He was in Boston for the premiere of a piece he had written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But at that particular moment, he was being initiated as an honorary member of the Harvard Krokodiloes.
Although best known for a number of legendary contributions to modern music—from his opera, “Candide,” to the music of “West Side Story”—strange anecdotes like this one, so revelatory of Bernstein’s artistic origins in Boston and at Harvard, have gone largely undocumented.
But next week, Harvard will be hosting a weekend-long festival to celebrate the Jewish and Bostonian origins of Bernstein, who died in 1990.
According to those who knew him, Bernstein’s blinding intellect was matched only by his wild lifestyle.
SCOTCH ON THE KROKS
Gordon M. Bloom ’82, a former member of a capella group the Krokodiloes, says that Bernstein had heard the Kroks singing in the street as they went by the Lowell rooms where he was staying. He invited them up, yelling down that their singing was "fan-fucking-tastic!"
As always with Bernstein, flirtation and Balantine’s Scotch were abundant. Nevertheless, the theme of the evening was music.
In exchange for his honorary membership, he decided to compose a new song for the Kroks, called "Screwed on Wrong," a brilliant but devilishly difficult number.
Bloom says they sang everything they knew to Bernstein, who in turn played snippets of songs he was composing. Though it was past midnight and Bernstein was 62, he was indefatigable—reliving his undergraduate days when he would stay up all night talking, playing music, and drinking beer.
Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939 with a degree in Music and seemed to always be drawn back to Cambridge. "For all that has been written about Bernstein, his early, formative years…haven’t been researched fully," says Jack Megan, the director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA) and co-producer of the festival along with the Department of Music.
"As we peeled back the layers of this man, and his music, we discovered new dimensions, new fascinations," Megan says.
JUDAISM AND SEXUALITY
Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935. He had grown up nearby in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as the son of a well-off Jewish immigrant family.
In the 1930’s, Harvard was not welcoming to Jews, says fellow composer Harold S, Shapero ’41, a friend of Bernstein’s in Eliot House.
"I would say that Harvard was pervaded by anti-Semitism at that point," Shapero recalled in an interview last spring with the OFA.
The music world, however, was full of gifted and influential Jews at the time, such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Arnold Shoenberg, and Marc Blitzstein.
According to biographers, Bernstein knew that he was bisexual by the time he arrived at Harvard and lived in an era when homosexuality was socially unacceptable.
Myron Simons ’40, who lived downstairs from Bernstein in Eliot House describes an incident in which a professor "sent over his Steinway to replace Lenny’s $20 beat up piano."
Simons recalls that Bernstein’s roommate then "started circulating rumors around college that Lenny had ulterior motives, sexual motives. Lenny and I stayed up all night waiting for [the roommate] to come back to beat him up."
"It wasn’t as easy to be bisexual as it is now, and it was nasty talk if someone talked about it, so we didn’t talk about it," he says.
PRE-PROFESSIONAL AT HARVARD
Rumors aside, Bernstein was making a name for himself at Harvard.
"He was already—not, I wouldn’t say famous. I mean, he definitely wasn’t Leonard Bernstein yet, but he was playing piano concertos or solos," recalls Shapero.
Bernstein was largely indifferent to his classes, managing good grades despite skipping most lectures. He was extremely involved in music on campus, playing piano for the Glee Club (before being fired for being late to rehearsal), putting on concerts, and playing the accompaniment to silent movies in Sanders Theater, according to William Powell Mason Professor of Music Carol Oja, who is also co-director of the festival.