What’s in a biography? The life of Leonard Bernstein on film and in print

Photo portrait of Leonard Bernstein by Jack MitchellMaestro, the new motion picture about Leonard Bernstein, just opened in Dallas area movie theaters and will be streaming on Netflix later this month. Not a standard biopic that seeks to reveal the entirety of Bernstein’s life and accomplishments, the co-writer, actor, and director, Bradley Cooper anchors this film on Bernstein’s marriage with the actress, Felicia Montealegre. This structure offers viewers a glimpse into the career, personal events, and psyche of Bernstein. Cooper adeptly uses the music in the film to underpin these scenes of high and low points in the Bernsteins’ marriage. Among Bernstein’s featured works are the ballet pieces Fancy Free, and Facsimile; Broadway musicals On the Town, West Side Story, and Candide; and choral works, Mass and Chichester Psalms.

Of course, no single film can fully capture the many aspects of Bernstein’s musical accomplishments and biographical details. In Maestro, the creative choices made by Cooper result in a compelling examination that manages to touch on multiple, undeniable talents of the musician as conductor, pianist, educator, and composer and how these public identities are weighed against his private roles as husband and father.

Like film, print biography also has its limits for examining such an extraordinary life. The Hamon Arts Library contains dozens of biographical and scholarly books about many facets of Bernstein’s life and career. A recent donation of books in pristine condition from Frank E. Baker allowed the library to replace older, worn copies of Bernstein books in the collection and to add more materials to Hamon’s sizable Bernstein holdings. In addition to general biographies, the collection includes works written by close colleagues and family members; interviews with colleagues; works that analyze aspects of his musical compositions; and personal correspondence and other works authored by Bernstein himself. Hamon also holds many of his scores and recordings of his music.

For those interested in the learning more about Bernstein’s life and music, here is a short list of titles available through SMU Libraries.


Leonard Bernstein by Humphrey Burton


The Leonard Bernstein Letters


Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing up Bernstein by Jamie Bernstein


Experiencing Leonard Bernstein: A Listener’s Companion by Kenneth LaFave.


On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius by Charlie Harmon


Conversations about Bernstein by William Burton


Leonard Bernstein and the Language of Jazz by Katherine Baber.


Leonard Bernstein and Washington, DC: Works, Politics, and Performances, edited by Daniel Abraham, Alicia Kopfstein-Penk, and Andrew H. Weaver



Leonard Bernstein: Larger than Life


Pam Pagels, Music, Theater, and History Librarian, SMU Libraries.

Feature photo: Bert Bial, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo portrait: Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15047519