DINNER WITH LENNY: THE LAST LONG INTERVIEW WITH LEONARD BERNSTEIN.
By Jonathan Cott. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 208 pp. Hardcover. $24.95
Jonthan Cott somehow talked Leonard Bernstein into giving an interview long after Bernstein had foresworn interviews. Bernstein invited Cott to dinner at his Connecticut home on November 20, 1989, and they talked for 12 hours, with Cott’s tape recorder listening in. This book is an edited portion of that conversation. It is a quick read, both for the barn-burner style of conversation and for its brevity. The review copy is a paperback “Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy” of 172 pages, with 1.5 line spacing and wide margins. Twenty two of the 172 pages are spent on a “Prelude,” 22 more on a Postlude, acknowledgments, notes, and selected bibliographies of books by and about Bernstein. There will be many photographs, none of which are in my copy. Being an actual conversation, the style is chatty and lively; being Bernstein, it is also alternately scholarly and infantile, charming and revolting, deeply philosophical and pure psychobabble. The title pages of the conversation and its postlude carry images of wet rings on a table; the long evening was laced with liquor, so the first half contains facts and reason which degenerate into fancy and speculation.
What the reader will get out of the book depends on what he puts in: If you know all the Bernstein stories, there may not be much new here—but you probably will be thoroughly entertained. I was about half prepared: I attended many Bernstein concerts and have closely followed his recordings (to the extent of creating a discography of his New York Philharmonic ones), but I have not read the biographies. I found most interesting the media myths that Bernstein was trying to put to rest. I had always wondered about the Gould/Bernstein Brahms First Concerto: The issued recording of the live performance takes only 53 minutes, in an era when 48 to 50 was the norm. How come all the fuss about it being impossibly slow? It turns out that the much trashed performance was on Thursday; LB says it took an hour and a half. On Friday, Gould more or less followed the conductor, and that is the 53 minutes on the record. So the commercial issue is a fraud: It is NOT the widely damned performance. Not having a copy on hand, I don’t know what it claims to be, but its issue and sale were certainly predicated on the scandal. And that off-the-cuff speech that Bernstein gave before the performance? It was crafted jointly by Gould and Bernstein the day before, and written down at the time. The myth of Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers is also exploded; but of course the media version will be impossible to erase from history. Other readers will no doubt find similar cases in which the real story (or at least Bernstein’s version) is revealed to them. Do you know the one about Michael Jackson and Pope Paul VI? I recommend this little book with the above caveats. Whether or not it is worth your $25 I cannot say.
James H. North