Friday, September 17, 2010
Leonard Bernstein Danced on my Piano
I finally had a moment to pick up my copy of True Prep yesterday. I read it while I was in the bathtub, with a glass of wine to the right of me. The rain was pelting down upon my skylight. There was a chill in the house that I just couldn't shake. Not ready to admit we might the heat on for a few minutes I decided that barricading myself in seclusion in a warm and peaceful setting away from the noise (ie children) was just what I needed. I filled the oversized tub with water and bubbles (leaving the jets off!), climbed in and began to read.
I was perusing through the True Prep Pantheon section of the book when my eyes stopped short on Leonard Bernstein. Yes, the famous Maestro who led the New York Philharmonic and composed such wonderful scores including, those to my all-time favorite, West Side Story. There is mention of his wife, Felicia, whom he divorced in the mid 1970s so that he could live with his male lover. Birnbach continues on to describe Bernstein as "a Jew, a genius, a bisexual, a provocateur, and a preppy."
My grandmother, La Jolie Grandmere, was a socialite of privilege, a fashionista, a fabulous hostess and attended The Rochester Philharmonic with such regularity when she was in her 20s that she would often throw lavish parties with fabulous food, drink and fun at home after an evening performance. A young strapping composer named Leonard Bernstein was conducting there. He befriended my grandmother and her entourage and was welcomed into her home. One night, after a couple of cocktails, the larger than life composer of petite stature climbed on top of her Steinway Grand Piano and started to do a little dance!
Soon Bernstein would leave the Rochester area behind to head the New York Philharmonic. But something must have happened. Something scandalous. To this day no one knows quite sure. As a result of whatever scandalous event that took place, Leonard Bernstein decided to wash Rochester, New York from his memory. He would never mention the town ever again. In fact, he would go so far as to say he had never been there. This is what he told me.
My grandmother became terribly ill after the Maestro left Rochester. She became a victim to the terrible Polio epidemic. My grandmother spent nine months enclosed in an iron lung fighting for her life. Her fierce determination and unwavering spirit got her through. She survived, weak and a paraplegic, but resolved to fight her way back to health. And she did.
As she grew stronger and healthier she would travel to New York a good bit. West Side Story had just opened on Broadway and she went to support her friend. After what she thought to be a magnificent performance she headed backstage to greet her friend, the great composer. She greeted him warmly only to be met with a pair of blank eyes. Leonard Bernstein claimed to have no idea who my grandmother was. Even though he had been to her home on several occasions. Even though her had danced on her Steinway Grand Piano! Perhaps the wheelchair threw him for a loop. But my grandmother was unmistakable in her charm and glamor. She was not a forgettable woman, nor did she have a forgettable face.
Years later Leonard Bernstein would leave his own wife to be with his partner. His sexuality was no longer kept a secret. My grandmother was certain that something happened in Rochester during the time he headed the Philharmonic Orchestra... something quite bad. It had to have been that.
I had the honor of meeting the late great Leonard Bernstein shortly before I graduated college, shortly before his death. He came to receive an award. I walked right up to him, shook his head, looked him straight in the eye, and said "Maestro, my name is Jessica Gordon, I am Bettina Goldsmith's grand-daughter. I believe you danced on her piano during your Rochester days." He looked me cooly in the eye. (I am pretty sure I jarred some memories.) He said. "Young lady, you must be mistaken I have never been to Rochester." I left heartbroken.
My grandmother felt badly for me, but she was not surprised.