Meet the Biographer: Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin has introduced young children to fine art through her picture books and written about the Holocaust for various age groups. Her most recent book, Music Was It, is an exuberant young adult biography of legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein. This week, she told Kidsbiographer about the joy of talking to people who knew Bernstein and connecting young people with his music. 

Kidsbiographer:  Can you tell me a bit about your personal experience with music and with Leonard Bernstein in particular? What led you to write about his life for young adults?

SGR: For years, since I was a teenager,  I have loved and enjoyed the exhilarating music of Leonard Bernstein.  Music that he composed such as “Fancy Free,” “Candide,” even his brooding “Age of Anxiety,” and, of course, “West Side Story.” And I responded to the passion with which he conducted works by other composers from Mozart to Mahler. I realized that many young people today might not be familiar with Bernstein’s music, or any classical and theater music because of budget cuts at schools and the impact of pop music in the media.  So when a set of DVD’s of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts was reissued in 2005, I felt inspired to introduce him to a new generation.

I thought the story of his ongoing conflict with his father Sam Bernstein during Lenny’s childhood and teen years over his dream of becoming  a musician would have universal appeal. Many young people long to do different things than what their parents, though well meaning, want for them.  I partly dedicated the book to my friend Edward Kleban, the lyricist of “A Chorus Line,” because, like Lenny, Ed battled with his dad over his desire to become a composer for the musical theater during the time we were teenage students at the High School of Music & Art in New York, and for some years later as young adults. Ed worked at low paying jobs in the recording industry until he finally made it, and all that time we were friends.

Kidsbiographer: Music Was It concludes with Bernstein’s Carnegie Hall debut at age 25: the end of the book is only the beginning of his career. Thus, it’s a biography of a young adult for young adults. Why did you decide to focus on this period of Bernstein’s life?

SGR: That was exactly my point. I thought (and hoped) that young adults would be engaged by Bernstein’s struggle to become a musician despite his father’s desire to have him go into the family business, The Bernstein Hair Supply Company. And the arc of the story would climax when Lenny, a young adult,  finally succeeds, having overcome so many obstacles. Not only his father’s objection, but the real situation in the world of classical music at that time when a young American, especially a Jew, didn’t stand a chance of breaking through the barriers.

Kidsbiographer: In your acknowledgements page, you recognize the contributions of Bernstein’s family members and friends to the research process. Can you share some of the most interesting insights you gleaned from your conversations with those close to him?

SGR: I loved hearing from his adult children, Jamie and Alexander, how Lenny liked to teach, even at the dinner table. And I found out that he had a terrible singing voice. Jamie told me which recording of “On The Town” to listen to, to hear how bad his singing was in a brief song that is played at the beginning as though from a juke box. And they told me how deeply religious their father continued to be as an adult.  Because of his fame and celebrity, he would attend High Holy Day Services at Temple Emanuel-El by arriving late through a side door, and leaving quickly at the end.

Lenny’s brother Burton told me that their father, Sam Bernstein, was caring, and wanted security for his son. And the idea that he opposed Lenny’s desire to be a musician came from love and a realistic concern.  Burton also reminded me that Lenny paved the way for many young American musicians to become symphony conductors, a field that had been traditionally dominated by older Europeans up till that time.

Kidsbiographer: How has writing Music Was It altered or shaped your perception of Bernstein and his music?

SGR: I have enjoyed his music even more knowing the details of his early years and training. Now when I tune in the radio to my favorite classical music station I can tell by listening if Bernstein is conducting a symphony by another composer or his own work.  And I feel more personally connected with his music, as though I had lived it. When I hear Bernstein conduct a piece by his friend and mentor, Aaron Copland, I feel especially moved because I know about their history together.

Also, curiously, whenever I meet someone who knows I’ve written the book about Bernstein, they tell me an anecdote about him and his relationship with a friend or someone in their family.  Everyone has a Lenny story!  The research never ends.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about the biography? 

SGR: I recently heard from a teacher that her students loved listening to “Mambo” from “West Side Story,” then hearing parts of the book read aloud.

But I’m still waiting (and hoping) to have more feedback from readers.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

SGR: Yes! Thanks for asking.  I am thrilled to be writing a biography for young people, ages 12 to 14, about Stephen Sondheim with his permission and approval.  The book will be published by Neal Porter Books, Roaring Brook Press, a Division of Macmillan, in 2014.  At this time I am conducting interviews with people who know and work with Mr. Sondheim.  One of the themes is collaboration, and as you may know, Sondheim’s first Broadway show was “West Side Story.”  He wrote the lyrics for music composed by Leonard Bernstein so that brings my writing full circle.

I am also finishing work on Everybody Paints, a biography of the Wyeth Family –N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth – to be published by Chronicle Books.

And I have co-authored a teen memoir, They Call Me A Hero: A Memoir Of My Youth, by Daniel Hernandez, the young political intern who is credited with saving the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords on January 8, 2011.  The book will be published by Simon & Schuster in February 2013.

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