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Musical Genius, American Style : Bernstein: A Prisoner of His Own Celebrity : LEONARD BERNSTEIN: A Life, <i> By Meryle Secrest (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 471 pp.)</i>

<i> James Hamilton-Paterson's last book, "Gerontius" (Soho), a novel about the composer Sir Edward Elgar, won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. His newest novel, "Ghosts of Manila," was published last month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux</i>

Leonard Bernstein was fabulous. His story, though, reads less like a fable than a parable exemplifying what the historian Noel Annan once described as the “American syndrome” in which “to succeed, painters and writers (had) to become celebrities and celebrity destroyed them as artists.” Plenty of informed people, including those who attended Bernstein’s last Tanglewood concert just before his death in 1990, would forcefully deny that he had ever been destroyed as an artist. Yet there is ample evidence that he himself believed he had been. He worried incessantly about having become a prisoner of his own celebrity, a phenomenal mayfly who had soared and basked for a long summer’s day, soon to be forgotten.

That he should have artfully marshaled looks, charisma and a prodigious talent in order to create his celebrity strikes ordinary mortals like ourselves as absurdly superfluous. Meryle Secrest calls him “by general agreement the most gifted musician in America of the 20th Century.”

Why, then, did he bother further to inflate his own image? What kind of overkill was this? Tim Page’s 1988 Newsday piece “Leonard Bernstein at 70,” datelined Lenox, Mass., begins: “This pastoral Berkshire village, which has long nurtured the brilliant, wealthy, and eccentric, is preparing to welcome home a man who personifies town values.”

I don’t know whether Secrest read this article; certainly her own version of Bernstein’s 65th birthday celebrations in his birth-town of Lawrence, Mass., casts a far less appealing light on such milestone festivities. According to her, Bernstein’s own company, Amberson (‘Bernstein being German for “amber’) organized the entire “supposedly spontaneous demonstration of affection” in true Kim Il Sung style.

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“Ah,” we say wisely, “ this is the hidden Lenny. The insecure private soul behind the glittering public facade” (for parable’s Manichean conventions demand there must always be one of those). Four years after the great man’s death, we are over-familiar with the Bernstein of legend, the icon who was every inch a genius and every other inch a heterosexual. Apart from the revelations of Joan Peyser’s 1987 book, which Bernstein’s own children repeatedly urged him not to read, he himself never made much effort to conceal what had long been common knowledge in the musical world; the compulsive bedding of handsome boys, the crying jags, the loud confessions of self-doubt that demanded and received glooping dollops of flattery, the breakup of his marriage, his florid but genuine remorse over Felicia’s death, the rumors of incest (though he did always deny those). So could there be a hidden Bernstein still to be discovered and weighty enough to make us reassess any aspect of his life and achievement?

In her acknowledgments, Meryle Secrest makes it clear she was not allowed access to an alleged warehouse stuffed to the rafters with Bernstein memorabilia and archives. Family, lawyers, an “official” biographer (Humphrey Burton, author of last spring’s “Leonard Bernstein”) and assorted guardians of the Lenny flame have their own agenda; add to that all those who refused to speak to her, and Secrest’s task must often have been dispiriting. Sensibly, she subtitles her book “A Life.” It remains to be seen if “The Life,” when it comes, will be any more informative.

In the meantime this is a sober, thoughtful biography whose facts feel reliable (though in the book’s last note the author bizarrely attributes Wordsworth’s famous phrase “apparell’d in celestial light” to Karen Armstrong in “A History of God,” which is enough to give anyone intimations of incredulity). It is a thoroughly readable account of the outward circumstances of Leonard Bernstein’s life, together with as many inferences of inner motivations as seem proper to make about anyone.

The only problem is that Leonard Bernstein wasn’t anyone: He was sui generis. Hardly a soul came into contact with him--from Black Panther to President, from cardinal to car-wash attendant--who wasn’t at least momentarily swept off their feet, who didn’t fall however grudgingly beneath the extraordinary spell, whose spirit wasn’t suddenly lightened by the man’s energy and whose erotic ambiguities weren’t mobilized by Bernstein’s own radiant sexuality. Maybe such things, like genius itself, can never be satisfactorily accounted for. Charisma of that degree can’t be faked; you either have it or you don’t. It is all the less explicable when someone who already has it in spades needs to embellish it still further.

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Secrest’s description of Bernstein up to the age of about 40 is of a vastly attractive, largely insufferable Golden Boy who concealed a flinty ambitiousness under a pose of casual extroversion long after having achieved success beyond most people’s wildest fantasies.

Sam Bernstein, the breakfast-table didact, the frustrated rabbi who was a hardheaded businessman and who fought and rejected his dazzling artistic son, died at 72 of a heart attack. So, “by a curious coincidence,” did Lenny himself. Unlike Secrest I don’t believe in curious coincidences when powerful, angry, Hasidic fathers are involved. Maybe more details will emerge from that warehouse, but I doubt it. These are writerly, speculative elements that Secrest doesn’t indulge in and of which one feels the lack.

Throughout the book, though, there is a far more important lack, which glares like the empty chair at a wake: that of music itself. What Bernstein was-- all he was, finally--was a supremely gifted musical genius: conductor, pianist, composer, educator. The rest is mere surface noise. Tim Page once called him “the most influential music teacher in history.” Not in America--in history . Secrest admits that a proper assessment of him as a musician is overdue; but I longed for more technical details about exactly what he did when rehearsing Mahler, playing Mozart or--for example--accompanying Glenn Gould in their infamous account of the Brahms d minor concerto. Secrest doesn’t mention Gould; yet the parallels as well as the divergences between the two men are marked. Both made incredibly rapid progress as boy pianists, both were charismatic performers criticized for their mannerisms, both were astounding score readers, improvisers and memorizers, both were known as “wayward” in performance in terms of tempo and spontaneity. They also shared insomnia, hypochondria and a fondness for Valium. But most of all, both men really yearned to write music, and old-fashioned (i.e., late Romantic) music at that.

This was ultimately where Bernstein was beyond delusion or dissimulation. He knew that most of the music whose performance had made him famous was written by composers who had worked long years in comparative seclusion or who at least wangled for themselves uninterrupted discourse with an inner world. He knew perfectly well that, no matter how good “‘West Side Story” was, it was still only a Broadway musical, just as his more “serious” compositions were uneasily eclectic. The more they brilliantly married Europe and America, Mahler with Gershwin, the less they seemed to speak in a lasting voice of his own. He knew this and was made miserable by it. Perhaps he never could have been primarily a composer.

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In any case the artist in him remained achingly intact to the end. Beneath the posturing and silliness and radical chic, beneath the insidious rot of drink and the public attention he so tirelessly courted, he was not deluded. At his core there was a poet who could always have subscribed to Glenn Gould’s view that the true purpose of art was “a gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” Meryle Secrest’s is not an account that explores Bernstein at this level of his sensibility and gifts. Yet what we want to know about are precisely his musicianship, his private aesthetic, since those are what remain to us embedded in our memories of him as well as in his vast discography.

This, really, is the hidden Lenny: the man who could give a performance that might change his hearers’ lives, but who 15 minutes afterward was himself still dazed, uncertain of where he had been and who he was.


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