When I first thought about writing Leonard Bernstein and American Music, I had just finished work on a young adult biography of Ernest Hemingway, whose story was a sad one. Here was a charismatic young man full of promise who became an important and influential literary figure, but who fell victim to alcoholism and mental illness. Finally he could no longer resist the urge to take his own life. I had seen Hemingway through to that lonely, terrible end, and as I’m sure you can imagine, I needed a lift. I found it in Bernstein, a person who embraced life and brought joy to millions through his music. Bernstein had his low moments, as do we all, but his unwavering message was hope.
To write a biography is to face a challenge: how do I help readers experience my subject as a human being—not just as an outstanding man or woman who made a lasting contribution, but as someone with a family and friends, a person with likes and dislikes, someone who made mistakes, faced obstacles, and overcame them? Did my subject have a quick wit or a quick temper? Was he or she an optimist at heart or prone to depression? What were the subject’s quirks? When writing a biography I am doing so much more than presenting facts. I am creating a work of literature, a portrait in words.
I have often remarked on the similarities between fiction and nonfiction. Of course, novelists are free to make things up, whereas biographers must stick to the facts, but both novelists and biographers want to tell a good story. Both groups are concerned with setting, with sketching in the places where their stories take place, and with giving the reader some understanding of the larger society and what was happening in the world. Novelists and biographers also people their stories—with characters on the one hand, and with subjects on the other.
Before I begin writing, I listen to my subjects, because often they simply tell me what makes them tick. “There was no question in my mind that my life was to be about music,” Bernstein said when he was approaching age seventy and recalling his ten-year-old self. It’s a strong statement, one that reveals how profoundly music mattered to him. He and music were inseparable; without music, there would have been no Leonard Bernstein.
Direct quotations such as this one go a long way toward bringing a subject to life. I could write, for example, that Bernstein felt compelled to reach others through music. But we get a better sense of that need, and of his warm, high-powered, exuberant personality, if we hear him say, “The original energizing motor that makes me compose is the urge to communicate, and to communicate with as many people as possible, because what I love about life and the world is people.”
Quotes from individuals who knew the subject help round out the portrait. Consider, for example, two observations of Bernstein the conductor at work. “Lenny conducts with a look of angelic peace on his face,” remarked Bernstein’s longtime friend Adolph Green. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said that while watching Bernstein conduct a composer’s music, “I frequently had the sense that he was the composer for those moments.” These two quotations allow readers to see in their minds Bernstein at the podium and to understand how intimately he identified with the music he was interpreting.
Anecdotes—those brief, often amusing stories recounted by families, colleagues, and friends—offer a candid look at a subject at home or at work. Stories told about Bernstein reveal that although he worked long and hard, his joy was contagious; it was fun to be with him. There’s the one about Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, two young artists and pals, sharing a hospital room when they each underwent minor surgery. So many friends dropped in to chat and play cards that all the talk and laughter caused the nurses to complain. And then there’s the one about an older Bernstein, now a husband and father, writing his Kaddish Symphony at his home in Connecticut. When he announced to his family that he had finished, his wife, Felicia, expressed her happiness by leaping fully clothed into the swimming pool.
Let’s not forget those telling details, the habits and preferences that mark us as unique human beings. Bernstein, for example, owned a pair of cufflinks that had belonged to his late mentor, the great conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Bernstein wore these cufflinks when he performed and kissed them for luck before stepping onstage. I also enjoyed learning that when he and his siblings got together as adults, they chattered to one another in Rybernian, a language Bernstein and his friend Eddie Ryack had invented as children.
So: can biography be reduced to a basic recipe? Describe the significant events in a subject’s life, put them against a background of place and time, add quotations from the subject and people who knew him or her, throw in a few anecdotes and details, mix everything up, and serve it in a book? If only writing a biography were that simple! In truth, a biographer faces the biggest challenge when all the facts have been gathered and organized, and all the quotations have been selected. The time has then come to create, to use language to build a compelling narrative and breathe life into the person whose story is being told. Writing biography will forever be an art.