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As WWII escalated, young Bernstein feared missing his chance at success. If he left to fight for his country, would he still be a conductor when he returned?

By the early 1940s, Leonard Bernstein’s star was swiftly on the rise. Unfortunately, World War II was also escalating. Like many young men who hadn't already been drafted, Bernstein faced a moral dilemma: In serving his country, he might derail his career.

At the time, Bernstein had concluded his formal education and was excelling at Tanglewood in the summers. He had just debuted with the Boston Pops, his first appearance with a professional orchestra. Now, he faced the possibility of spending years away from his craft. While the choice was clear--duty over personal interest--young Bernstein understandably grappled with the fear of missing his chance at success. Would he have a career to return to?

Initially, Bernstein sought counsel in his mentor Serge Koussevitzky. He wrote to him, asking about the U.S.O. and if applying for service there might be a way to combine the two paths.

 

 Bernstein letter to Koussevitzky re: military service

Koussevitzky asked the opinion of his friend and Tanglewood supporter Mary Louise Curtis Bok knowing that students at the Curtis Institute were also facing an uncertain future. Curtis was losing many students to the war effort. Between 1940 and 1943, enrollment had dropped from 210 to just 100 musicians, the lowest in the school’s history. It was Koussevitzky's hope that Mrs. Bok could somehow help safeguard this promising Curtis alumnus.