Leonard Bernstein’s False Confession to a Crime He Did Not Commit

11-29-13_DL06543_Bernstein
For more than 20 years the FBI hounded the composer of 'West Side Story' over the company he kept. Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma/Corbis

Like many musicians, artists, and filmmakers in the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein, the flamboyant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and composer of West Side Story, was forced to defend his political views, his friends, and his right to freedom of expression.

At a time when the NSA has all Americans under permanent surveillance, the virulent campaign by the FBI to discredit such a lauded American musician by smears and innuendo is an object lesson in how the powers of the state can be abused under the guise of protecting citizens from outside dangers.

While many of his friends ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Bernstein became embroiled in the Red Scare witch-hunt when he applied for the routine renewal of his passport in 1953. He found the State Department had been in contact with the FBI, which had a bulging dossier on his public statements, political affiliations, and personal friendships. The passport office demanded he make his political views clear in a formal deposition.

The result was a humiliating document, written with the help of a lawyer, in which Bernstein abjectly apologized for past associations and pointed the finger at well-known leftists. The full transcript of his absurd confession is included in a new collection of Bernstein’s correspondence, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, published by Yale and edited by Nigel Simeone.

Bernstein’s attempt to squirm out of the bear trap into which he had fallen is cringe-worthy. Unlike many who risked their careers by invoking the Fifth Amendment to deflect Congress’s attempts to explore their political beliefs, Bernstein blabbed: “Although I have never, to my knowledge, been accused of being a member of the Communist Party, I wish to take advantage of this opportunity to affirm under oath that I am not now nor at any time have ever been a member of the Communist Party.”

He said a conference he attended at the Waldorf-Astoria, New York, to welcome Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to America led to an accusatory article in Life magazine, which “convinced me that my name and my good intentions were being improperly exploited by cleverly camouflaged organizations which concealed their true objectives and Communist aims.”

He also named names. A petition he signed for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to break off relations with Franco’s fascist Spain elicited this weaselly half-accusation: “I recall no connection with [the brigade] and believe that Paul Robeson communicated with me about the use of my name on this occasion. I met Mr. Robeson one time while we were both backstage during a concert.”

Robeson, a fervent supporter of leftist causes and a world renowned African-American singer and actor, had been blacklisted in 1950 and was obliged to retire. For Bernstein to disavow his friendship with such a prominent and talented artist illustrates how treacherous the FBI’s pressure could be.

Also included in the letters is a long footnote charting the persistent interest shown in Bernstein by J. Edgar Hoover’s federal agents. Several of Bernstein’s friends had already appeared before Congress, among them one of America’s best-loved composer, Aaron Copland, an intimate friend and musical mentor of Bernstein. Copland, who appeared before Witchfinder-General Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate on May 25, 1953, recalled in his memoirs, “My impression is that McCarthy had no idea who I was or what I did.… It occurred to me…as McCarthy entered that it was similar to the entrance of [the conductor] Toscanini – half the battle won before it begins through the power of personality.”

When Bernstein’s close friend David Diamond was summoned before HUAC, he nervously asked Copland, “What if I am asked a question about Lenny?” to which Copland sagely replied, “You say what you feel you have to say.”

In July 1953 Bernstein was confronted with his liberal past when applying for that passport renewal. According to his biographer Barry Seldes, Bernstein was “drawn into living hell” and provided “a humiliating confession of political sin,” but it came in handy when Bernstein need to persuade the American Legion, an anti-communist campaign group, to approve his writing a score for the anti-trade union corruption movie On The Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan, with a screenplay by Budd Schulberg and starring Marlon Brando.

Bernstein’s confession did not end his pursuit by FBI agents. A year later, he was subject to another investigation, this one provoked by William F. Tompkins, assistant attorney general in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. In a memo sent to Hoover titled “Leonard Bernstein. Security Matter – C[ommunist]. Fraud Against Government,” Tompkins urged Hoover to investigate Bernstein further, alleging he had not been honest in his mea culpa, adding, “this matter should be handled immediately.”

The snooping continued even after John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960. Kennedy’s special assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell, asked for “name checks concerning eighty individuals in connection with the Advisory Committee on the Arts” that included Bernstein, and in 1962 the New York office of the FBI sent the Washington Field Office a photograph of Bernstein with a memo titled “Unsub[stantiated]: American musician alleged to be Soviet agent.”

In March 1963, Hoover received a letter about Bernstein from one of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, New York. “It has been brought to my attention that Leonard Bernstein, the noted conductor of the new Lincoln Center in New York City, has Communistic tendencies. For this reason I am writing to you with the hope that you will be able to enlighten my Community (two thousand sisters of St. Joseph) and me with the truth.… May God bless you for your wonderful work.”

Hoover opened his reply with, “My dear Sister… ” and explained that FBI files must remain “confidential and available for official use only.… I trust you will not infer either that we do or do not have information regarding Mr. Leonard Bernstein.”

In 1967, with the permissive society and the Civil Rights movement in full swing, an internal FBI memo declared: “Mr. Bernstein has been active in the civil rights movement and in 1965 Harry Belafonte organized a group of musical and literary artists to take part in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, march. Bernstein was one of the artists who made up this delegation.” When President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aide, Mildred Stegall, asked for a routine security check to be made on Bernstein, she was sent that memo.

Bernstein found himself under scrutiny again in January 1970, when it was reported he had held a fundraising party in his apartment to provide legal defense funds for the revolutionary Black Panthers, a socialist African-American party Hoover believed to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The FBI leaked information and smeared Bernstein and his friends who took up the Panthers’ cause. It took a whole 10 years before Bernstein caught up with the damage done to him by federal agents.

“I have substantial evidence now available to all that the FBI conspired to foment hatred and violent dissension among blacks, among Jews and between blacks and Jews,” he said in a statement quoted by The New York Times in October 1980. “My late wife and I were among many foils used for this purpose, in the context of a so-called ‘party’ for the Panthers in 1970 which was neither a party nor a ‘radical chic’ event for the Black Panther Party, but rather a civil liberties meeting for which my wife had generously offered our apartment.

“The ensuing FBI-inspired harassment ranged from floods of hate letters sent to me over what are now clearly fictitious signatures, thinly-veiled threats couched in anonymous letters to magazines and newspapers, editorial and reportorial diatribes in Israel, plus innumerable other dirty tricks. None of these machinations has adversely affected my life or work, but they did cause a good deal of bitter unpleasantness.”

Even in 1971, almost 15 years after McCarthy died, Bernstein continued to be an FBI target, egged on by the paranoia and vindictiveness of the new president, Richard M. Nixon. Two internal bureau memos were sent to Charles D. Brennan, assistant director of the Domestic Intelligence Division of the FBI, relating to what was dubbed, “Proposed plan of antiwar elements to embarrass the United States government.”

Bernstein was commissioned to write a commemorative Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to honor the assassinated president. The memo described a “plot by Leonard Bernstein, conductor and composer, to embarrass the President and other Government officials through an antiwar and anti-government musical composition to be played at the dedication.”

Bernstein was denied permission to visit Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest serving time in jail for protesting the Vietnam War, to discuss the new work. On the day of the commemoration, Brennan received from the FBI a reminder of Bernstein’s purported intent, quoting a report in the conservative weekly Human Events (President Ronald Reagan’s favorite reading), that quoted verbatim from the FBI’s original memo headed, “Bernstein intended to embarrass the President with an anti-administration bombshell.”

Nixon conveyed his view of Bernstein and the liberal views of the arts to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, who was to serve jail time for his part in the Watergate burglary cover-up. “As you, of course, know those who are on the modern art and music kick are 95 percent against us anyway,” he wrote in a letter dated January 26, 1970.

“I refer to the recent addicts of Leonard Bernstein and the whole New York crowd. When I compare the horrible monstrosity of Lincoln Center with the Academy of Music in Philadelphia I realize how decadent the modern art and architecture have become. This is what the Kennedy-[Sargent] Shriver crowd believed in and they had every right to encourage this kind of stuff when they were in. But I have no intention whatever of continuing to encourage it now.”

The FBI dogged Bernstein even into the Ford administration. In response to a routine security clearance request in November 1974, the bureau reiterated the whole of their 20 years of unfounded accusations, even though they had made little effort to investigate properly or substantiate Bernstein’s alleged Communist sympathies.

“Mr. Bernstein, who you advised is a conductor…has been the subject of various security-type investigations conducted by the FBI since the early 1950s based on information that he had affiliated with or supported in some manner 15 organizations cited as communistic or subversive,” it wrote. “Leonard Bernstein … has been active in the civil rights movement.… On May 12, [1971,] Leonard Bernstein and his wife hosted a fundraising party in support of Philip F. Berrigan and five co-defendants charged with conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating systems in Federal buildings in Washington, D.C.”

What the FBI omitted to tell the enquirer was that the prosecution of Berrigan and the other members of the “Harrisburg Seven” collapsed for lack of evidence.

The hounding of Bernstein was not an isolated incident. During the Cold War the FBI destroyed the lives and careers of many, not only the famous, often on hearsay or a whim. They adopted the very methods practiced by the Soviet secret police they claimed they were saving Americans from.

Perhaps Bernstein’s most fascinating work is his light opera Candide, adapted from Voltaire’s satirical novella in 1956. In the original, Voltaire describes in a single sentence the human condition in a way that anticipated the anxious Cold War climate that followed hard upon America’s victory against Nazism in World War II.

It also stands as an epitaph to those many Americans who were chased, impugned, browbeaten, bugged, and destroyed by state forces wrongly applied: “Even in those cities which seem to enjoy the blessings of peace, and where the arts flourish, the inhabitants are devoured by envy, cares, and anxieties, which are greater plagues than any experienced in a town when it is under siege.”

Join the Discussion