On her 25th birthday in February 1947, Felicia Montealegre sent a giddy letter to her new fiancé.
“Lenny, my darling, my darling!” she wrote. “I am a quarter of a century old, a very frightening fact!” Recent developments, she went on, included the arrival of a black cocker spaniel puppy (“She’s mine, my very own!”) and an impending driver’s license exam (“I drive alone all over the place, up hill and down dale, heavy traffic and all—and I’m great! So there!!”).
Felicia, an actress, had been engaged to Leonard Bernstein, the 28-year-old wunderkind composer and conductor, for two months. She was, like most everyone in the man’s orbit, perilously in love with him. Still, beneath the bubbly, starry-eyed adoration, she felt something was amiss.
“What’s with you?” she wrote. “You never really tell me how you feel—is it that difficult?”
Come fall, the engagement was off. Then, after a four-year interlude, it was back on. A wedding quickly followed.
Yet the biggest obstacle remained: Bernstein, a closeted bisexual man, had always conducted numerous affairs with both men and women. In 1947, the secrecy had been evidently too heavy for the relationship to bear.
By 1951, Felicia decided she had found a way to tolerate it. “I’ve done a lot of thinking and have decided that it’s not such a mess after all,” she wrote in a letter to her new husband late that year or early in 1952. “You are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do?”
The deal was that Bernstein could pursue relationships with men, but discretion would be paramount. Felicia hoped that by removing his tensions, hers, too, would vanish. In the now-famous missive, she described a companionship that “probably no one else may be able to offer,” built not on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect.
“I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar,” she wrote. “Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!”
She added, “In any case my dearest darling ape, let’s give it a whirl.”
Bernstein’s relationship with Felicia
The Bernsteins’ secret agreement forms the spine of Maestro, a new biographical drama fictionalizing the couple’s 27-year marriage. The film is co-written and directed by Bradley Cooper, who also stars as Bernstein; Carey Mulligan portrays Felicia. Maestro arrives in select theaters November 22 and starts streaming on Netflix on December 20.
The film touches on Bernstein’s family, his biggest career highlights and his Jewish roots (a mentor once suggested he change his name to “Burns,” as he would “never see the name ‘Leonard Bernstein’ on the marquee outside Carnegie Hall”), but its chief concern is the musician’s marriage.
Singer drew on a trove of source material that was released in 2010, when the composer’s estate donated 1,800 letters to the sprawling Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress. Much of what is known about Bernstein’s personal struggles—including the pivotal letter laying out the deal with his wife—comes from these letters, which his family had sealed upon his death in 1990.
Bernstein and Felicia met at a party in 1946. The couple’s early letters hint at a rocky start, built on an undercurrent of uncertainty and a series of whiplash-inducing reversals.
“I was so happy to receive your ‘note’—I was just a little hurt at your not saying goodbye,” Felicia wrote that summer, when Bernstein traveled to London. “You see, dear, even though I know you are terribly busy and ‘confused,’ I still halfheartedly hope you’ll remember my existence without me forever reminding you.”
Come winter, the composer didn’t appear to need reminding. “Felicia is really working out,” he wrote to his sister, Shirley. Two weeks later, he told his longtime secretary, Helen Coates: “I’m toying with the notion of becoming engaged to Felicia.” Within days, the deed was done.
That summer, Bernstein began having troubling dreams. His psychoanalyst, Marketa Morris, told the rising star the dreams betrayed confusion: “You are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia, and the day she leaves, you have to see a boy. The same old pattern.”
The engagement lasted nearly a year. But in the fall of 1947, a gossip column in the Journal-American reported that “Leonard Bernstein’s matrimonial plans have been canceled.”
Bernstein kept busy during the couple’s four years apart. In 1948, he flew to the newly formed Israel, where he conducted a historic concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He made his first televised appearance in 1949, when he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. In 1950, he composed music for a Broadway production of Peter Pan.
Around this time, Bernstein found himself thinking a lot about his former fiancée. He “had decided that he needed Felicia in his life—though he seemed unable to tell her directly,” writes editor Nigel Simeone in The Leonard Bernstein Letters.
He wrote long letters to his sister, explaining that he couldn’t shake the belief that he and Felica had a future together: house, children, travel—the works. By night, he dreamed that he’d found Felicia and solved all of their problems. By day, he imagined Felicia flying to Israel and marrying him in Jerusalem. Marrying in 1947 would have been a mistake, he acknowledged, but now they were older. He described a sudden intuition that Felicia was in trouble, that she needed someone. He wanted to be that person.
“Ever since I left America, she has occupied my thoughts uninterruptedly, and I have come to a fabulously clear realization of what she means—and has always meant—to me,” he wrote. “I have loved her, despite all the blocks that have consistently impaired my loving-mechanism, truly and deeply from the first. Lonely on the sea, my thoughts were only of her. Other girls (and/or boys) meant nothing.”
Caught between composing and conducting
Conflicting desires would come to define Bernstein’s career, as well as his marriage. The mercurial musician often found himself caught between two great loves: conducting and composing.
He owed his big break to the former. In 1943, a guest conductor at Carnegie Hall fell ill, and Bernstein, the 25-year-old assistant conductor, was asked to step in at the last minute, with no rehearsal, for a concert that very evening. His performance astounded, and his career took off.
“The conductor must not only make his orchestra play, he must make them want to play,” Bernstein once said. The act of conducting came naturally to him. Composing, however, was painstakingly hard. Even so, he believed his composing was his most important creative pursuit.
“It was like he was two different people trapped in one body,” his daughter Jamie Bernstein told the Guardian in 2018. “There was the gregarious side who was always the last one standing at the party—that was the conductor and teacher in him; but then there was the composer side—and to compose you need solitude. Composing was always a tortuous process. He hated being alone, but he had to do it. He thought of himself primarily as a composer.”
Bernstein himself drew similar connections. He lived one life performing at the podium, flanked by an adoring audience and a legion of lovers. He lived another composing in his home studio, emerging to find his adoring wife and children. In a 1950 letter to his sister, as he found himself drawn back toward Felicia, he wrote of a sense that he was “through … with the conductor-performer life.” He reckoned he’d never be completely done with conducting, but that it would never match the “intensity and emphasis” of the last seven years following his Carnegie Hall performance.
Instead, he felt he was ready for “inner living,” he wrote, “which means composing and Felicia.”
Following the 1951 wedding, Bernstein’s creative output soared. While honeymooning with Felicia in Mexico, he composed a one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, which debuted at his newly founded arts festival at Brandeis University in 1952. In the years that followed, he scored several of his biggest Broadway hits—Wonderful Town opened in 1953, followed by Candide in 1956—as well as music for the film On the Waterfront, which premiered in 1954.
All the while, Bernstein began scoring a new musical: West Side Story, a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that would become his career-defining achievement. In early iterations, the project, originally titled East Side Story, focused on tensions between Jews and Irish Catholics. Later, the warring groups became rival gangs on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Throughout production, Bernstein clashed with other members of the creative team—including the musical’s 27-year-old lyricist, Stephen Sondheim—who tried to tone down his sweeping score. The composer was appalled by these attempts to rein him in, which he bemoaned in long letters to Felicia.
“The show—ah yes. I am depressed with it,” he wrote in July 1957. “All the aspects of the score I like best—the big, poetic parts—get criticized as ‘operatic’—and there’s a concerted move to chuck them. What’s the use? The 24-hour schedule goes on—I am tired and nervous and apey.”
Felicia responded with fierce encouragement: “Don’t give up the ship, Lennuhtt. Fight for what you think is right—you are so far ahead of all that mediocrity, and in the long run, they’re only interested in the ‘hit’ aspect of the theater. What you wrote was important and beautiful. I can’t bear it if they chuck it out—that is what gave the show its stature, its personality, its poetry for heaven’s sake!”
The couple’s correspondence during this period is warm, effusive and deeply loving. “You reside at the very core of my life, my darling,” Bernstein told his wife in one letter. In another, he said, “I’m endlessly lucky in you, and lucky that you’ve been strong enough to stick out the bad times.”
The dissolution of the deal
In this period, Bernstein’s devotion to “inner living”—to “composing and Felicia”—began to wane. Just as he was wrapping up West Side Story, he was named music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he would hold until 1969. “I’m going to be a conductor, after all!” he wrote to his wife.
In the years that followed, the couple raised three children and retained a deep devotion to each other. Bernstein also continued to have affairs; Felicia “accepts his occasional dalliances with men so long as he’s discreet,” writes the New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan. “The problem is, he isn’t.”
Bernstein’s indiscretion began to take a toll on his family. As his children grew older, they heard rumors about their father. Jamie, his oldest, confronted him and asked for the truth. She would not get it. Bernstein denied the rumors, a decision Jamie believes was her mother’s. Felicia grew increasingly frustrated at her husband’s sloppiness, which she saw as a betrayal of their agreement.
“My mother was a fairly conventional lady and so she expected to be treated like one,” the couple’s younger daughter, Nina, told the London Times in 2010. “The deal was that he would be discreet and that she would maintain her dignity.”
Around 1976, Felicia gave Bernstein an ultimatum: If he wanted to come back home, he must stop seeing his young lover, Tom Cothran, alone. Bernstein picked Cothran and moved out. Distraught, his wife told him he would “die a bitter and lonely old man” (or, according to other accounts, “a lonely, bitter old queen”). The marriage’s demise was a major news story, with Newsweek reporting a “trial separation, with no divorce planned.”
As he settled in with Cothran, Bernstein was, once again, “caught in a depressed turmoil of drives and choices,” he wrote to a friend. “As of this minute, I don’t know what to do.” Just as in 1950, when he confessed his regrets about his ex-fiancée, Bernstein sought a reconciliation.
Soon after, Felicia, a heavy smoker for many years, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The timing was cruel for Felicia, who was still reeling from the betrayal, and for Bernstein, who couldn’t shake the notion that his callousness had caused her physical demise. He devoted himself to Felicia until her death at age 56 in 1978.
“His sense of guilt never left him,” wrote Humphrey Burton in his biography of Bernstein. “Felicia was the greatest love of his life. He never recovered from her loss.”
Maestro’s final scene finds an older Bernstein sitting at his piano during an interview. Felicia is not far from his mind. He repeats a line his wife said to him earlier in the film: “If summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you. And if nothing sings in you, then you can’t make music.”
In reality, these words can be traced to a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” which Bernstein composed a setting for as part of a 1977 song cycle. The poem’s final lines are:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Bernstein returned to these lines in 1979, the year after Felicia’s death. “Summer still sings in me,” he told journalist Mike Wallace. “Not so often as it used to, but it sure does.”
The last years of Bernstein’s life
During the final decade of his life, Bernstein produced several significant new works, led orchestras around the world and co-founded three music academies. He continued to pursue relationships with men, but “neither time nor music healed Bernstein’s grief” following Felicia’s death, writes Burton. His many contradictions persisted, as did his fruitless attempts to reconcile them.
As the New York Times magazine wrote in 1986, “One finds oneself wishing that he can knit it all together, that he can achieve his lifelong goal of combining the classical and popular, traditional and daring, creative and re-creative, intellectual and emotional, social and solitary.”
Throughout his career, Bernstein often spoke of such notions in musical terms. In 1958, he gave a lecture titled “What Makes Music Symphonic?” The answer, he told the audience, has to do with the word “development.” He explained that the basis of all development is repetition, but repetition requires variation; something has to change. The change, meanwhile, must be beautiful. That’s why Brahms is so great, Bernstein argued; his music “doesn’t just change, it changes beautifully,” each musical expression evolving in tandem into a full-grown work.
“You see,” he added, “development is really the main thing in life, just as it is in music, because development means change, growing, blossoming out.”
Perhaps Bernstein wasn’t, as his psychoanalyst once remarked, simply repeating the “same old pattern,” but was instead attempting to bring a symphonic cohesion to his conflicting drives and desires.
And perhaps, outside of his musical pursuits, Bernstein was no Brahms.