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RECORD KEEPING | New Biography From Bernstein's Valet Casts Light On His Hard Living Years

By Paul E. Robinson on May 23, 2018

“Please look after my music” — Leonard Bernstein last words to his long-time assistant Charlie Harmon, who has finally broken his silence in a tell-all biography extolling the challenges of living with a genius on the cusp of legacy.

Charlie Harmon: On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius. Watertown: Imagine Books, 2018. 272 pages.

As the philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) famously said: “No man is a hero to his valet,” adding by way of explanation that  “this is not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.”

As it happens, Hegel’s words only partially characterize Charlie Harmon, Leonard Bernstein’s personal assistant for about four years in the early 1980s. Charlie was Bernstein’s valet, his chauffeur, the guy in charge of phones, luggage, mail, appointments, scores and parts, music copying, and much more.

Was Bernstein a hero to this overburdened valet? Sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no”. Bernstein or “LB” as Charlie Harmon refers to his boss throughout the book, was indeed “exasperating” but also very much a “genius” as indicated by the book’s subtitle. It is true that after four years of service to this remarkable man, Charlie Harmon had a nervous breakdown and went into therapy. It is also true that after leaving Bernstein’s employment, Charlie went on to catalogue what is now known as the Leonard Bernstein Collection for the Music Division of the Library of Congress and for all practical purposes became Bernstein’s music editor.

To say that Bernstein had an “entourage” is akin to stating that Buckingham Palace is a small house in the heart of London. After Bernstein’s wife Felicia passed away in 1978, Bernstein came to depend on Harry Kraut (his manager), an assistant (Charlie Harmon was but one of a succession of such people), a cook/housekeeper (Julia Vega, like Bernstein’s late wife, a Chilean) and a secretary/archivist (Helen Coates, his first piano teacher). But this was his support team only in New York when he was in residence at Apartment 23 at the Dakota. When he travelled — and he did this almost constantly in his later years — the team doubled or tripled in size, not including hangers-on who nearly always turned up with their own coterie of hangers-on.

Over time Charlie learned the strengths and weaknesses of each member of Bernstein’s support group, which was not exactly a well-oiled machine. While Bernstein himself was frequently well-oiled, his mostly motley group of eccentric supporters stepped on each other’s toes to an alarming degree. And then there were the suitcases – thirty of them, to be exact — that accompanied Bernstein wherever he went, suitcases filled with music, both scores and parts for everything to be played on the tours, as well as the various sets of formal wear required for performances. One of Charlie’s jobs was to see the suitcases through airports and hotels all over the world. God help him if music or concert attire was lost or misdirected.

While Bernstein kept his homosexuality a private matter for most of his life, in later years he “came out” with a vengeance. He continually sought the company of young men and seemed to have no trouble finding them. Charlie Harmon too was a gay man, but he made it clear to Bernstein early on that theirs was to be a professional relationship and that there would be no mixing of business and pleasure. It was Charlie’s unpleasant task to shoo away the late-night pickups who overstayed their welcomes. It was also his job to get the notoriously late-sleeping Bernstein out of bed and ready to deal with his endless rehearsals, appointments and compositional deadlines.

Bernstein smoked too much — this is probably what killed him at the age of 72 — drank too much, took too many Dexedrine pills to keep going, and partied too much. Charlie Harmon gives us all the gory details, and probably more than most readers care to handle, especially those like myself for whom Bernstein was a childhood idol revealing the mysteries of classical music on television as few teachers had ever done before.

By the 1980s, Bernstein had settled into a pattern of working regularly with his favourite orchestras, both for concerts and recordings, among them the Vienna Philharmonic (VPO), for whose tradition and style of playing he had great admiration. He also had an affection for the VPO musicians, who in turn adored him and looked forward to his every visit. During this period, nearly every Bernstein appearance was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and videotaped by Unitel, which together produced incomparable versions of the Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler symphonies and most of the Sibelius symphonies.

While the globe-trotting, guest conducting and partying went on and on at a frenetic pace, Bernstein continued to compose. His major work from this period is the opera A Quiet Place, scheduled for a premiere by Houston Grand Opera in June, 1983. Rehearsals for this performance did not go well, the reviews were mixed, to put it mildly, and everyone involved hated Houston. Bernstein himself presided over the proceedings, although he did not conduct the performances, and his family, friends and acolytes descended on Houston to be a part of this important event. It turned out to be a depressing experience for all. Charlie Harmon gives us a devastating picture of the guests gathered for departure at the airport:

Shirley (Bernstein’s sister) put out her cigarette and delivered the most incisive line I have ever heard her say: “Let’s never come here again,” she said flatly, a reaction not only to the pea-green atmosphere outside the window but also to the whole Texan landscape: the haphazard Houston Grand Opera, Bible-thumping Baptists, power-crazed women with big hair and bigger checkbooks. Quite a list. I silently added the despondency around the opera’s premiere. Let’s never repeat this, please. The despair we felt after A Quiet Place should not be revisited.

Yes, Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s “valet”, but as he himself records, he was so much more than that because he needed to be.

Thirty-one when he went to work for Bernstein, with a degree in composition from Carnegie-Mellon University under his belt, several years of experience as a music librarian, Charlie Harmon was also a decent pianist. Some valet!

Charlie gives us a “warts and all” portrait of “LB” as only he, a true “insider” could. Being so close to such a gifted, driven and complicated man took its toll on him, but with time came perspective and maturity. In short, Charlie found himself and in so doing was able to appreciate more fairly Leonard Bernstein and his legacy.

It was LB who gave Charlie his life’s mission. Hours before he passed away, Charlie went to see LB in his apartment for what he knew was the last time. After kind words back and forth, LB took his hand and said, “Please look after my music.” Charlie said “Yes” and has spent the rest of his life carrying out that mission.

In 2018, the 100th-anniversary of his birth, Bernstein’s music is more popular than ever. Charlie Harmon deserves at least part of the credit.

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