Letter to his girlfriend written while he was at Harvard

Signed by Leonard Bernstein

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Item: 20945
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BERNSTEIN, LEONARD. (1918-1990). American composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist. APCS. (“Lenny”). 1p. Postcard. Cambridge, November 4, 1938. Written on the stationery of The Advocate House at Harvard. To his early girlfriend, BEATRICE GORDON (1918-1983).

It’s funny. A few weeks ago I picked up the folder of yr. Hindu friend at a subway entrance – dirty & trampled on. I laughed very much. I am now duly ashamed. I’m afraid I can’t make any of the lectures. The beard is frightening…”

As a youth Leonard Bernstein spent summers with his family in Sharon, Massachusetts where they had a lakeside cottage in a community of other affluent Jewish families. Still experimenting musically, young Bernstein wrote a comedic version of Carmen in the summer of 1934, performed by school friends and summer neighbors including Beatrice Gordon who he had referred to as “the love of my life” in a letter to his friend Sid Ramin, (Leonard Bernstein, Burton). “His attachment to Beatrice Gordon, who sang Don José in matador pants at Sharon, went well beyond music. They were both romantics enamored of poetry and words… In the weeks leading up to Carmen, Bernstein scribbled four nocturnal poems for her in the space of eight days,” (ibid.).

In the fall of 1935, Bernstein entered nearby Harvard University to study music. While there, Bernstein wrote his senior thesis “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” and contributed to the university’s literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate, on whose letterhead he penned our note. It was also at Harvard that Bernstein met Aaron Copland and Greek composer, conductor and pianist Dimitri Mitropoulos who, impressed with Bernstein’s abilities, would open many doors for the young composer after his 1939 graduation. Later Bernstein studied under conductors Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky, and led several prominent metropolitan orchestras including the New York Philharmonic. He also toured around the world, and became the first American to conduct at Milan’s La Scala. Adept at composing classical, liturgical, jazz and contemporary music, his works include West Side Story, the oratorio Kaddish, and the film score for On the Waterfront.

Bernstein and Gordon at a swimming pool, ca. 1930s

Theos Bernard c. 1936, frontispiece for Penthouse of the Gods

Although restrictive immigration policies limited the influence of Hindus in American life for several centuries, interest in Hindu thought was expressed by such American philosophers as Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. By the early part of the 20th century, thanks in part to such philosophical writings as well as the increasingly popular practice of yoga, America was home to a number of Hindu-inspired meditation movements, some of which were led by homegrown gurus such as Pierre Bernard, known as “The Great Oom,” who famously exaggerated the association between tantra and sex while amassing a tremendous personal fortune. Bernard was popular with society women during the 1920s and 1930s but it is most likely that our letter refers to Bernard’s nephew, Theos Casimir Bernard, known as the “first white lama.” At the time of our letter, the younger Bernard had recently returned from a tour of India and Tibet during which he sought to master Tantric Yoga. After having his story published in several newspaper syndicates and popular magazines, he embarked on an American lecture tour in 1939, after which he published Penthouse of the Gods, a memoir, and Heaven Lies Within Us, on the subject of Hatha Yoga.

Bernstein has placed the printed letterhead and address in parentheses and added his room number (“Eliot E-51”) in the upper right corner. With several light pencil notations in the margins. Lightly creased and in very good condition. Written during Bernstein’s senior year at Harvard and a fine, early example.

Letter to his girlfriend written while he was at Harvard

Signed by Leonard Bernstein

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