“Dearest Lenny”: Leonard Bernstein’s Love Letters from Japan

A 1970 letter to Bernstein from Kazuko Amano, one of his longtime correspondents from Japan. Used with permission.

For pretty much all her life, Mari Yoshihara has had one foot in the United States and the other in Japan: She was born in New York City, raised in Tokyo. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tokyo, then an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Brown University. Her career as an academic — she teaches American studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa — has followed a similar pattern. She writes in English and Japanese, often focusing on cultural encounters between the U.S. and Asia.

Her latest book, published last fall, is “Dearest Lenny: Letters from Japan and the Making of the World Maestro.” She researched it using the Leonard Bernstein Collection in the Library’s Music Division. Here she answers a few questions about the book and her experience at the Library.

What drew you to Leonard Bernstein?
As a scholar of American studies and a music lover, I was of course familiar with Bernstein’s importance in American music and culture. But I was not particularly interested in writing about Bernstein per se. Rather, I intended to write a comparative study of Cold War cultural policy in the U.S. and Japan, and I wanted to find out about the history and politics of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Because Bernstein was a close family friend of the Kennedys — his piece “Mass” was written for the opening of the Kennedy Center — I was going to look at his involvement in the center’s establishment and operation.

Bernstein in 1971. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko.

Tell us about the letters in the Bernstein Collection that changed your book project.
At first, I had no idea that the Bernstein Collection is one of the largest archival collections devoted to a single artist anywhere, with more than 1,700 boxes of manuscripts and other materials. I was quickly overwhelmed and started procrastinating by poking into other parts of the collection. I came across two Japanese names in the correspondence I did not recognize. Simply curious to find out who these people were, I requested the letters. When I began reading them, my jaw literally dropped.

One set of correspondence was from Kazuko Amano (born Ueno), who wrote her first fan letter to Bernstein in 1947. She was then an 18-year-old student and had spent the war years in Japan after having been raised in Paris, where she studied piano at Paris Conservatory. To her surprise, Bernstein replied about a year later, and thus began a personal relationship between two very different individuals: a globe-trotting maestro on the way to international stardom and a Japanese woman who would spend much of her adult life as a housewife raising two children in Japan.

The other correspondent was even more dramatic: Kunihiko Hashimoto met Bernstein in summer 1979 on the last day of Bernstein’s tour of Japan with the New York Philharmonic. The two men spent the night together, and Hashimoto saw the maestro off at the airport. Immediately afterward, Hashimoto wrote the first of many — over 350, in fact — love letters to Bernstein. The letters are passionate, tender and sometimes heartbreaking expressions of Hashimoto’s love and the evolving nature of his devotion to the maestro.

Needless to say, I left the Kennedy Center project behind (although I still think it is a worthy research topic) and started a completely new one.

Mari Yoshihara

What new do the letters reveal about Bernstein?
Amano was first and foremost an extremely loyal fan. In the early years, her letters revealed a mixture of girlish fandom, admiration for a musician she respected, a tinge of romantic yearning and the awareness of the foolishness of harboring such sentiments. But over the years, her love of Bernstein evolved into something much more profound, and her letters express a deep understanding of his music and commitment to art.

The urgency evident in Hashimoto’s early letters is emotionally overwhelming. But over time, Hashimoto’s love also evolved into awe and worship for a great artist and a desire to serve him in any way he could. Hashimoto later was appointed to be the maestro’s business representative in Japan and played a key role in some of Bernstein’s most important projects in the late stage of his life.

What was your experience like researching the collection?
The sheer size of the collection makes it both heaven and hell for researchers. In one word, it is overwhelming.

But once I figured out the broad contours of the book, researching the collection — I took five trips to the Library, each about a week — was quite exciting. I learned things linking these personal relationships to my original interest in the intersections between art and politics, but I also learned a lot about things I did not know I would be interested in.

For instance, the business records of Bernstein’s management company, Amberson Enterprises, offer much insight into the sheer scope of Bernstein’s work and the changing nature of the American and global music industry in the second half of the 20th century.

Can you comment on the value generally of the Library’s collections for researchers? 
It goes without saying that the volume and range of the collections and the expertise of the librarians and archivists who know them inside out are immensely valuable to researchers. I have found Library staff to be extremely helpful, not only while I am physically at the Library but also when sending inquiries by email.

A 1949 spring festival postcard Kazuko Amano, then Kazuko Ueno, sent to Bernstein. Used with permission.

One Comment

  1. Fran Morris Rosman
    March 4, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you for an insightful look at one of our greatest. How I wish that Ella had recorded a LEONARD BERNSTEIN SONGBOOK !
    Fran Morris Rosman, Executive Director
    The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation
    Los Angeles, California

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