Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein, by Jonathan Cott, Oxford, 183 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Jonathan Cott has given us a remarkable experience: dining and conversing with the man inside one of the best-known, most-celebrated names in American music.
Leonard Bernstein had ceased giving interviews by the time Cott sought one for Rolling Stone in 1988. But after Cott was interviewed by Bernstein’s manager, Bernstein agreed to give this one — less than a year before his death — over drinks and dinner at his Connecticut country home on Nov. 20, 1989.
Rolling Stone published an 8,000-word result in 1990. Now Cott, the author of 16 previous books, provides a more complete version in Dinner with Lenny.
Bernstein was a phenomenon — prodigy, pianist, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, composer, telegenic music educator and celebrity. Cott gives us the maestro as a man at home: Lenny.
And Lenny — Bernstein down from the podium — is brilliant, ebullient, profane and insightful, almost jumping off the page with thoughts, ideas and simple humanness. The interview lasted 12 hours, ending beyond 2:30 a.m., revealing an uninhibited Bernstein discoursing broadly: his childhood, studying conducting under Serge Koussevitsky, getting fabulous performances from orchestras, and his decision to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on both sides of the former Berlin Wall near the end of 1989 — substituting Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy) in the fourth movement’s chorus — to celebrate the wall’s destruction. He died on Oct. 14, 1990.
In an adoring preface, charmingly called “prelude,” Cott describes Bernstein, grandson of Hasidic rabbis, as having “led a life of [Lord] Byronic intensity — passionate, polyamorous, risk-taking, convention-breaking, continually productive, universally inspiring. From the start, he conducted with a flamboyance and obvious rapture that led some critics to accuse the young maestro of being exhibitionistic and overemotional on the podium.” Bernstein’s explanation was that “my contact with music is a total embrace.”
And much of the music world and audience embraced him, elevating him to the world’s most-recognized conductor and making a huge hit of his West Side Story. Dinner shows us a private man as exuberant as his performances.
Which leads to a warning: This is two men talking over vodka before dinner and wine during dinner, so if you’re put off by occasional profanity, if the “F-word” gives you the vapors, this book is not for you. But the rest of us get Bernstein with his shields down, speaking with passion and intellect on subjects as diverse as his career, politics, children’s innate craving to learn, teaching music to children as he did through his “Young People’s Concerts,” the arts, his close friend, pianist Glenn Gould (subject of a Cott book), death and the spirit, and Mahler, Mahler, Mahler.
A photo shows him rehearsing in his Gustav Mahler sweatshirt and another shows the “Mahler Grooves” bumper sticker he stuck across the opening pages of his score for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
Cott recorded the evening on cassette tapes. The pre-dinner portion contains direct quotes that disappear with dinner, suggesting a conversation edited for clarity and brevity. That’s not unusual, but normally we’re told, and I didn’t see that in Dinner.
At last I don’t have to beat up on Oxford for grim, gray pages of tiny type. We get large type, white space, interesting layout and an index. Of course, when you’re offering only 165 pages of text, not only can you afford large type, you probably need it to thicken a book for which you’re asking almost $25. I’m all for paying writers well, and while a trade paperback edition at $10 less might seem more appropriate per word, the content is anything but disappointing.
Dinner With Lenny crackles with intellect, wit and joie de vivre. I wish I’d been invited.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 2.1.13)