Best Friends Forever: Leonard Bernstein & Adolph Green

February 7, 2009

“I felt a sudden, complete exhuberance, 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.”
– American Lyricist and Playwright Adolph Green, from a letter detailing his first encounter with Leonard Bernstein at Camp Ononta in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Leonard Bernstein circa 1946-1948

Leonard Bernstein circa 1946-1948

Thumbing through the pages of February Vogue, which I bought as a distraction from the flu and because the cover featured a photo of Blake Lively, aka Serena van der Woodsen on the teen primetime soap Gossip Girl, I came across an essay, lovingly crafted by writer Adam Green about his godfather, Leonard Bernstein, and the lifelong friendship Green’s father Adolph and Leonard shared from their first meeting as young men until Bernstein’s death at age 72.

According to Adam Green:

“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.’ Berstein, 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.

Shostakovich Melody

Shostakovich Melody

Moments after they were 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.'”

I was struck with the details that Green gives us of Bernstein, a larger-then life American conductor; the first born and bred American conductor and composer to be taken seriously by the world of classical musicians and fans. But to Green, Bernstein was not only a celebrity but a member of the tribe, a godfather and surrogate uncle, his father’s best friend and a frequent presence from the time he was born to the time he grew up.

He describes going with his father to see Bernstein conduct at Lincoln Center, a frequent childhood outing they shared together. Green recounts:

“I remember having to shush my father, who would be singing and conducting along, and I remember believing that swashbuckling leaps and Byronically tossed forelocks were necessary to the making of great music, a notion that still strikes me as fundamentally sound.

After the concert, we always went backstage, where a crush of people would be waiting for an audience with Bernstein, who, a silver tumbler of scotch in one hand and a cigarette perched between the fingers of another, held court in a state of glamorous dishelvelment, shirt unbuttoned to the navel. He was an infamously profilgate kisser — my father thought someone should make a movie about him called Lips, whose tagline would be ‘He only wanted to say hello.’

When Bernstein inevitably swept me up in his arms, planted a wet one on me, and announced, ‘This is my godson-I held him when he was circumcised,’ it would fill me with that particular mix of warmth and embarrassment that can only be evoked by family.”

Adam realized quickly that “the calculus of my relationship with my father involved finding my own place in their [Adolph and Leonard’s] ancient camaraderie.” And thus his relationship with “Goddaddy Lenny” is as much about his fascination and enchantment with Bernstein as it is about his continuing love and desire to find shared passions with his father, the lesser celebrity but perhaps the larger men.

Adolph Green

Adolph Green

The article follows the frendship from Camp Ononta to the Village Vanguard where Adolph Green along with performers Betty Comden and Judy Holliday would entertain audiences with sketch comedy and songs, often accompanied by Bernstein at the piano.

During this time in the late 30s and early 40s, Bernstein and Green shared “a squalid apartment” on East Ninth where Bernstein once announced to Green “You’re brilliant. It’s too bad you’ll never amount to anything.”

And in 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor for The New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was called in at the last minute to subsitute for conductor Bruno Walter who was ill with the flu. Bernstein was an overnight sensation, hailed by The New York Times as “a good American success story” and recognized instantly since the concert had been nationally broadcast.

Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain

A few years later when Bernstein was asked to create a musical based on Fancy Free, a ballet born out of a collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, Leonard asked Green and Comden to write the book and lyrics which later became On The Town , a musical that was the first in a successful series of plays and films from Singin’ in the Rain to Peter Pan starring Mary Martin that turned the unknown Green into a successful performer on Broadway and in Hollywood.

As Adam grows up, so does the friendship between Leonard and Adolph, weathering professional differences – Green turned down an offer to write the book and lyrics for West Side Story – to personal tradgedies. Adam writes:

“In the mid-seventies, Bernstein briefly left his serenly beautiful Chilean wife, Felicia, for a young man, and somehow my parents managed to remain loyal to both of them. One night a year or so later, when Felicia was dying of cancer, Bernstein wept to my father, blaming himself for her illness. My father rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder and said ‘Leonard, m’boy, I’m afraid you’re being a wee bit self-indulgent.'”

Adam writes of the day to day, year to year memories he saves of Bernstein “presiding rabbinically over hotly debated Passover seders; leading frenzied performances of Christmas carols; dominating cutthroat marathons of Anagrams, jotto, and other harrowing word games” and recalls a night during a party at Berstein’s apartment at the Dakota “a crowd of admirerers hovered nearby while he and I had a long, heated discussion about Nabakov, with whom I, at seventeen, had recently become obsessed. At some point, my parents signaled that it was time to go, and I told him that I was leaving. His eyes flashed and he smacked me across the face, saying ‘Fuck you–we were really talking.'”

candide-2The last collaboration between Leonard and Adolph occurred in the winter of 1989 when Bernstein was conducting a concert version of his opera Candide in London and asked Green the father to sing the part of Dr. Pangloss. “I will never forget watching my father belt out ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds,’ conducted by his best friend, both of them wearing white tie and tails and half-moon reading glasses, tossing their now-white manes theatrically and exchanging sly glances in front of the crowd in London Symphony Hall as if sharing one final private joke.”

Ten months later, Bernstein was dead at 72 from pneumonia and a pleural tumor, a long-time smoker, Bernstein had been suffering from emphysema since his mid-50s.

Adam describes the scene at Bernstein’s deathbed, “looking down at his ashen, lifeless face–eyes closed, mouth slightly open–I felt a sharp intimation of my father’s mortality and turned to him. I expected to see him crying, his features melted in grief, but his face was hard, and he was trembling with anger. ‘OK, Leonard, this isn’t funny,’ he growled. ‘Get up. Get up, goddamn you. This is bullshit.'”

Years later, shortly after Adolph Green died, his son Adam found a letter that he had written on his fiftieth birthday to his best friend Leonard, recalling the night they first met. To the man who opened up 1,000,000 windows, he wrote:

Whatever our ages, + until we stop all walking, we are still taking that walk in the night around the Onota hills. . .How happy your friendship makes me. It fills me with the simple + complicated joy of knowing there can be a meaning to life–,that our haphazard + rambling walk is filled with endless connections into the past + the future.


3 Responses to “Best Friends Forever: Leonard Bernstein & Adolph Green”

  1. Mike Says:

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

    • Bijou Says:

      Mike. Thanks for passing through and thanks for the positive comment about my blog. It is basically my heart and soul on a page and am glad you found it interesting. I’ve been so busy lately (at my real job!) that I haven’t had much time to write but I hope to get back to it this week.

  2. Ken Says:

    Mike, I was trying to find some links to Camp Onota, which I attended in the late 50’s and early 60’s and ran across your post. The reason I went to Camp Onota was that my Dad was the Steward/Head Waiter at Camp Onota in 1937 (he turned 17 that summer) and played clarinet in the band conducted, yes, by Leonard Bernstein. He also remembered Adolph Green but, if I remember correctly, Dad said that Green was the head counselor or at least on staff in some capacity. Since Dad passed away back in 2004, I can’t ask him about it. Incidentally, I met Jaime Bernstein at a party many years ago and mentioned that my Dad had played clarinet for her father. “Oh,” she said, “with the Philharmonic?” When I told her it was the Camp Onota band, she started laughing and told me that her father had an evening’s worth of Camp Onota stories. Anyway, I thought I’d pass this along. Best regards.

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