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John Gruen collection of Leonard Bernstein interviews

John Gruen and Leonard BernsteinIn preparation for writing his 1968 book, The Private World of Leonard Bernstein, John Gruen recorded a series of interviews with Bernstein, his family, and select friends and colleagues. The audiotapes capture candid moments of the interviewees as they delve into their memories of Bernstein as a child, student, husband, father, and musical prodigy.   

Gruen accompanied the family, complete with servants, nannies, and gardeners, on a summer-long vacation in Ansedonia, Italy, observing their daily routines. All are asked to comment onthe experience of living under the influence of Bernstein's fame and genius. Some, like Helen Coates, Bernstein's first piano teacher, who later became his secretary, devoted their whole lives to supporting him and his career. His daughter Jamie admitted, in typical adolescent fashion, that she sometimes found his music to be boring and that he lectured the children too much.

In this clip, Bernstein talks with his children Jamie and Alexander. At age 12, Alexander is tearfully explaining that he cannot be expected to take criticism as well as his father.

It was nearly two months into the trip before Bernstein himself sat for an interview. Understandably, he preferred to relax either in solitude or with his family away from the frenetic pace of his New York life. When Gruen finally got him talking, Bernstein often reflected on his youth, in particular his close relationship with his siblings Shirley and "Burtie" (Burton).

His conversations with Gruen about his student years at the Curtis Institute of Music are like those he expressed in his self-portrait Findings and his speech given during Curtis's 50th-anniversarycelebration: a combination of youthful drama, conflict, discovery, and eventual appreciation. His time at Curtis had special resonance because it was here, under Fritz Reiner's tutelage, that he first conducted an orchestra.  He describes the experience to Gruen: 

"It was Brahms' Third, first movement.  I went mad!  I was engulfed in a sea of sound. I was not prepared for this...no one can know what it is like to stand in an orchestra. I'm sure I was just horrible." 

Sometimes pretentious, Gruen and a handful of his interviewees (particularly those who worked with Bernstein in theater and film productions) seem to be nearly caricatures, a mix of Manhattan and Old Hollywood style.  Their words are no less true for it, and in fact, hearing them spoken aloud puts everything into context: who Bernstein is, who others want him to be, and what they want to be to him. True to the interviews, the finished book portrays Bernstein as a playful man with his cautious wife, well-loved and precocious children, conflicted colleagues and admiring friends.

 

In 2012, Curtis purchased the recordings and other related materials collected by Gruen. His collection of Leonard Bernstein materials is available to visitors, by appointment, via the Curtis Archives.  Recordings are in the process of being digitized and will soon be available online. 

—Barbara Benedett, digital archivist, Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.