What is true and what is fiction in Maestro?

In pursuit of high art, Bradley Cooper's biography uncovers the numerous tensions of Leonard Bernstein's life. Here's what's true and what's fiction.

Raushan

Leonard Bernstein, possibly America’s best-known midcentury conductor, is having a moment. He was described as the mentor/role model motivating the would-be conductor in last year’s Tár, and now with Maestro, he has his own biography directed, co-written (with Josh Singer), and starring Bradley Cooper.

The film begins with a quote from Leonard Bernstein: “A work of art does not answer questions; it provokes them, and its essential meaning is in the tension between contradictory answers.” Maestro is interested in examining the fundamental conflict between Bernstein’s loving and committed marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (which resulted in three children to whom he was devoted) and his complex sexual identity, which includes encounters with numerous men.

The conflict between Bernstein, a conductor who enjoys public adulation and a self-described person, and Bernstein, a composer who needs isolation for writing, is further complicated by a schism between the two. Bernstein, known for acclaimed musicals like West Side Story, views this work as lightweight and believes he should focus on serious symphonic works. Felicia questions Bernstein’s decision to abandon his passion after witnessing a fantastic rehearsal of ballet Fancy Free, which inspired Fantastic Town and its film adaptation.

Cooper’s biopic avoids biopic clichés by focusing on the marital bond between Bernstein and Montealegre. The couple recites minibios at a party, getting engaged, and later reciting their minibios in the family apartment. The film uses Edward R. Murrow’s music to introduce Lenny Lenny’s career and Bernstein’s later résumé to a journalist for a biography pitch. This approach avoids conventional biopic cliches and showcases the importance of marital bonds in history.

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The story doesn’t reveal the famous people who attend a party, mainly stating “if you know, you know.” Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who collaborated with Bernstein on Wonderful Town, sing a short piece and gurn wildly, leaving those unfamiliar with musical theater wondering. The text also reveals the name of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who collaborated with Bernstein on West Side Story and Fancy Free. He even gets to dance, but his identity isn’t revealed.

Aaron Copland, a renowned ballet composer, performs a duet with Lenny Bernstein during a family lunch. The introduction is awkward, but Copland’s significant influence on Bernstein’s life is evident. Bernstein adored Copland through his music and met him at Harvard. Bernstein described Copland as a father and composition teacher, but Copland later criticized his student’s writing as “merely conductor’s music—eclectic in style and facile in inspiration.” This highlights the importance of Copland’s influence on Bernstein’s life and his love for his work.

The movie does not reveal if Felicia knew about Bernstein’s relationship with Copland or if it altered her perception of her presence at family events.

The focus on personal relationships in Maestro’s scenes makes it difficult to verify conversations, as they are only known to the participants. Singer reportedly used 1,800 letters donated to the Leonard Bernstein Collection after the composer’s death in 1990, which were unsealed in 2010.

Did Leonard Bernstein start out as a back-up and end up a star?

An assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic, Lenny is called to lead a performance because the regular director is sick. Despite not having time for practice, he embraces the situation and heads to the performance hall. The new conductor, whom no one knew before, is a big hit, and his career takes off.

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Bernstein, an assistant director, was not as unprepared as the movie suggests. As the orchestra was unavailable for practice, Bernstein had time to coach Bruno Walter, who was sick with the flu and couldn’t lead the orchestra. The story made the New York Times front page, and Bernstein found Walter sitting up but wrapped in blankets, showing him how to lead the orchestra. Bernstein was in charge of the Philharmonic for the first time, and there had been no practice.

How About the Schnoz?

In the last six months, a controversy arose when the first marketing stills for the movie featured Bradley Cooper as Bernstein with a large prosthetic nose, with some claiming it was a caricature.

Felicia Montealegre and Carey Mulligan in Maestro. Photos by the Library of Congress and Jason McDonald/Netflix

The nose in the film is similar to Bernstein’s, but Bernstein’s youthful appearance and better-looking appearance make his nose appear less out of proportion. However, the nose doesn’t loom as large as it does on Cooper, possibly due to the aging makeup that balances it out.

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How Committed Were the Bernsteins to One Another?

Lenny enthusiastically presents Felicia (Carey Mulligan) to his friends, portraying them as soul mates. Felicia suggests marriage, asking Lenny to be guilt-free and not make her look foolish. However, they break up after Lenny becomes “sloppy” in his middle years and publicly has an affair with a young man.

The broad strokes of the connection and the contract it implied are correct. Bernstein, in reality, proposed to Montealegre (on a trip to Costa Rica). If he did not let passion overcome him, it appears he sincerely loved her, as evidenced by a letter to his sister, Shirley, included in The Leonard Bernstein Letters. “How strange that you have written to me just now, Felicia!” he stated in his note. “She has occupied my thoughts incessantly since I left America, and I have come to a fabulously clear realization of what she means—and has always meant—to me.” I have loved her since the beginning, despite all the impediments that have continually hampered my loving mechanism. I was alone on the sea, and all I could think about was her. Other girls (or boys) don’t matter.”

Felicia, on her part, wrote to her new husband shortly after their marriage, “You are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, and your entire nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do?” I am willing to accept you as you are, without becoming a martyr or sacrificing myself on the altar of L.B. (I happen to adore you—this may be an illness, and what better cure?). The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express—our marriage is built on sensitivity and mutual respect, not desire.”

However, the film omits certain crucial scenes. In actuality, Montealegre was not swept off her feet but instead married Bernstein on the spur of the moment. The pair met in 1947 and became engaged a few months later before calling it quits. Montealegre fell in love with actor Richard Hart (who, in the film, pays a visit to her dressing room while she is performing on Broadway; despite being married, she is plainly smitten yet committed to Bernstein).

After Hart’s death at the beginning of 1951, Montealegre decided to give Bernstein another chance, although their prior affair is addressed in a later scene when Felicia and Bernstein have a heated argument shortly before their separation, but we never witness any interaction between Hart and Montealegre. In August 1951, the pair announced their second engagement and married a month later. Between 1948 and 1949, Bernstein had a deep love affair with an Israeli soldier named Azariah Rapoport.

Was Lenny Really That Unconcerned About His Sexual Orientation?


Lenny appears to accept himself completely as he is in the film, saying, “The world wants us to be only one thing, and I find that deplorable.”

It seemed implausible that a good Jewish boy in the 1950s would have had no issues with his sexual preferences. Being gay or bi was not an uncommon occurrence in the circles in which Bernstein frequented. In the LGBT subculture, the American League of Leagues was dubbed “the Homitern.” “They all went to bed with each other, but it was very casual,” a friend of the conductor named Antonio de Almeida told Bernstein biographer Meryle Secrest. “It’s like a Turkish bath.”

But Bernstein’s concerns about his tastes led him to seek the counsel of multiple psychoanalysts (as it was customary for affluent Manhattanites in the 1950s to visit psychotherapists). Both he and his former partner David Oppenheim (the man in the bed when Lenny gets his big break), who had been married three times and fathered multiple children, were patients of a therapist named Marketa Morris, whom they referred to as “the Frau” in their correspondence.

Morris wrote to Bernstein about seeing Felicia, and the day she leaves, he has to see a boy named Farley Granger. Maestro does not mention Granger, the star of Hitchcock’s Rope. He wrote to Bernstein about his closeness to Montealegre, mentioning dinner with Felicia and her love for him. Bernstein asked Granger to join him on a trip to Costa Rica, but he declined due to his better sense of boundaries.

Sandor Rado, a homosexual “curing” analyst, was also seen by Bernstein. Bernstein, known for his adaptability, believed homosexuality was a curse and believed marriage would free him from it. The Bernstein-Montealegre marriage is similar to Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance, who were devoted to him despite his sexual advances, making their children his emotional world.

Bernstein’s True Love?

Maestro rarely mentions Felicia’s most significant opponent and the true passion of Bernstein’s life, the New York Philharmonic (all male until 1966), beyond the initial debut scene. Bernstein served as music director of the orchestra from 1958 to 1969, conducting more concerts than any previous conductor. Even after leaving, Bernstein was named laureate conductor for life and regularly performed as a guest with the New York Philharmonic, which featured on over half of his 400-plus recordings. When Bernstein announced his decision not to renew his contract, he stated, “I shall always regard the Philharmonic as’my’ orchestra.”

Maestro rarely mentions Felicia’s most significant opponent and the true passion of Bernstein’s life, the New York Time(all male until 1966), beyond the initial debut scene. Bernstein served as music director of the orchestra from 1958 to 1969, conducting more concerts than any previous conductor. Even after leaving, Bernstein became the laureate conductor for life and regularly performed as a guest with the New York Philharmonic, which appeared on over half of his 400-plus recordings. When Bernstein announced his decision not to renew his contract, he stated, “I shall always regard the Philharmonic as’my’ orchestra.”

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By Raushan
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A Software engineer by profession, cook and blogger by passion
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