From humble beginnings to Leonard Bernstein the legend
The exclamation points jump off the page as the teenager describes his family’s move from Roxbury to a new brick home in the suburbs.
“You should see the place! It’s bigger, I think, than the two-family home I lived in last year,” Leonard Bernstein wrote to his friend Sid Ramin in 1933. “It is beautiful in Newton! Our house couldn’t be gorgeouser than it is. And guess what!! I’m getting an organ for Newton!!!!”
The organ idea may have been far-fetched, but as Bernstein’s hard-working immigrant parents ascended the economic ladder in Greater Boston, their eldest son was laying the groundwork for his own improbable rise.
Much to the surprise of his father, the boy who first practiced on a secondhand piano and produced opera spoofs with neighborhood kids turned out to be one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.
On Aug. 25 this year, Leonard Bernstein — world-famous conductor and composer of “West Side Story” — would have turned 100. He died in 1990.
In many ways, the Bernstein family’s experience mirrored that of other Jewish immigrants to the Boston area in the early 20th century.
Leonard’s father, Samuel, left a shtetl in the Ukraine in 1908 as a teenager, according to a biography by Humphrey Burton. He worked his way up from cleaning fish in New York to launching the Boston-based Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Supply Company. Whatever spare time he had was spent studying the Talmud.
Leonard’s mother, Jennie, was also from the Ukraine. Her family settled in Lawrence, where they worked in the textile mills.
Toward the end of her first pregnancy, Jennie went to stay with her parents in Lawrence, where Leonard was born. The sickly infant was nurtured at his grandparents’ home until he was deemed strong enough to join Sam in Mattapan, according to Burton Bernstein, the composer’s brother, in his memoir, “Family Matters.”
As Leonard’s father strove for success, the Bernstein family moved almost every year: from Mattapan to Allston to Revere, back to Mattapan, and then Roxbury, where they had five different addresses.
“This was the immigrant experience — ups and downs, hopes and disappointments — on steroids,” said Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University. “The family only settled down when the business was secure.”
At one of those apartments, Aunt Clara, who was going through a divorce, deposited her ancient upright piano in the front hall. For Leonard, who was 10, this was kismet.
“He was absolutely obsessed with music from the moment Aunt Clara’s piano arrived in the front hall,” Leonard’s daughter Jamie said in an interview. “He just knew he had to be a musician.”
Bernstein taught himself to play by ear and eventually asked for lessons. His parents found a neighbor’s daughter to teach him for $1 a lesson, and he quickly outpaced her. Leonard found a new teacher at the New England Conservatory, but she charged $3 an hour.
His father refused to foot the bill, fearful that his son might pursue a career as a musician.
“As far as Sam was concerned,” Jamie Bernstein said, “a musician meant being a klezmer who shlepped from village to village with his little fiddle and played at a wedding or bar mitzvah and got a bowl of soup and a few coins.”
To pay for the lessons himself, Leonard began giving piano lessons to children of friends and neighbors in Roxbury. On weekends, he worked with a little jazz band, playing weddings on broken pianos.
Impressed with Lenny’s poise and accomplishment at his bar mitzvah — he delivered his speech in both English and Hebrew — Sam bought him a baby grand piano, according to the Burton biography.
Aunt Clara’s upright became the backup piano. It’s now property of Brandeis University in Waltham, where Bernstein taught from 1951 to 1956.
The piano “reminds us of the tremendous life force that music was for Bernstein,” said Ingrid Schorr, director of the Brandeis Office of the Arts. “Playing the piano was one of the great joys of his life.”
Eventually, Sam Bernstein had earned enough to build two family houses: a 10-room red brick Colonial in Newton and a summer cottage in Sharon. Leonard was 15 when the Bernsteins moved to Newton, and the family paid $100 per term so he could finish high school at the Boston Latin School.
Jennie fussed over her son. Their Newton neighbors sometimes called to complain about his practicing the piano when they were trying to sleep. “So you know what I said to them?” Jennie boasted, according to Burton’s biography. “‘Someday you’re going to pay to hear him.’ And they did.”
During summers near the lake in Sharon, there was community and music. While Sam helped establish Temple Adath Sharon, Lenny produced operas with his sister, Shirley, and the neighborhood kids. Rehearsals were in the Bernstein living room — some 30-odd kids piled on the furniture and spread out on the floor, singing at the top of their lungs to Lenny’s direction.
A star student even at Boston Latin, Leonard went on to Harvard, close enough to come home on some weekends. In 1941, the Bernsteins sold the Newton house, and moved full time to Sharon.
There’s no evidence Leonard ever got that organ. But it wasn’t long before his talent and ambition were rewarded.
In a nationally broadcast radio concert in 1943, he stepped in for the ailing conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and the 25-year-old became an overnight star. After the concert, as the story goes, a journalist approached Samuel and asked: “Is it true that you wouldn’t pay for your son’s piano lessons?”
Sam responded: “How was I to know he’d become Leonard Bernstein?”
Judith Kogan is a harpist and radio journalist who has written extensively about classical music.