02 May 2018

Five things you didn’t know about Bernstein


2018 sees the centenary celebration of Leonard Bernstein. Here are five things you may not know about this giant of American music.

He nearly dropped out of West Side Story

Beyond his conducting, Bernstein is best remembered for composing the score to the musical West Side Story, but he almost pulled out of the project completely. Discussions began in 1947 with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and playwright Arthur Laurents to do an updated version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but there were disagreements about where to set it and whether it should be an opera or a musical. Bernstein had personal disagreements with Laurents and in 1949 decided not to do the show, as “hostility had popped up between them”. Fortunately for the history of musical theatre, by 1955 Bernstein was back on board.

He was a heavy smoker

Lenny was addicted to smoking and always had a cigarette in hand. He smoked during recordings, but the stage was one of the few places he didn’t light up. “The great thing about conducting,” he said at the time, “is you don't smoke and you breathe in great gobs of oxygen”. The New York Times reported that at a memorial service in 1986 for Alan Jay Lerner, Bernstein’s admirers held up a sign saying “We love you – stop smoking”. But he couldn’t.

He was under investigation by the FBI

The FBI kept a file on Bernstein as a suspected communist. At one point a Wisconsin nun was so worried by this rumour she wrote to the Director of the FBI to asking if it was true and how she might be protected from his communist conducting. J Edgar Hoover replied that it was not the policy of the FBI to confirm such accusations but sent a copy of his book “Masters of Deceit” outlining how she might combat communism in her community.

The secret ingredient in his baton

Bernstein used a baton made especially for him by the long-standing timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, Richard Horowitz. Apparently the secret ingredient wasn’t a phoenix feather core, but champagne corks. Bernstein was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn with his baton and the score of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

He appeared in The Flintstones

One Flintstones episode involved a concert at the Hollyrock Bowl conducted by the one and only Leonard Bernstone.


Guy Noble is a Sydney-based conductor and media personality.

Image: Leonard Bernstein captured in 1955

This article originally ran 10 August 2017.

Five things you didn’t know about BernsteinFive things you didn’t know about BernsteinFive things you didn’t know about BernsteinFive things you didn’t know about Bernstein