Photo by Hans Peters on Wikimedia Commons

Did Leonard Bernstein’s Wife Know He Was Gay?

“Every one I love, I love passionately.” – Leonard Bernstein

Nigel Simeone

Music was Bernstein’s greatest and most constant passion. But his love life was an essential part of his make-up, and his letters allow us to form a fuller picture of an emotional life that was full of twists and turns – neatly summarized by the conducter Marin Alsop in 2010: “Clearly, he was comfortable with being sexual in many different ways and yet he wanted a traditional life, with a wife and children to whom he was devoted. He was a complex, complex man, and complex people have complex personal lives.”1 Intriguing as the letters are from those (usually men) with whom Bernstein had relationships during the 1940s, I have chosen instead to focus on Bernstein’s own attitude to his sexuality, and its implications for his career. In correspondence with Copland and David Oppenheim in particular, and in some letters to his sister Shirley and to Diamond, he explores his sexual identity, often revealing a state of confusion and inner conflict. On the one hand, his background inculcated traditional values and relationships – ultimately marriage; on the other, his preferences in the 1940s were usually for men. Once his college studies were over, he began a process of self-exploration with the psychoanalyst he called the “Frau” – Marketa Morris. As we can see from their letters, he shared the same analyst with Oppenheim (with whom Bernstein had a close, surely intimate relationship in the early 1940s; their friendship was lifelong).

It’s no surprise that Bernstein remained silent on the subject of his sexuality in letters to Koussevitzky – until, that is, he proudly announced his first engagement to Felicia in December 1946, suggesting a picture of his sexuality that was at best incomplete. Bernstein himself was anxious that his sex life might have a damaging impact on his employment prospects, fearing he could have difficulty finding a job as a conductor if it became known that he was gay.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the cultural and social context that gave Bernstein such concern about how others might view his sexuality. Many American psychoanalysts in the 1930s and 1940s considered homosexuality to be a mental illness that could respond to “treatment”. The research by Alfred Kinsey and others published in 1948 as Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (the first “Kinsey Report”) attempted to codify degrees of homosexual, heterosexual, and asexual behavior in men with the “Kinsey Scale”, aiming to demonstrate that men did not fit into neat and exclusive categories.2

There was a predictably violent reaction to Kinsey’s findings: among others, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, was quick to denounce the findings in the pages of Reader’s Digest: “Man’s sense of decency declares what is normal and what is not. Whenever the American people, young or old, come to believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong, normal or abnormal, those who would destroy civilization will applaud a major victory over our way of life.”3 In other words, homosexuality, like communism, was “Un-American”. Two years later, in December 1950, the austerely named Senate Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments issued a report on the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government,” coming to the hair-raising conclusion that “homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in Government for two reasons; first, they are generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute security risks.”4

Bernstein was not, of course, seeking employment in the government, but he craved acceptance. There’s little solid evidence to suggest that conductors were not appointed to particular positions because of their homosexuality in the 1940s and 1950s, though Dimitri Mitropoulos apparently believed he had been victimized. But several of the most highly regarded figures in the arts were homosexuals, not least Aaron Copland, who had, by the mid-1940s, become the most popular and distinctive voice in American classical music. Bernstein, however, aspired to be the music director of a major American orchestra and felt– rightly or wrongly – that he needed to demonstrate he was a conventional, traditional family man. Despite Bernstein’s frequent protestations that he craved the more private life of a composer (where his sexuality would not have been an issue), he could never let go of conducting as an essential part of his career.

What he didn’t need to worry about as much was the possible impact his sexuality might have on his marriage – at least not as far as his chosen partner, Felicia Montealegre, was concerned. She knew what she was committing herself to: just after they married, she wrote: “you are a homosexual and may never change [. . .] I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar (Letter 320).”

After a shaky start (mainly due to Bernstein’s initial tendency to regard marriage as a kind of experiment), the relationship of Leonard and Felicia blossomed – particularly after Jamie, the first of their children, was born in 1952. An exceptionally bright child, it’s clear from Bernstein’s letters home how much he adored her. The same love shines through in Bernstein’s comments on all his children (Jamie, Alexander, and Nina); and his absolute devotion to Felicia is apparent in many letters from the early 1950s until the mid-1970s. It was a relationship that had its rocky moments, but only with the crisis of 1976 and their “trial separation” did it threaten to fall apart. At the end of his life, Bernstein joked to Jonathan Cott that “you need love, and that’s why I have ten thousand intimate friends which is unfair to them because I can’t give any one of them everything”.5 But for a quarter of a century, Felicia was the exception: she was unquestionably the greatest love of his life.

1. Dougary, Ginny (2010): “Leonard Bernstein: Charismatic, Pompous – and a Great Father,” The Times (London), 13 March. Online version at, accessed 19 March 2013.

2. Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin (1948): Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

3. J. Edgar Hoover, contribution to “Must We Change our Sex Standards?”, Reader’s Digest, June 1948, p. 6.

4. This report is reprinted in Foster, Thomas A., ed. (2013): Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 144–7. According to an editorial note (p. 144): “More homosexuals than communists were fired from federal jobs in this period [the 1950s].”

5. Cott, Jonathan (2013): Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein. New York: Oxford University Press.

From The Leonard Bernstein Letters by Leonard Bernstein, edited by Nigel Simeone. Published by Yale University Press in 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Nigel Simeone is well known as a writer and speaker on music and is the author of several books including Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story. He lives in Northamptonshire, UK.

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