Decades of FBI Files on Bernstein Are Released


Want to know what pieces the late composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein played at a 1940s benefit for the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee? Or what the performers wore during a Washington rehearsal of his celebrated “Mass”?

The answers--Brahms and boogie-woogie, and some wore hot pants--along with a great many other details of Bernstein’s life, are contained in more than 600 pages of FBI files compiled on the famed musician over three decades.

Bernstein’s liberal political activities, no matter how trivial or well-known, were assiduously chronicled with the help of informants and news clippings for the ultimately futile purpose of proving that Bernstein was a Communist.


The typed confidential memos reveal the sometimes comical lengths to which the FBI went as it attempted to endow Bernstein’s comings and goings with sinister meanings, reflecting an era when the agency delved freely into the lives of prominent citizens, ever on the hunt for Communist sympathizers.

The FBI’s monitoring of Bernstein started in the 1940s during the Red scares that permeated American politics and continued into the 1970s, when the White House was informed of an alleged plot by Bernstein to embarrass President Richard Nixon at a performance dedicating the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Bernstein, one of this century’s most celebrated American musicians, knew of the files, even citing them as evidence of the FBI’s attempts to discredit him.

“It didn’t seem to rile him up. I think it disappointed him,” said Schuyler Chapin, a longtime friend of Bernstein’s and one of the executors of his estate.

After Bernstein’s death in 1990, Chapin and others in Bernstein’s circles examined copies of the files, which contain numerous passages blacked out by the FBI before they were released.

“My reaction was sadness that we had reached a point in our country that a distinguished artist was being fingered by the FBI because they didn’t like his political opinions,” said Chapin, who is New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs.


“We’re all curious to know what it is that has been blacked out,” Chapin added.

So is the American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the files through a Freedom of Information Act request and released them Thursday to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Allan Parachini, public affairs director for the ACLU’s Southern California chapter, said the ACLU will file an appeal challenging the FBI’s deletion of several dozen pages for national security and other reasons. He speculated that the missing information may deal with Bernstein’s private life.

“It would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious,” Parachini said of the fat Bernstein file. “Clearly the FBI invested thousands of person-hours of surveillance on the activities of Leonard Bernstein and other individuals who should have never come under FBI scrutiny.”

During the past decade, journalists and scholars have shown that under Director J. Edgar Hoover’s long reign, the FBI maintained numerous files on figures ranging from John Lennon to Ernest Hemingway, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.

Judging from the documents released Thursday, the FBI’s inquiry into Bernstein’s activities yielded little or no startling information.

“They didn’t actually prove anything that we didn’t know all along--that Bernstein was a sympathizer with liberal causes,” said Humphrey Burton, whose biography of Bernstein was published this year.

The files examine those sympathies in sometimes absurd detail, recording his membership in groups deemed “Communist fronts,” his hobnobbing with suspected Communists, his “anti-American” comments and his travels abroad.

“Confidential Informant of known reliability advised May 7, 1945, that during an executive board meeting of the American Committee for Spanish Freedom held on March 30, 1945, at 11 Gramercy Park, New York City, it was announced that Leonard Bernstein had consented to dedicate a musical number to a ‘Free Spain,’ ” one entry says.

There are ample references to mention of Bernstein by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which chilled Hollywood and much of the rest of the nation’s cultural community with its hearings in the 1940s and 1950s on the alleged Communist affiliations of major arts and entertainment figures.

The often repetitive files note that Bernstein’s parents were both born in Russia, that he just returned from a European tour, that his wife, Felicia, once leased her apartment to someone reported to be a Communist Party member.

A 1955 cable, labeled urgent, advises that Vice President Nixon has accepted honorary chairmanship of an organization headed by Bernstein. A 1959 memo notes that Bernstein “is now being heralded in Moscow.” Another summary refers to the fact that he was a judge in a 1947 musical talent contest for the National Negro Congress.

The documents also include Hoover’s response to a 1961 letter in which a nun inquires about Bernstein’s political leanings. Hoover replies that he cannot furnish any information, but suggests she read his book “Masters of Deceit” on how to fight Communism.

In 1964, according to the documents, information on Bernstein was sent to the White House.

Later, investigators report that Bernstein participated in an Alabama civil rights march and that in 1971 he and his wife hosted a fund-raising party for anti-war activist Philip Berrigan, collecting $35,000. There is also reference to a widely publicized fund-raising party given by Bernstein’s wife for the Black Panther Party, as well as recommendations to plant information with “cooperative” media on the criminal history of one of the Black Panthers who attended the gathering in Bernstein’s apartment.

The monitoring continued into the mid-1970s, despite a 1955 acknowledgment that “the only available evidence linking Bernstein with the Communist Party was based on hearsay rather than personal knowledge.”

That the files would be crammed with secondhand information was typical, said Peter Buckingham, author of “America Sees Red,” a history of anti-radical thought and action in the United States.

“They start snooping around and end up reporting really hearsay in these files,” Buckingham said. “It’s really smear stuff . . . laughable but scary.”

The FBI had little to fear from Bernstein, according to Joan Peyser, who wrote a 1987 biography of the conductor.

“Frankly, I found Bernstein to be in many ways to be quite a passive man. . . . He would join the most liberal to radical causes and sign petitions. And yet when he was confronted with it and there was any kind of risk to his career he would try to extricate himself. I don’t have any evidence he was a card-carrying Communist.”