Best Story

  (Michael Mindlin)

Just two months ago, I wrote about how my obsession with Elizabeth Taylor colored my choices and changed my life. While that is certainly true, it was an “outside” manifestation, lighthearted and fun. Inside, though, at a much more profound place, it’s my relationship with Leonard Bernstein that altered—and perhaps even saved—my life.

I used to go to Arthur, the granddaddy of all discotheques, which Richard Burton’s ex-wife Sybil Burton opened in New York in 1965. I would come home to Long Island for the weekend from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, where I was in my second year. My parents were Modern Orthodox Jews, meaning no driving on the weekends. So when I arrived before the Sabbath on Fridays, I parked my car two blocks away. After dinner, my friend Toby and I would head straight for the car, change into our “disco drag,” fly off to Manhattan and sweep past the incredibly handsome blond doorman, Lynn, who would lift the red velvet ropes, and we would dance the night away.

My father, no idiot he, discovered my chicanery and cut me off. I told my tale to the elegant Sybil. “Oh, darling,” she said in her deep, crisp South African voice, “you know we only hire handsome young men to serve the celebrity table in the backroom, and I’d say you quite fit the bill. Waiters make a thousand dollars a weekend in tips alone.”

I soon became a favorite at the celebrity table, and everyone—men and
women alike—flirted nonstop. Most attentive of all was Leonard Bernstein, with whom I had been fascinated since 1956, when I was 11 and first heard West Side Story. I used to brave violating the Shabbat to watch him on his TV shows Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts at my friend Harvey’s house.

On May 22, 1967, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran and effectively choked off the southern half of Israel. The next month is described in the Israeli history books as Ha’Metach (“the tension”). My parents were both seventh-generation Israelis—I had more than 1,000 first, second and third cousins living there. So in June of 1967, when my cousin Aryeh called and said, “Israel’s at war,” I knew exactly what I had to do: I volunteered for the Six-Day War. Because I was a med student, I was assigned to a medical field unit.

Suddenly, there I was, participating in Israel’s reunification. Since my family was known as the Vatikay Yerushalayim (“the ancients of Jerusalem”), my commanding officer in Rafiach invited me to escort the troops into the Old City. I was there when Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, blew the shofar on the Temple Mount. All my ideas of Judaism were suddenly transformed. I was the new paradigm, not powerless like the Jews of the shtetl but a poet and a fighter. I threw my kippah from the roof of my hotel and wrapped myself in the blue and white flag of the new reunited Jewish Empire. This is the person who was about to meet Leonard Bernstein—again.

Bernstein had come to Israel to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection on the newly reconquered Mount Scopus, and his first order of duty was to visit the volunteers...most of whom were Scandinavian. He walked down the line directly toward me, then cupped his hand under my very recognizable square jaw and cleft chin and said, “I know a young man just like you, who is a waiter at Arthur—a famous discotheque in New York City.”

In perfect Hebrew, I answered him, “Adon Bernstein, ani hayeeti ha’meltzar shelchah” (“Mr. Bernstein, I was your waiter”). Bernstein, who spoke fluent Hebrew, kissed me on the lips—he was famous for kissing both men and women on the lips—and invited me to the concert.

On the downbeat of Resurrection, with the New City of Jerusalem behind me and the Old City, which some of my family had to leave in 1948, in front of me, my brain broke into a billion fragments, and I’ve been collecting them ever since.

After the concert, I was invited to be a gofer on a documentary Bernstein’s great pal Mike Mindlin and Irwin Yablans were making of him conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Then one night, the maestro invited me to have dinner with him in his tent, and my life was forever changed.

I’ve never met, before or since, any person with such depth of knowledge in so many disciplines. He was dazzling. Lenny introduced me to a world of sophistication, erudition and culture, and I was more than eager to sit at his feet and soak it all up. What was truly amazing was his ageless, infectious enthusiasm for all that he taught. Although he was nearing 50, his energy was that of a 25-year-old.

It was a two-way fascination: Lenny was interested in my background and the fact that my parents were Israeli. I traced my descent from four Chassidic dynasties. Lenny’s own Chassidic roots both informed and shaped much of his composing. That I was a medical student with a hunger for knowledge, that we both loved Israel and spoke Hebrew and that we both loved old movies only piqued his curiosity about me.

When the filming in Israel was completed, Lenny asked me to accompany him and his wife and children to Italy for a vacation. I met Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein, Chilean Catholic from her mother’s side and Jewish from her father’s. She was an actress...blond, perfectly coifed, elegant and dainty. At the dinner table she would be smoking (always), an ivory cigarette holder in one hand, charging effortlessly from French to English to German to Spanish to Italian to Russian and back.

They met in 1946 and instantly fell in love. They became engaged, but the following year, he broke it off, telling her he was gay and that he felt she wouldn’t have a very fulfilling life with him. It was in this period that he created Peter Pan and The Age of Anxiety. Felicia continued to pursue Lenny. In 1951, he decided to marry her and raise a family. I can only think they must have had an unspoken pact: As long as he didn’t embarrass Felicia publicly, she would let him do what he wanted.

Lenny and I spent hours talking. He was caught between the conventional push of his desire to raise a family and live an orderly, almost bourgeois life and the pull of his own sexual desires. Long before he met Felicia, when he moved to New York’s West Village in 1942, he was very involved with Aaron Copland, his great friend and mentor. There he met everyone in Aaron’s crowd: Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thomson, George Davies, Paul and Jane Bowles, Wystan Auden and Oliver Smith—most of whom were homosexual.

Many years later, he would re-create this movable salon of like minds with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), Mendy Wager, Azaria Rapoport, Ned Rorem and, although I shudder at my hubris, me. It was Lenny who connected us all. He was consistent in the choice of his special friends...always bright, with a passion for the past and a love of Judaism and Jewishness. Rapoport met Lenny in September 1948. Called the handsomest man in Israel, he was the young Israeli Army officer assigned to Lenny as a personal guide. It was love at first sight. In one of life’s delicious ironies, I knew Azaria separately because he was a fundraiser for Bnai Zion, a Jewish fraternal organization with which my parents were very involved. I’d always had a secret crush on him. That Lenny became our mutual friend was very amusing to us both, as Azaria was a full generation older than me.

That summer of 1967 was a turning point. It’s not so much that I discovered who I was, but I realized who I wasn’t. Lenny had done more than encourage me—he had influenced my life and career path. Those halcyon days in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and Ansedonia were spent discussing my dreams and my passions. And after spending time with a bona fide genius who poured all of his creative energy into work, I had to at least see if I could explore the possibility of my own creative dreams. I was a natural storyteller who loved movies, so I decided to come up with ideas and develop them into screenplays. Knowing Lenny gave me courage, so when I got back to New York, I quit med school and immediately called him. “Hi! I’m here. I did what you recommended—I left medical school.”

“That’s a very daring move. Why don’t you come over to spend Friday night with me and my family?”