By Matt Begley
Leonard Bernstein’s personal life during the 1970s can be thought of in terms of a midlife crisis.
Lenny prefaced one of his concerts in 1976 saying “I came to realize that as death approaches [he was fifty-eight] an artist must cast off everything that may be restraining him and create in complete freedom. I decided that I had to do this for myself, to live the rest of my life as I want.”
The way in which Lenny did this was volatile, in a time when the nation as a whole was shifting back toward conservatism after the 1960s.
Lenny and Felicia were both politically active, from opposing the Vietnam war to hosting a meeting to raise bail money for members of the Black Panther Party.
Jennie Tourel said that Bernstein was “deeply troubled about Vietnam, angry and frustrated. He comes into my apartment with this enormous leonine head, in command of the world, and after a few moments he is in tears, about the war, the stupid government and his powerlessness.”
Around this time, Felicia also hosted a meeting to raise bail money for members of the Black Panther Party, where Lenny made some very controversial and easily misconstrued statements.
Tom Wolfe, a well-known journalist at the time, wrote a 24 page article on the meeting, and it developed into a full-blown scandal. Bernstein claimed that he did not support the Black Panthers, only their civil liberties that were compromised by an outrageously high bail.
In 1971, Leonard met Tom Cothran, a young music director at a San Francisco radio station. The two hit it off instantly, with Cothran being a young, expressive person who appealed to, and respected, Lenny’s academic side, while also displaying musical talent himself.
He quickly became part of Lenny’s inner circle, and the family accepted him as Lenny’s friend and associate. Lenny’s relationship with Cothran became his first loving relationship with a man.
Lenny took Cothran on many trips, including one to assist him in writing the Norton Lectures at Harvard and a trip to Washington D.C. to work on a musical titled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Lenny had two other affairs in the early 1970s with Justus Frantz, a pianist who later became romantically involved with Lenny’s daughter Jamie, and Chris Barnes, an African American airline steward. The relationship with Chris Barnes would have been especially controversial due to the compounding effects of the backlash against the civil rights movement and the homosexual nature of the relationship.
Felicia began to openly resent Cothran in the Spring of 1976. Lenny and Felicia decided to separate after some conflict at Alexander’s 21st birthday party in July.
From there, Lenny traveled with Cothran to California, then back to New York, then to Europe, then back to New York, never seeming to stay settled. He spent the holidays with Cothran that winter in Barbados. He resolved to live with Cothran in Palm Springs afterward. Although the two had strong feelings for each other their lifestyles did not match at all, and the relationship ended in February of 1977.
A letter Felicia wrote to Lenny, most likely in early 1977, about the prospect of reconciliation between the two of them can be read here.
Shortly afterward Lenny and Felicia reconciled only to find out that Felicia had late stage lung cancer. Felicia’s died in 1978. Leonard resumed his correspondence with Tom Cothran in 1980, as a close friend looking for comfort in his grieving, only for him to be diagnosed with AIDS later the same year.
Burton describes that through the 1980s “He [Leonard] was especially vulnerable to the charms and musical talents of the young male conductors with whom he worked each year. No doubt he wanted to seduce and possess them, but he loved teaching them even more.”
Matthew Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.
In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series.
Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.