Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A complicated life

Will you look at those gowns?

That is Mrs. Leonard Bernstein at left, with the classic hairdo. My father mentioned once how beautiful she was, and exotic, I remember him saying. Which she was, judging from this picture. In the middle with the dark hair is Bernstein's sister, Shirley. They were photographed at the opening of Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall in September 1962. I found it on the Life Photo Archive and promptly ripped it off.

What I am about to write will not advance music scholarship but it is funny all the same. Lastnight I was lying around as Howard played the piano and I was reading a book on Bernstein, called, well, "Bernstein." It is by a writer named Joan Peyser.

This book is one of the dozen or so reasons I cannot go back to the library. It is about a year overdue. I borrowed it for I forgot what reason. I think I wanted to see how other writers set up their books because I am working on that book myself. And I was attracted to what the author wrote in her foreword: "Nothing in my professioal experience is more exciting than the process of interpreting a complicated life," she wrote.

That is for sure!

So lastnight I found myself reading about Bernstein's friendship with the jazz pianist John Mehegan. Apparently Mehegan was gay and Bernstein was attracted to him and he and Marc Blitzstein always used to go to Mehegan's gigs. The author interviewed Mehegan's wife -- her name was Gay, what are the odds -- and quotes her as saying, "John was a remarkably attractive man. Brilliant, funny, cynical, he conveyed a masterful presence. He entered a room like a hurricane, sweeping into it in his trench coat with the collar turned up -- and everywhere people's heads would turn. He was extremely left politically, fiercely independent, flaunting, with a mocking sense of humor. He spent 17 years on the Juilliard faculty and never agreed to attend a party."

I love that, how he never agreed to attend a party. That is a good detail. Here is a picture of John Mehegan. I wish I could have found a picture of him in his trenchcoat.

Now how is this for a coincidence? I am reading all this and then my eyes stray to this pile of books sitting right near where I had just picked the Bernstein book up from. They were Howard's books. There was a pile of jazz books by, you guessed it, John Mehegan.

"Howard," I said. "I am just reading about this John Mehegan and look, you have all these books of his." And I explained what I had just read.

Howard said, "Oh, no wonder Bernstein wrote the foreword to one of the books."

And it was true!

We always talk about music's mysteries but here is one of them solved.


  1. Mehegan was NOT gay - "left politically", perhaps mostly in being a Mets fan

  2. Anonymous, thank you for the comment and for the laugh and for reading what I wrote. (I just read it all over again ... have no memory of writing it!)

    I was just writing what I read in this book. I am going to go back and check it out again. I hope you are right and I am wrong -- which I am expecting will be the case -- because then this will work nicely into another post I am planning about people you always read were gay who wind up being not gay. I have had that experience so often. I mean, Ravel. You are always told he is gay but when you look into it, there is no evidence that he was.

    That will be an entertaining post and thank you in advance for helping me with it!

  3. He was not gay, his third wife was Gay. LOL

  4. His wife's name was Gay Mehegan. She played in lounges around central CT. after her husband's death. Friends I spent hours listening to John in a lounge Westport.

  5. No, John was not gay, His wife was Gay Griscom Mehegan, of the Maine Griscoms. I lived in the home with them when the children were very young and he was not gay. He was a very intense man, totally obsessed with his music and spent the majority of his time out in his studio. He slept late and stayed up later working on one thing or another. Gay played at clubs around CT and NYC for years, and was not as well known as John. She was this short woman with huge boobs who had to swing her body to run up and down the keyboard because of her short arms. We were friends for many years, until she died. John died earlier, from a brain tumor.

  6. I studied piano from John Mehegan in his Westport, CT home in 1974 - 75. I had previously studied with Jay Frederick (also in Westport), and during my first lesson I told John about my tutelage from Jay he got very angry and began to overly criticize my playing. John really disliked Jay Frederick, and never gave him any credit for the fine musician that he actually was. This behavior went on for several weeks, and I almost walked out on a number of occasions. When John was satisfied that I was going to stick around, he finally warmed up to me. He was a truly gifted musician, and he challenged my playing constantly to make me a better player. He would give me a chart to learn, and tell me to learn it in all 12 keys by the following week. I can honestly say that I had to practice 4 to 6 hours per day just to keep up with him.
    As a person, John quite a character (and I mean that with all due respect). He used to walk down out of the kitchen into his studio at 10AM with a Bloody Mary in one hand, and the sports section in the other. I don’t recall him ever sitting next to me as most instructors would. John would move around the studio like a hurricane, speaking to me from across the room. His assistant, Linda would give me the charts to play and John was always in the room doing his thing (sometimes cursing under his breath about baseball scores). I seem to recall that he was a Mets fan. In retrospect, my time with John is something that I wish I could go back in time and experience again.
    I do remember that he had his favorite musicians, and also some that he despised. He loved Louis Armstrong, Miles, Bill Evans to name a few. He had no respect for John Lewis (MJQ), and despised Lawrence Welk and Ray Connif. The thing about John Lewis that I remember his saying is that Lewis was a highly over-rated player. I have to say that I disagreed with John about that, and he barked something at me and walked out of the room.
    I never met his wife Gay, but I do remember that she was a close friend with Jay Frederick. Maybe that’s why there was friction between the 2 men? When I left Jay Frederick’s studio to study with John, Jay gave me a big lecture that I was making a mistake and that I would be sorry if I went to study with John. He was nice enough to tell me that I was always welcome back to his studio, but I never did go back with Jay.
    I left my tutelage with John to play in some local funk bands back in the 70’s. I wish that I had stayed, as I would be a better player now if I did.
    The reason that I am writing all this? Well, I have been away from the piano for about 30 years, and just recently am relearning all the things that I used to be able to play. I pulled out some of John’s old books and charts. I have many fond memories of John, and googled him only to find this blog. So I am sharing some of my experiences with John with hopes that he will not be forgotten.

    Doug M.

  7. After my previous post, I remembered the why John disliked Jay Frederick. The issue was that Jay was teaching John's methodology of using numbers for a concept of tonal organization. John spent years working on this concept, and was very angry that Jay was using it.

    Doug M

  8. Doug, this is all so fascinating! I am loving these reminiscences and it is an honor to hear from someone so acquainted with John Mehegan. I am planning over the weekend to do a follow-up post. Thanks so much!!

  9. I studied with john too in 1972-73. John used to rent our summer house so I knew of him well before I studied with him. I always thought that he drank himself to death. Probably not far from the truth. Gay would call up my mother and ask what to do...she would try to cut the grass with hedge clippers and complain that the grass would only bend!
    I don't think he was gay.

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  11. It's been fun reading these memories of my dad! Thank you all for sharing. Dad was not gay; if anything, he loved women too well! Leonard Bernstein was a dear friend who wrote letters to my father from all over the world, as Dad lay dying of a malignant brain tumor in a nursing home. The love these men shared was intellectual, political, and of course musical; nothing else that I ever saw. But thanks for the laugh.

  12. Hi Tara!
    I'm sure you don't remember me, but I was Lyn Clark at the time and I was your nanny for a summer or two back in about 1968 or so. Your brother's ball kept getting "punctured!" Remember how he always said that?
    I took lessons from your dad for about a year and had no idea about his fame. I like to thin that I turned him on to the Rolling Stones and some rock music. I played him songs from records and made him write out the notes for me so I could play them too.
    I wonder if he hated teaching brats like me who were not serious really.
    You, Sean, and I went to Maine together and stayed in the cabin on your grandparents' property too. Do you remember how they spoke to each other with "thou" and "thy"?
    I remember it was your father's 50th birthday I think and your mom arranged a big party for him. I made a big board for everyone to sign and write a little greeting.
    Those were fun times and I think of that summer with such fondness.
    I live in Los Angeles now. How 'bout you and Sean?