In addition to the upcoming 80th anniversary of his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, a biographical film Maestro will premiere later this year. Bradley Cooper not only portrays Bernstein but also directed. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are executive producers. “We worked with Bradley Cooper very closely. He really sunk his teeth into it, believe me. Prepare to be dazzled.”

Leonard Bernstein’s passion for music was boundless and contagious. Through his Young People’s Concerts broadcasts and other educational endeavors, he opened new horizons for countless students. He espoused every genre and style, yet he created an immediately identifiable sound. Unbridled joy and hope, a rousing sensuality, and a yearning for peace combined to create a distinctly American voice. Although this colossus reposes in a hallowed Brooklyn garden, his legacy is undying. To quote “Lonely Town” from “On the Town,” Leonard Bernstein has bequeathed us “a love that’s shining like a harbor light.”

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