On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius
Charlie Harmon, author
Charlie Harmon is a music editor and arranger. He was the music editor for the estate of Leonard Bernstein, editing the first publications of full scores of West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Mass. He has also served as the orchestra librarian for the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He lives in Florida.
Read more about Charlie Harmon.
A gossip-filled memoir of life with a musical superstar.In his debut book, music editor and arranger Harmon recounts in vivid detail four exhausting, exhilarating years as assistant to the mercurial maestro Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). At the age of 30, the author was a clerk at a music library when he answered an advertisement to work for a "world-class" musician. The applicant, the ad noted, "must read music, be free to travel," and "possess finely-honed organizational abilities." In the course of a three-hour interview, Harmon learned that the musician was Bernstein (called LB throughout the book), who was embarking on a strenuous schedule of performances around the world. The author was not sure he had the stamina for the job, which involved handling phone calls, mail, and appointments; packing and unpacking scores of suitcases for every trip; taking notes during rehearsals and performances; and—a task that proved especially challenging—making sure LB, infamous for his "celebrated libido" and drunken rants, did not generate negative publicity. Despite some reservations about his capabilities, in January 1982, Harmon set off with Bernstein and his entourage to Indiana University for a six-week residency, during which the composer began work on an opera. LB was a handful: demanding, impatient, and given to "bouts of fury and bratty behavior," which Harmon attributed to his enduring grief over his wife's death, in 1978. That behavior was exacerbated by heavy drinking and use of Dexedrine, fueling "drug-induced mania" followed by overwhelming depression. Drawing on his daybook, Harmon gives intimate accounts of LB's performances, teaching, creative process, and uncompromising standards—in the midst of a "three-ring circus" peopled by a large and sometimes-divisive cast of characters. Most troubling to Harmon was LB's imperious, "blatantly self-serving" manager, who wore Harmon down with cruel bullying. Exhaustion and depression eventually led Harmon to seek psychiatric help, though he admits that his intimacy with LB's musicianship gave him "a remarkable education." An affectionate portrait of an eminent musician who was driven by demons.
Harmon knew that most of Leonard Bernstein’s personal assistants didn’t last very long on the job. He quickly learned, too, that working for “Lenny” meant that he would have to give up any semblance of a personal life. Putting his life on hold, though, and “working alongside a creative genius” game him, he writes, “the strongest sense of purpose I’d ever had.” For four “scorching” years, Harmon’s responsibilities included answers the phones, handling Bernstein’s mail and appointments, and carrying his luggage while also acting as a gatekeeper, valet, and librarian. Harmon’s account of life working for an “exasperating” genius is breezy and anecdotal even when he is discussing his own mental-health issues and self-doubt. He meets countless movers and shakers in the arts and politics as he travels with Bernstein and his entourage around the globe and works alongside Bernstein at the famous Dakota building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Harmon’s personable and warm account of what it was like to work for one of the twentieth century’s musical giants casts new light on Bernstein and his world.
Harmon, a classically trained composer and arranger, approaches his subject from an interesting point of view. For four years in the 1980s, Harmon was the maestro’s personal assistant, accompanying him through a punishing schedule of composing, performing, and recording. This multifaceted perspective gives readers plenty of salacious gossip paired with insight into Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable artistic achievements later in life. The volume adroitly balances reporting on Bernstein’s personal hygiene, profligate love live, and bouts with depression with an informed discussion of his professional output during the period. Throughout, Harmon weaves his personal experience4s as a gay man in a precarious profession. The net result is a volume that gives equal weight to Bernstein’s struggles as a composer to make a deadline on a commissioned opera and his expirees in applying Right Guard to his forehead to manage the sweat collecting on his brow while he conducted. VERDICT: More memoir than biography, this engaging account will do well in general collections.
The Gay & Lesbian Review
In this tell-all book, Charlie Harmon—orchestra librarian, music arranger, and editor—recounts his four exciting, draining years as assistant to Leonard Bernstein. He describes his job as manager of Bernstein’s day-to-day life as a whirligig of phone calls, appointments, music scores, and traveling. But managing Bernstein involved a lot more. The maestro was demanding and prone to “bouts of fury and bratty behavior.” Harmon was given the job of monitoring Lenny’s “celebrated libido” for young men and keeping this information from the press.
Bernstein’s manic behavior was exacerbated by the vast amounts of Dexedrine he consumed and, of course, the alcohol. These frenzied episodes were often followed by major bouts of depressing, when Bernstein wouldn’t shave, shower, or sleep for days. Contributing to his frenetic behavior was grief over his wife Felicia’s death in 1978. According to Harmon, Lenny seemed haunted by her. He seemed at times to be pursued by demons—driven to exhaustion by a relentless schedule of conducting, teaching, and composing. He sometimes complained that no one cared about him as a person.
We get a good sense of life with Lenny from 1982 to ’86 through the lens of Charlie Harmon. We travel all over the world with the maestro, and we meet plenty of celebrities along the way. For Harmon, his time with Bernstein was a mixed blessing. He ended up suffering from severe exhaustion and depression. On the other hand, it provided him with an extraordinary education. His four years as assistant to a genius were a self-revelatory journal as well as a musical one.
ISBN: 978-1-63289-219-5 EPUB
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Page count: 272
5 1/2 x 8 1/4