Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and studied at Harvard and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was highly regarded as a conductor, composer, pianist, and educator. He is probably best known to the public as long time music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; for conducting concerts by many of the world's leading orchestras; and for writing the music for the musical West Side Story.
All told, he wrote three symphonies, two operas, five musicals, and numerous other pieces. Bernstein's politics were decidedly left wing, but unlike some of his contemporaries, he was not blacklisted in the 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he actively supported groups such as the Black Panthers and publicly opposed the Vietnam War.
"During the 1960s, he became a well-known figure in the US through his series of 'Young People's Concerts' for US public television.
"On Christmas Day, December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concert was broadcast live in more than twenty countries to an estimated audience of 100 million people. For the occasion, Bernstein reworded Friedrich Schiller's text of Ode to Joy, substituting the word 'freedom' (Freiheit) for 'joy' (Freude). 'I'm sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing', said Bernstein."
Bernstein was a highly-regarded conductor among many musicians, in particular the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was a regular guest conductor. However, some people found his histrionic conducting style irritating and distracting; he danced and went into fits of exultation as he conducted. Bernstein's personal life was marked by anguish over the tradeoff between a conductor's glory and a composer's productivity, and the criticism invited by his impassioned political activism, It has been alleged that Bernstein was also conflicted about his devotion to his family and his bisexuality, but Arthur Laurents (Bernstein's collaborator in West Side Story), told Charles Kaiser (author of The Gay Metropolis) that Bernstein was simply 'a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.' Another friend of Bernstein, Shelly Rhoades Perle, told Bernstein's biographer, Meryl Secrest, that she thought 'he required men sexually and women emotionally.' "
Bernstein suffered bouts of depression in his later years.
"Bernstein married Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean, in 1951 and with her had three children. Although a loving father, Bernstein was notorious in the musical world for his promiscuity. The couple separated in the mid-1970s when she discovered that Bernstein had had several homosexual relationships. After the separation with his wife, Bernstein lived with Tom Cochran, his lover since 1971. He returned to his wife when she became terminally ill.