18 October 1990, New York City, USA
Ned Rorem is a composer, writer, diarist and friend of Bernstein, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 is now 93. This obituary appeared in his collected pieces Other Entertainment.
During the terrible hours following Lenny’s death last Sunday the phone rang incessantly. Friend after friend called to commiserate, and also the press, with a flood of irrelevant questions: How well did you know him? What made him so American? Did he smoke himself to death? Wasn’t he too young to die? What was he really like? None of this seemed to matter since the world had suddenly grown empty – the most crucial musician of our time had vanished. But next morning it seemed clear that there are no irrelevant questions, and these were as good as any to set off a brief remembrance.
How well did I know him? To “know well” has to do with intensity more than with habit. Everyone in Lenny’s vast entourage felt themselves to be, at one time or another, the sole love of his life, and I was no exception. The fact that he not only championed my music, but conducted it in a manner coinciding with my very heartbeat, was naturally not unrelated to love. Years could pass without our meeting, then for weeks we’d be inseparable. During these periods he would play as hard as he worked, with a power of concentration as acute for orgies as for oratorios. In Milan, in 1954, when he was preparing La Sonnambula for La Scala, I asked him how Callas was to deal with. “Well, she knows what she wants and gets it, but since she’s always right, this wastes no time. She’s never temperamental or unkind during rehearsal – she saves that for parties.” Lenny was the same: socially exasperating, even cruel with his manipulative narcissism (but only with peers, not with unprotected underlings), generous to a fault with his professional sanctioning of what he believed in.
Was he indeed so American? He was the sum of his contradictions. His most significant identity was that of jack-of-all-trades (which the French aptly call l’homme orchestre), surely a European trait; while Americans have always been specialists. … Yes, he was frustrated at forever being “accused” of spreading himself thin, but this very spreading, like the frustration itself, defined his theatrical nature. Had he concentrated on but one of his gifts, that gift would have shriveled.
Was he too young to die? What is too young? Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 years old but 288. Was he, as so many have meanly claimed, paying for the rough life he led? As he lived many lives, so he died many deaths. Smoking may have been one cause, but so was overwork, and especially sorrow at a world he so longed to change but which remained as philistine and foolish as before. Which may ultimately be the brokenhearted reason any artist dies. Or any person.
So what was he really like? Lenny was like everyone else, only more so. But nobody else was like him.