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Leonard Bernstein’s Radical Politics

Lawrence Bush
November 2, 2009

by Eric A. Gordon

Reviewed in this Essay: Leonard Bernstein, The Political Life of an American Musician, by Barry Seldes. University of California Press, 2009, 276 pages.

Only with the recent availability of Leonard Bernstein’s FBI dossier, and with the opening of his archive at the Library of Congress after 1997, has it been possible for a researcher to reconstruct the composer/conductor’s long and hyperactive life of political and social engagement.
Barry Seldes, professor of political science at Rider University, has sought “to reconstruct the political man” America came to know and love familiarly as “our Lenny.” With care and sagacity about the mysterious ways that celebrity gets manufactured, Seldes explains how the man whom the FBI had been tracking since the late 1930s, whose music had been banned in overseas State Department functions in 1950, and whose passport had been briefly revoked in 1953, became principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1957 and its musical director in 1958.
The key turning point was a degrading affidavit that Bernstein signed on August 3rd, 1953, in response to his being listed prominently in Red Channels and Counterattack, which were key publications of the blacklist during the McCarthy years. It remains unclear who actually prepared this document, but in it Bernstein affirmed that he had not been a Communist, only a naïf who lent nominal support to a variety of front groups throughout the 1940s. As a Jew, he stated, he was “necessarily…a foe of communism.” Bernstein thus satisfactorily purged himself, and immediately regained his passport. Seldes cites an FBI file for this affidavit but maddeningly does not reproduce it.
After signing this “loyalty oath,” which was circulated to the right-wing “clearinghouses” of the day, Bernstein threw himself into composing the score for On the Waterfront, a film written by Budd Schulberg, directed by Elia Kazan, and featuring Lee J. Cobb — each one of them a HUAC informer — on the theme of . . . informing! With this job, the Bernstein rehabilitation commenced; the neoliberal cultural Cold Warriors allied with the CIA and the State Department won this particular battle against the domestic McCarthyite witchhunters in the FBI and HUAC. The turnaround was a testament to the subtly shifting dynamics of Cold War politics in the mid-1950s.
Earlier biographies have tended to minimize Bernstein’s political commitment. Seldes’s achievement is to show how understanding Bernstein’s social outlook is absolutely essential to understanding many of his key works, such as the Kaddish symphony, his 1971 Mass, and the 1977 Songfest, and even his attachment to tonality and the music of Gustav Mahler.
Against the background of multiple mid-century horrors, says Seldes, “the bulk of the Mahler-consuming public in the 1960s and early 1970s . . . were preoccupied with existential and Freudian reflections on the individual’s isolation and spiritual discontent.”

. . . This generation was desperate to avoid falling into cynicism, narcissism, and nihilism. It needed to connect, or reconnect, with its roots in the intellectual, artistic, and musical culture of pre-fascist Europe and to express empathy with the victims of the European catastrophes. This music therefore could not celebrate victory in the heroic fashion of Beethoven.

Seldes has uncovered every FBI attempt to pinpoint Bernstein’s Communist affiliations, which started when an informant reported that Bernstein “was the director of the local communist John Reed Society” while at Harvard in the late 1930s. The FBI’s pursuit of him continued for much of the composer’s life. They investigated his support for Spanish Civil War refugees, for Ben Davis for New York City Council in 1945, for radical composer Hanns Eisler, for the Progressive Party and the Henry Wallace campaign, and for a constellation of “people’s” organizations that were close to the Communist Party.
In the end, the FBI apparently could never finger Bernstein as a Party member, much as it would have loved to confirm the hearsay. Seldes accepts that Bernstein never joined, but falls short by not analyzing the role that front groups played for the Party and how a handsome, talented and articulate artist like Bernstein was helpful to it for over a decade.
Under the rubric of describing Bernstein’s politics, Seldes draws together some remarkable observations on widely diverse aspects of Cold War culture and on contemporary developments in philosophy, the novel, and the theater. There was the Lavender Scare — a panic about homosexuality, equal to the Red Scare — visited upon such artists as David Diamond, Aaron Copland, and Jerome Robbins. (Seldes shows how both Songfest and the late opera A Quiet Place increasingly showed Bernstein’s openness to expressing his gay nature in his work.) Seldes is also especially clever at detailing the workings of the celebrity machine whereby a homegrown Wunderkind’s career enhanced both the commercial interests of the CBS media empire and the New York Philharmonic.
To his great credit, Bernstein used his fame and the end of the blacklist to spring back into political life from the Kennedy presidency on. In 1965, he marched for civil rights in Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He became a fervent peacenik during the Vietnam War, prominently supporting the Eugene McCarthy presidential bid. He was a close personal friend to Father Philip Berrigan of the Catonsville 9 (convicted for burning draft records), and relied on Berrigan’s advice for the Mass he premiered in Washington’s new Kennedy Center. Famously, Bernstein also hosted a house party to raise funds to support the civil liberties of the Black Panthers, an act for which he took a great deal of political heat.
In 1979, along with other American intellectuals, he signed a petition protesting the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank. What do people of integrity and good will do when their own government or people is committing atrocities? In many ways it is understandable that Bernstein turned in the 1980s toward a life of relative comfort and adulation in Old Europe rather than in Reagan’s mean America.
Seldes takes some wrong turns, particularly in dismissing or minimizing the social content of certain works, such as the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952) and the score to Jerome Robbins’ ballet, Dybbuk (1994). If Seldes had struggled a little more with the subtexts of these compositions, he might have discovered more subversive content than he has chosen to see.
Since the late 1940s, Bernstein had been mesmerized by the prospect of writing the great American opera, a dream that changed shape many times over the ensuing decades but never left him. Toward the end of his life, he was still fretting over his failure to create “a masterwork of lasting importance.” Picking up the bait of Bernstein’s obsession, Seldes devotes his whole Chapter 7 to this theme and treats us to a point-by-point exculpation of the composer. No, it was certainly not Bernstein’s shortage of talent to make such a major statement, nor was it the distraction of conducting, nor was it his self-indulgence with drugs, booze and sex. Rather, argues Seldes, Bernstein’s inability came, thanks to McCarthyism, from the historic dissolution of a receptive American political community that would welcome and lionize such a masterwork!
This strikes me as a consummately aggrandizing conceit in light of many other composers’ sincere and effective accomplishments toward interpreting the American experience. If Bernstein is not the American Mussorgsky, Wagner or Verdi, he did leave behind an incredibly rich oeuvre that guarantees him a permanent place in the international repertoire. To ask for more — and to blame the public for there not being more — are acts of excessive championship that cheapen Seldes’ book.

Sad to report, Leonard Bernstein suffers from an embarrassing frequency of misspellings, misstatements and mistakes, repetitions, awkward chronology, and contradictions far too numerous to recount here. FDR died in 1945, not 1944! Aaron Copland’s song, “Into the Streets May First,” was published not in 1937 but 1934. On p. 8, in two consecutive sentences, Bernstein is a Harvard freshman in 1938 and a senior in 1939! Bernstein’s daughter Jamie is referred to genderlessly four times in the text, and finally in the index as a son! Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner is renamed Stephen. Composer Marc Blitzstein had been dead twenty-one years, not twenty-six, in 1985, and there have been four, not two, commercial recordings of The Cradle Will Rock. Alas, there’s much, much more, on page after page.
Although readers and scholars will need to exercise extreme caution in accepting Seldes’s facts, he has produced a useful, revealing, and genuinely fascinating discussion of Leonard Bernstein’s role in the melee of 20th-century American politics.

Eric A. Gordon, Southern California director of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, is the author of Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein and (with Earl Robinson) Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.