Leonard Bernstein: A Life

Meryle Secrest, Author Alfred A. Knopf $30 (471p) ISBN 978-0-679-40731-7
Because this study, by a biographer better known for her books on art figures (Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dali) is the second major one of Bernstein this year, comparisons with the first, by British TV producer Humphrey Burton (Nonfiction Forecasts, Feb. 28), are inevitable. Both biographies are valuable. Burton enjoyed official access to family and papers and Secrest did not, with the perhaps natural consequence that Burton presents Bernstein in a more kindly light. On the other hand, Secrest can approach the maestro with a better sense, as an American, of his cultural context. Secrest is definitively superior on young Lenny's relations with his family; she also offers a more vivid, unvarnished picture of his final unhappy decade, during which he seemed determined, by his outre behavior, to drive away even those who loved and admired him. On the early successes and the golden years from the mid-1940s to the mid-'70s, both books offer a sense of the headlong excitement of Bernstein's prodigious flowering. Burton is stronger on Bernstein the composer, however, giving a far better sense of the value of his work and its place in American music, while Secrest contents herself with contemporary commentary. On basics, these two solid, highly readable books agree: the maestro had a vast talent, particularly as a conductor, that even his regrettable later personal excesses could not diminish. Photos. 35,000 first printing. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/31/1994
Release date: 11/01/1994
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