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.