From the Vogue Archives: My Father’s Best Friend, Leonard Bernstein

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That literal passing of the baton did not, I’m sorry to say, lead to a brilliant musical career—my desultory efforts as a piano student remain a blot on the family escutcheon—but it was not without symbolism. It connected me to my father’s best friend and to the years of private jokes, mutual enthusiasms, and bursts of creativity that bound them together. Somehow, I knew that the calculus of my relationship with my father involved finding my own place in their ancient camaraderie.

That friendship was born in the summer of 1937 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at Camp Onota, which my father later dubbed “Uncle Lou’s Heavenly Haven for Healthily Well-Fed Young Hebrews.” Bernstein, who had just finished his sophomore year at Harvard, was the camp’s music counselor; my father, a self-described aimless bum at the age of 22, had been invited by a friend to guest star as the Pirate King in the camp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. Moments after they had been introduced, Bernstein, who had heard about my father’s uncanny knowledge of classical music, dragged him into the dining hall and challenged him to identify a Shostakovich melody, which he played on an upright piano. After a few bars, my father said, “I don’t know what that is, but it’s not Shostakovich.” Bernstein leaped up, threw his arms around him, and confessed that it was a piece he himself had written.

Late into the night, they wandered through the hills surrounding the camp, singing each other snatches of music, impressing each other with esoteric bits of knowledge, and discovering their common love of everything from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat to an obscure novelty song called “I Wish That I’d Been Born in Borneo.” Recalling their meeting years later in a letter, my father wrote, “I felt a sudden, complete exuberance, the fresh air of 1,000,000 windows opening simultaneously + a sense that my life had been building towards a turning point + that it had happened—now.”

By the time Bernstein graduated from Harvard, Betty Comden, Judy Holliday, and my father were performing satirical sketches and songs at the Village Vanguard. Bernstein moved to New York, occasionally playing piano for the Revuers, as the troupe was known, and sharing a squalid apartment with my father on East Ninth Street, where they lived, I’ve been told, with a contempt for property and hygiene that bordered on the criminal.

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Jose Reber

Jose Reber is a professional writer based in Wisconsin. He guides editorial teams consisting of writers across the US to help them become more skilled and diverse writers. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his wife and children.

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