Leonard Bernstein and more

by marjorieingall on April 24, 2018

In Tablet Magazine this month, I criticized Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional Apology Festival; wrote a treatment for a romantic comedy about summer camp, female friendship, and presidential attorney Michael Cohen; checked out a modern American opera set against the backdrop of the Triangle Factory Fire and visited the site of the fire itself; and reviewed a new museum exhibit in Philadelphia about Leonard Bernstein’s life, music and activism.

(That’s Lenny and his sister Shirley in the Carnegie Hall green room in 1951.)

I wound up going into a research hole on that story — happens to me a lot — so here are two things I did not include in Tablet. 

  1. Wow, Tom Wolfe’s 1970 New York Magazine article on “Radical Chic” (which uses as a jumping-off point a fundraiser for the Black Panthers at Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s apartment) has REALLY not aged well: 

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons  . . .  Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact—is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . . .

Uh, yikes. Many levels of yikes. 

2. There’s an undated letter from Felicia to Leonard in the newly expanded and very satisfying online collection of Bernsteinalia in the Library of Congress. In it, she basically tells him to embrace his gayness, but not tell her about it. 

If I seemed sad as you drove away today, it was not because I felt in any way deserted but because I was left alone to face myself and the whole bloody mess which is our “connubial” life. I’ve done a lot of thinking and have decided that it’s not such a mess after all. First: We are not committed to a life sentence – nothing is really irrevocable, not even marriage (though I used to think so). Second: 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, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do? Third: I am writing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L. B. altar. (I happen to love you very much – this may be a disease, and if it is, what better cure?) It may be difficult but no more so than the “status quo” which exists now – at the moment you are not yourself and this produces painful barriers and tensions for both of us – let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!

As for me – once you are rid of tensions I’m sure my own will disappear. A companionship will grow which probably no one else may be able to offer you. The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express – this marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect – why not have them? I know now too that I need to work. It is a very important part of me and I feel incomplete without it. I may want to do something about it soon. I am used to an active life, and then there is that old ego problem…

We may hae gotten married too soon, and yet we needed to get married and we’ve not made a mistake. It is good for us even if we suffer now and make each other miserable – we will both grow up someday and be strong and unafraid either together or apart – after all we are both more important as individuals than a “marriage” is.

In any case my dearest darling ape, let’s give it a whirl – there’ll be crisis (?) [sic] from time to time but that doesn’t scare me anymore. And let’s relax in the knowledge that neither of us is perfect and forget about being HUSBAND AND WIFE in such strained capital letters, it’s not that awful!

There’s a lot else I’ve got to say but the pill has overpowered me. I’ll write again soon. My wish for this week is that you come home guiltless + happy.  F

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

tanita April 25, 2018 at 6:12 pm

Felicia …sounds like she was lovely, if pained. How difficult to love someone who could never love you the way you maybe needed? Or, maybe she decided she could figure out a different way to need… without guilt and confessions is so very wise. Anyway, I love that she rejects the HUSBAND AND WIFE in strained capital letters… I didn’t want to get married for just that reason. The baggage of the institutions does indeed strain the baggage cart! I found if I didn’t say “wife” too often, I was okay. 😉 Now that I’m old, I don’t care. As much. Mostly.

Also, HOLY OTHERING, Tom Wolfe. Eew.

marjorieingall April 25, 2018 at 6:54 pm

Re: Tom Wolfe: RIGHT????

Re: Strained capital letters: I had the same ambivalence about marriage as you. In fact, we asked my husband’s brother to play Jonathan Richman’s “When I Say Wife” on his guitar at our wedding (When I say ‘wife’/It’s ’cause I can’t find another word/For the way we are/But “wife” sounds like your mortgage/’Wife” sounds like laundry) and he was HORRIFIED. But he did it. And I too am mostly OK with the word now.

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