eisenhower, bernstein, blacklists, and lincoln center -- 4/8/21

Today's selection -- from Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician by Barry Seldes. President Dwight Eisenhower and iconic American composer Leonard Bernstein shook hands at the ground-breaking ceremony for New York's Lincoln Center, which was destined to become the performing arts center of the world. In the Cold War paranoia of the time, that handshake masked the animosity the U.S. government had shown to Bernstein, Aaron Copland and myriad other artists who had shown sympathy and involvement with socialists and communists causes during the despairing days of the Great Depression:

"On the morning of May 14,1959, an excited crowd of thousands gathered at Broadway and West 64th Street to witness ground-breaking ceremo­nies for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The day was a glori­ous one for New Yorkers, for their new complex—concentrating in one place the city's world-class dance, orchestral, and operatic ensembles and a new repertory theater—would be proof visible of New York's cultural ascendancy. In the words of urban-planning czar Robert Moses, Lincoln Center would make the city the 'World Center of the Performing Arts,' a complement to its place as 'World Political Capital.'

"Festivities began at 11 a.m. with master of ceremonies Leonard Bern­stein leading the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Bernstein then introduced the guest of honor, President Eisenhower, who thanked the artists and praised the many people within government, labor, business, and chari­table foundations who had worked to make Lincoln Center possible. He predicted that the 'increasing interest in America in cultural matters' would 'influence . . . peace and understanding throughout the world.' The president then dug up a shovelful of earth to inaugurate construc­tion of the center's first building, Philharmonic Hall, and turned to shake Bernstein's hand.

"This handshake was a fitting way to celebrate the partnership between American political aspiration and high culture. For some years, Bernstein had been a cultural ambassador for the United States. He had toured Latin America with the New York Philharmonic in 1958 and, at the behest of the State Department, was about to go on tour to the Soviet Union, a trip that had great significance in the administration's quest for a thaw in the otherwise glacial Cold War. ...

"Leonard Bernstein ... was the composer [for] the great New York ballet Fancy Free and the New York musicals On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and West Side Story (composed in 1957 and just coming to the end of its great Broadway run at the time of the Lincoln Center groundbreaking), and he had been the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1957 and music director since 1958. He was a Columbia Records star performer; a gifted television educator; a celebrity much photographed and lionized by Time, Life, and other mass-circula­tion magazines; and a man at home in both highbrow and middle-brow worlds. Now, on this day of celebration, the already formidable Bernstein, the most magisterial of New York's creative and performing artists, was receiving the president's personal recognition as the sovereign of this new center for the performing arts.

"Yet this seemingly unambiguously celebratory day had interesting ironies, known only by Bernstein and a few others. For example, as the maestro gave the downbeat to the Philharmonic's brass section to begin Copland's Fanfare, only a tiny minority of the onlookers were likely aware, as Bernstein certainly was, that only six years before, in 1953, Eisenhower had banned a performance of Copland's Lincoln Portrait at his inaugura­tion because Copland was a supporter of left-wing causes. Did the crowd know that President Truman, in February 1950, had banned Bernstein's music from overseas State Department libraries and functions? Or that in 1953, Eisenhower's State Department had revoked Bernstein's passport on the grounds that the maestro was a security risk, returning it only after Bernstein, his conducting career on the verge of wreckage, agreed to sign an affidavit confessing to political sins? These darker events were cer­tainly in Bernstein's mind, and perhaps Eisenhower's, as the two Olympi­ans shook hands in joint celebration.

"Such were the paradoxes and ironies of that day: the fanfare, waving flags, and hearty handshakes masking a closely guarded tale of presidentially authorized censorship, intimidation, and humiliation ... [and Bernstein's] blacklisting by CBS in 1950."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Barry Seldes


Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician


University of California Press


Copyright 2009 by the Regents of the University of California


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>