In 1951, wunderkind conductor Leonard Bernstein married the beautiful actress Felicia Montealegre. But was it a marriage of convenience? In this revealing letter, perhaps from around the same period, Felicia confesses her knowledge of Bernstein’s sexuality—and proclaimed her undying love anyway. From the new collection The Leonard Bernstein Letters.
Felicia Bernstein to Leonard Bernstein
[Late 1951 or 1952]
If I seemed sad as you drove away today it was not because I felt in any way deserted but because I was left alone to face myself and this whole bloody mess which is our “connubial” life. I’ve done a lot of thinking and have decided that it’s not such a mess after all.
First: we are not committed to a life sentence—nothing is really irrevocable, not even marriage (though I used to think so).
Second: you are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?
Third: I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar. (I happen to love you very much—this may be a disease and if it is what better cure?) It may be difficult but no more so than the “status quo” which exists now—at the moment you are not yourself and this produces painful barriers and tensions for both of us—let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!
As for me—once you are rid of tensions I’m sure my own will disappear. A companionship will grow which probably no one else may be able to offer you. The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express—our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?
I know now too that I need to work. It is a very important part of me and I feel incomplete without it. I may want to do something about it soon. I am used to an active life, and then there is that old ego problem.
“Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!”
We may have gotten married too soon and yet we needed to get married and we’ve not made a mistake. It is good for us even if we suffer now and make each other miserable—we will both grow up some day and be strong and unafraid either together or apart—after all we are both more important as individuals that a “marriage” is.
In any case my dearest darling ape, let’s give it a whirl. There’ll be crisis (?) from time to time but that doesn’t scare me any more. And let’s relax in the knowledge that neither of us is perfect and forget about being HUSBAND AND WIFE in such strained capital letters, it’s not that awful!
There’s a lot else I’ve got to say but the pill has overpowered me. I’ll write again soon. My wish for the week is that you come back guiltless and happy.
In 1976, the couple separated and Bernstein moved in with a young musician named Tom Cothran—Felicia was furious and reportedly told him: “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.” Shortly after, Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Bernstein begged to move back in, and took care of her until she died in 1978. Bernstein never forgot her curse and would never recover, blaming himself for her death.
From The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone and published by Yale University Press.