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Leonard Bernstein pictured on the right in a black tuxedo with red pocket square greeting Vice President Walter Mondale (in a black tuxedo), First Lady Rosalynn Carter (in a light colored dress), and President Jimmy Carter (in a black tuxedo). In the background are Lenny's mother Jennie Bernstein and a White House military aide in Navy dress uniform).
Leonard Bernstein and his mother Jennie Bernstein greet (from left to right) Vice President Walter Mondale, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 Kennedy Center Honors reception at The White House, December 7, 1980. Inscribed "with best wishes & thanks to Leonard Bernstein 12-80...and my love to Jennie, dear Jennie -- Lenny Jan '81." White House Photo, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress.

Remembering First Lady Rosalynn Carter & Leonard Bernstein

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While our nation continues to mourn the loss of First Lady Rosalynn Carter (1927-2023), here in the Music Division, we are reflecting on her lasting relationships with artists, performers, and creators, both during her time in The White House and the decades that followed. America’s civic leaders cross paths with many of the leading musicians, dancers, and theatre artists of their time. Traces of those relationships are evident throughout the Library’s collections.

The Leonard Bernstein Collection is particularly full of treasures related to America’s presidents and first ladies, starting with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and continuing through the 1980s. A folder of correspondence from President and Mrs. Carter provides hints of the special relationship that Bernstein had with the 39th President and his wife, a detailed account of which is in the recent book “Leonard Bernstein and Washington, DC” (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2020), edited by Daniel Abraham, Alicia Kopfstein-Penk, and Andrew H. Weaver.

On the 1976 Campaign Trail
According to scholar Alicia Kopfstein-Penk and evidence in the Bernstein Collection correspondence, Bernstein first connected with the Carters during the 1976 presidential campaign. His papers include a letter dated November 26, 1976, from Mrs. Carter, who stated, “I enjoyed meeting you during the campaign — and enjoyed performing with you!” Mrs. Carter narrated a performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with Bernstein conducting during a Carter-Mondale campaign fundraiser concert on October 8, 1976, at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Handwritten letter from Mrs. Rosalynn Carter to Leonard Bernstein. Personal stationary with header "Mrs. Jimmy. Carter, Plains, Georgia 31780."
Letter from Mrs. Rosalynn Carter to Leonard Bernstein, November 26, 1976. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

For Lady Rosalynn
Bernstein maintained a close association with the Carters during their time in The White House and notably performed as part of President Carter’s January 19, 1977, Inaugural Gala. The program included the song “Take Care of This House” from Bernstein’s musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” a setting of the titular poem by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) for three singers and orchestra that later formed part of the song cycle Songfest (1977). Bernstein dedicated the Bradstreet setting “For Lady Rosalynn, 10 Dec ’76,” a touching tribute to the incoming First Lady and loving wife who led with grace and kindness.

Notated music in orchestral score format with handwritten conducting markings by Leonard Bernstein. Includes the composer's handwritten dedication to Mrs. Rosalynn Carter.
Full score of Leonard Bernstein’s “Songfest” (photocopy of the manuscript) with the composer’s conducting markings in colored pencil. The final page of Bernstein’s setting of Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” setting bearing the composer’s inscription “For Lady Rosalynn 10 Dec ’76.” Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Lenny’s Salón México
The Carter Administration featured Bernstein in a 1979 diplomatic mission to Mexico. He conducted a performance of the Orquesta Filharmónica de la Ciudad de México on February 15, 1979 in honor of President Carter & First Lady Carter’s state visit to Mexico. Bernstein conducted Aaron Copland’s “El Salón México” as part of the concert, which earned him high praise from his hosts. He also participated in the subsequent “lavish state dinner” (as described by Bernstein’s assistant Jack Gottlieb) held by Mexican President José López Portillo. This type of visibility during a presidential diplomatic trip was and is reserved for very few American artists. The implicit positive view of Bernstein held by the Carter Administration (and several earlier presidents) was significant, especially as Bernstein’s music—like “Songfest” and “Mass”—provided a platform for Bernstein’s commentary on social issues in the U.S.

Leonard Bernstein wearing a white suit and black cape shakes hands with Mexican President López Portillo who wears a dark suit and white dress shirt. President Jimmy Carter is in the background and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter is seated at a round dinner table.
Bernstein shaking hands with Mexican President José López Portillo at a state dinner in Mexico honoring President and Mrs. Carter, ca. February 15, 1979. President Carter is to the back right, and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter is seated in a white dress. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Hanukkah 1980
Jamie Bernstein, Leonard and Felicia’s first-born daughter, recounts a charming memory from a 1980 family visit to The White House for the Kennedy Center Honors reception. Bernstein was inducted as an honoree that year, and the festivities coincided with the first night of Hanukkah. The Bernsteins requested a space in The White House to gather as a family—”a noisy mess of us” (as described by Jamie Bernstein)—and commemorate the first night. Mrs. Carter graciously made it possible for them to light their family menorah in the Lincoln Bedroom before heading to the Kennedy Center.

Leonard Bernstein pictured on the right in a black tuxedo with red pocket square greeting Vice President Walter Mondale (in a black tuxedo), First Lady Rosalynn Carter (in a light colored dress), and President Jimmy Carter (in a black tuxedo). In the background are Lenny's mother Jennie Bernstein and a White House military aide in Navy dress uniform).
Leonard Bernstein and his mother Jennie Bernstein greet (from left to right) Vice President Walter Mondale, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 Kennedy Center Honors reception at The White House, December 7, 1980. Inscribed “with best wishes & thanks to Leonard Bernstein 12-80…and my love to Jennie, dear Jennie — Lenny Jan ’81.” White House Photo, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

These episodes in Bernstein’s illustrious life as a civically engaged American musician are indicative of the types of relationships he cultivated and the high regard in which he was held by the movers and shakers of his time. Similarly, Mrs. Carter was a first lady who touched many through her example as a community service-oriented leader who elevated her role in The White House and built a robust platform for building community with her husband via The Carter Center.

To explore Bernstein’s relationship with U.S. presidents and first ladies, see the Leonard Bernstein Collection Finding Aid, Leonard Bernstein Digital Collection (representing a portion of the physical collection) and suggested resources listed below. Please send research inquiries to the Performing Arts Reading Room through Ask a Librarian. If you are inspired to dig deeper, consider contributing to the Library’s Leonard Bernstein By the People crowdsourced transcription project as a transcriber and/or reviewer. Learn more here.

Watch Mrs. Carter discuss her book, “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis” (Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 2010), at the Library on May 10, 2010 (click here).

Suggested Reading/Resources Cited

Abraham, Daniel, Alicia Kopfstein-Penk, and Andrew H. Weaver, eds. Leonard Bernstein and Washington, DC: Works, Politics, Performances. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020.

Leonard Bernstein [Facebook handle]. “[On February 15, 1979…].” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/LeonardBernstein/photos/on-february-15-1979-40-years-ago-leonard-bernstein-led-the-orquesta-filharm%C3%B3nica/10161234404600285/

Bernstein, Jamie. Famous Father Girl. New York: Harper, 2018.

Gottlieb, Jack. Working with Bernstein. New York: Amadeus Press/Hal Leonard, 2010.

Kopfstein-Penk, Alicia. “Bernstein and the White House,” in Leonard Bernstein and Washington, DC: Works, Politics, Performances. Edited by Daniel Abraham, Alicia Kopfstein-Penk, and Andrew H. Weaver. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020.

“Mrs. Carter Narrates The ‘Lincoln Portrait’.” The New York Times, October 9, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/10/09/archives/mrs-carter-narrates-the-lincoln-portrait.html (accessed December 28, 2023).

Comments (6)

  1. How wonderful & precious, many thanks to all. Know that I’ll be forwarding the link to my friends & family this weekend, perfect as a way to enjoy & welcome the beginning of a new year.

    • Thanks for the kind words and for sharing the blog! Happy new year!

  2. It’s great to learn about people who you’ve admired individually having built a relationship and collaborated on worthwhile projects. This story about Bernstein and the Carter’s – with a dash of Aaron Copeland – was fascinating.

    • Glad you enjoyed, thanks for reading!

  3. Great article! I googled and learned that Bernstein’s mother outlived him by a few years. I don’t recall her being portrayed in “Maestro.”

    • Thanks Audrey! Yes, very interesting that she outlived him — Jamie Bernstein’s recollection of that whole episode at the White House with Jennie and Lenny’s aunts is very charming, learn more in “Famous Father Girl.”

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