A year before he died from emphysema in 1990, the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein agreed to be interviewed by the music journalist Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone. Dinner with Lenny (OUP, £16.99) is the transcription of their 12-hour conversation, in which Bernstein’s frenetic energy — ‘Byronic intensity’ is how Cott puts it — is as vividly evident as his relentless egocentricity and unctuous if irresistible charm.
Topics range from Beethoven’s Seventh to West Side Story via Mahler and Glenn Gould, but although Cott poses deft and intelligent questions, little emerges in the way of sustained musical analysis or original insight, and Bernstein proves much more engaging and illuminating when he is talking generally about his ‘quasi-rabbinical instinct’ for teaching and communicating his enthusiasms to the young and uninitiated.
The complexities of his sexual life are not touched on, but his liberal political views do pop up, notably when he attacks ‘the brainlessness, the mindlessness, the carelessness and the heedlessness of the Reagans of this world’ and defends himself from Tom Wolfe’s charge that he was a shallow ‘radical chic’ supporter of the Black Panthers and other fashionable causes of the Sixties.
Anecdotes flow as freely as the casual obscenities and gushing Yiddish emoting. The most telling quip comes in Cott’s perceptive introduction: just before a concert at the Vatican, followed by an audience with the Pope, a well-wishing friend sent Bernstein a telegram: ‘Remember: the ring, not the lips.’