There’s no question that Leonard Bernstein is one of the most revered conductors and composers in classical music history. Though many know him for his vital contribution to the musical score for West Side Story (and his mentorship of one Lydia Tár), Bernstein’s career was rife with accomplishments. But like most artists thrust into the cruel, harsh spotlight of fame, Bernstein wrestled with his fair share of demons that adversely affected his relationships, including with his wife Felicia Montealegre Cohn.
Their complicated marriage acts as the central focus of actor-writer-director Bradley Cooper’s long-gestating project Maestro, which is currently out in select theaters and streams on Netflix on Dec. 20th. The biographical drama traces Bernstein (Cooper) and Montealegre (Carey Mulligan)’s tumultuous relationship from their first meeting in the mid-40s to Montealegre’s untimely death in the late ‘70s, highlighting the couple’s devotion and resentment towards one another amid Bernstein’s extramarital affairs with men.
Despite some early controversy about Cooper using a nose prosthetic to play Bernstein, Maestro has earned mostly positive reviews and several accolades, including four Golden Globe nominations. But what was Cooper able to get right while dramatizing Bernstein’s life? We dug into the famed conductor’s storied career to see how much of Maestro rang true.
Did Leonard Bernstein’s Big Break Happen Because Bruno Walter Was Sick?
Yes. In one of the first scenes of Maestro, 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein receives a phone call asking him to lead a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall, as a substitute for ailing composer Bruno Walter. At the time, Bernstein was an assistant conductor for the Philharmonic and this moment would mark his first-ever opportunity to conduct an orchestra on his own. This last-minute replacement situation was indeed Bernstein’s big break debut, and his rapturous, acclaimed performance launched him immediately into the limelight as a promising young talent.
Did Bernstein Meet Montealegre at a House Party?
Yes. Shortly after Bernstein became a rising star, he met then-aspiring actress Montealegre at a house party hosted by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. Although it’s unknown if the two rehearsed a script together following that party (as depicted in the film) or bonded over playing a number-guessing game (as depicted in the trailer), Bernstein and Montealegre did fall in love after that fateful evening and got engaged.
What Maestro doesn’t show is that their first engagement ended just as quickly as it began, with the couple not being quite ready for nuptials. Montealegre was briefly romantically involved with actor Richard Hart until he died in 1951, prompting her to reconnect with Bernstein and resume their engagement later that year.