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Dinner With Lenny
The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein
183 pp. 16 b/w illustrations.
OUP. £16.99 ISBN 978-0-19-985844-6
A New Yorker who has written for the New York Times and The New Yorker, Jonathan Cott had been a contributing editor at Rolling Stone since the magazine’s inception. The interview on which his book is based was intended to coincide with Leonard Bernstein’s seventieth birthday in August 1988. Eventually, in November 1989, a year before he died, Bernstein invited Jonathan Cott to his country home in Connecticut for what was to be the great man’s last major interview. At 165 pages, Dinner With Lenny is a relatively short book. Compensation comes both in the manner in which Bernstein shows amity towards Cott, and the intensity of the twelve-hour conversation.
Bernstein was one of the most honoured creative artists of the twentieth century, the recipient of twenty-three Grammy Awards, ten Emmy Awards, twenty-two honorary degrees, the conductor of fifty-three legendary Young People’s Concerts and the author of five books. Although Bernstein was one of several famous residents of the Dakota building, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the interview took place in Fairfield, Connecticut, in Bernstein’s ten-room 1750s farmhouse. On a nearby wall is displayed a photograph of Nadia Boulanger pinning the ribbon of officier of the Legion d’honneur on Bernstein’s lapel.
From the beginning, Bernstein warns Cott: “Don’t ask me those favourite journalist questions.” He was alluding to favourite orchestras, favourite composers, favourite symphonies, as well as food, books and sex. Cott promised to avoid such topics. For the most part, he keeps that promise. Dinner With Lenny does not suffer.
The interview is replete with a generous helping of the boast and bombast which was Bernstein’s stock-in-trade, which one either loves or hates. Here is Lenny slipping into German or Yiddish, Lenny telling scurrilous tales of the historically famous (Alma Mahler, when in the Hotel Pierre in New York: “She tried to get me to bed,”), Lenny illustrating points at the piano, and so on. The account makes riveting reading. He tells stories against himself, even having the nerve to explain to the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic the meaning of the word Kaddish and, to the same musicians: Was meinen Sie Meister? War der Christ Judische? [‘Are you telling us that Jesus was Jewish?] Do we really believe that such a question could be posed by musicians in the Judenzentrum of the world?
So, at times one needs to suspend disbelief. But that was Leonard Bernstein. We shall not see his like again.
John Robert Brown