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Leonard Bernstein Had Bette Davis' Eye

Alexander Kahle, RKO Radio
Wikimedia Commons
Studio portrait of Bette Davis, taken in 1940

Like many people in the 1940s, Leonard Bernstein was a fan of actress Bette Davis. And, as Bernstein's conducting and composing careers skyrocketed, the feelings became mutual.

The 1940s saw Bernstein's first successes on Broadway and with the New York Philharmonic, and secured his professional future. Davis read all about Bernstein in the papers and heard him conduct on radio broadcasts. 

After meeting him — possibly when Bernstein went to California in 1944 to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl — she sent him fan mail.

"There is probably nothing in the world so encouraging of the future of the world as a super talent in someone," Davis wrote in late June 1945. "I feel privileged to have spent an evening with you. ..."

Davis sent the letter through a mutual associate, film director Irving Rapper, and playfully placed herself in the role of a latter-day Nadezhda von Meck, whose relationship with Pyotr Tchaikovsky unfolded exclusively in letters.

"You won't mind if I become a 1945 version of Madame von Meck, as regards you," Davis' letter continues. "There are some changes in the script already. We have seen each other — that is not according to style — and financially there is no similarity. The only resemblance: 1. I am older. 2. I adore your music. 3. I like you."

In later letters, Davis extended the metaphor almost to the breaking point. She saluted a letter from early July 1945: "Dear Pyotr, The Baroness von Davis adores your music. ..."

Also during summer 1945, Davis wrote: "Read about you so very often in the New York Times … Your Madame von Meck — me — is very proud — only feels slighted that no requests for funds have been forthcoming. … You are not living up to your predecessor — he was much more helpless."

Davis signed off, "Love, B. von Meck."

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.