Leonard Bernstein became one of the most successful musicians in American history, conducting the New York Philharmonic for years and composing works for the musical theatre, including MASS, West Side Story, Candide and On the Town. He also composed three symphonies, lectured about classical music on television, wrote books and worked for social justice.
His father wanted him to sell hair products.
Young Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein was born on Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass., to Samuel and Jennie Bernstein. Only his name wasn’t Leonard. It was Louis, the name his grandmother insisted on. His family always called him Lenny, and he officially changed his name to Leonard when he was 15, after his grandmother died.
Jennie Bernstein came to Massachusetts from Ukraine as a young girl and worked in the textile mills to help support her family.
Samuel Bernstein left his shtetl in the Ukraine and immigrated to New York at 16. He eventually got a job selling hair supplies in Boston, and in 1923 he started his own business. He sold wigs to Orthodox Jewish women who were required to keep their hair covered.
In 1927 he bought a license to sell the Frederics Permanent Wave machine for curling hair – the only one in New England. His business took off, and the family moved to better neighborhoods near Boston as their fortunes improved.
While Leonard Bernstein was growing up, his most important musical influence came from the synagogue. He was deeply moved by the organ and choir music played during services at Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill. It was the first real music he heard, he said.
By the time Lenny turned nine, the family was living in Roxbury.
A relative gave them a battered old piano, and Lenny became obsessed with it. He took piano lessons from a neighbor, who soon said he needed more advanced instruction. His father didn’t want to pay the $3 a week for piano lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music.
A Cocktail Lounge Piano Player?
His father consistently opposed his interest in a music career, fearing he would end up like a klezmer – a poor wandering street musician in his native Ukraine. Sam thought an American Jewish kid didn’t have a chance in the field of classical music because it was dominated by Europeans. He figured his son would probably end up playing piano in cocktail lounges.
Sam also wanted his eldest son to join him in his increasingly successful business.
Lenny attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, where he excelled academically. He graduated from Boston Latin in 1935 and entered Harvard, where he majored in music. His father still wanted him to join him in his hair products business. Lenny wanted music.
After graduating from Harvard with honors, he enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to study conducting. He moved to New York briefly, then in 1940 enrolled in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer school at Tanglewood under Serge Koussevitsky.
His father still pressured him to give up music for the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company.
No Hair Products for Lenny
Lenny refused, returning to Tanglewood the next summer as Koussevitsky’s conducting assistant. After that summer, he vowed to return to New York to seek his fortune.
On Nov. 14, 1943, he made his debut conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, as the conductor had come down with the flu. He was on his way.
Much later, in 1958, his father told the New Yorker, “Every genius had a handicap. Beethoven was deaf. Chopin had tuberculosis. Well, someday the books will say, ‘Leonard Bernstein had a father’.”
Leonard Bernstein died on Oct. 14, 1990.
With thanks to Music Was IT: Young Leonard Bernstein: Young Leonard Bernstein, by Susan Goldman Rubin and Jill Rubalcaba. Photo: This story was updated in 2018.