Maestro: Was Tommy Cothran a Real Person? Was He Leanord Bernstein’s Lover?

In Netflix’s biographical drama film ‘Maestro,’ Tommy Cothran’s presence in Leonard Bernstein’s life threatens the latter’s relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre. Bernstein, in his later years, gets increasingly intimate with Tommy and even welcomes him to his family when the musician spends his time with his wife and children. His relationship with Tommy opens a window to his sexuality, which he hides from the rest of the world. When Felicia gets diagnosed with cancer, Bernstein remains by the side of his wife, away from his lover. As the film depicts, Tommy was really a significant part of Bernstein’s life!

The Intense Affair

Tommy Cothran is based on a real music director. Bernstein and Tommy met for the first time at a party at a mutual friend’s house in San Francisco. At the time, the latter was the music director of KKHI, a local radio station. Although he attended the University of California in Berkeley to study English Literature, he dropped out before the final exams. According to Humphrey Burton’s book ‘Leonard Bernstein,’ one of the acclaimed biographies of the legendary musician, Bernstein fell in love with Tommy “instantly.” They bonded over discussions concerning Voltaire’s disdain for Leibniz and the test tapes of ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’

“Bernstein never failed to call Felicia each evening, but he and Cothran slept together for the rest of his stay,” Burton’s book reads. According to Peter Napolitano, Tommy’s friend and occasional lover, Bernstein and the music director remained lovers for seven years. Burton observed in his book that Bernstein regained the essence of youth by sharing his life with the twenty-four-year-old Tommy at the age of fifty-three. According to the author, Bernstein’s first “loving relationship with a man” was with Tommy despite having several same-sex sexual encounters during the twenty years of his marriage with Felicia.

Creative Partnership

Bernstein and Tommy’s relationship strengthened while the former was in the late stages of creating ‘Mass,’ one of his renowned musical theater works. The musician included Tommy in his creative group to work on ‘Mass.’ “I am particularly grateful to Thomas Cothran for his special assistance in preparing this score,” he wrote in the preface to the printed piano vocal edition of ‘Mass.’ Tommy also contributed to ‘The Unanswered Question,’ a lecture series given by Bernstein as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. The musician acknowledged that Tommy’s “musical sensibilities and poetic insights fertilized my every idea.”

Felicia’s Ultimatum and Bernstein’s Choice

Felicia gradually started to resent Tommy, as per Burton’s book, as he became an unavoidable presence in her husband’s life. Eventually, she gave Bernstein an ultimatum to choose between her and Tommy, only for the musician to choose the latter. “My mother [Felicia] was a fairly conventional lady and so she expected to be treated like one. The deal was that he would be discreet and that she would maintain her dignity. And then he was not discreet [Felicia found him in bed with his lover, a young music researcher, Tom Cothran, whom he had met in San Franciso in 1973], and so that was that,” Nina, Bernstein and Felicia’s third child, told HuffPost about her parents’ separation.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bernstein and Tommy then started to live together. “In August and September 1976, he [Bernstein] and Cothran spent six weeks together in Carmel, on the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and San Francisco. While they sang and swam and read poetry, in Bernstein’s mind gingerly testing the possibility of making a permanent life together, Felicia was going through hell at Martha’s Vineyard. She could not come to terms with her husband’s defection,” Burton’s book reads. After leaving California, they lived together in New York City. They also visited Paris together. “With Tom Cothran at his side, he [Bernstein] moved on to Paris, where he could fantasize about being Oscar Wilde to Cothran’s Lord Alfred Douglas,” the author added.

The Lovers’ Separation and Tommy’s Death

Bernstein and Tommy ended up becoming incompatible, which made living together tougher. According to Burton’s biography, Tommy had a “voracious sexual appetite” while sex for Bernstein was often “an adjunct to the game of conquest as well as an end in itself.” “In mid-February, Bernstein returned precipitately to New York. He told [his manager] Harry Kraut it was impossible for him to live with Cothran and he wanted a reconciliation with Felicia,” ‘Leonard Bernstein’ reads. Still, the “two men parted without rancor and remained close.”

Tommy eventually got diagnosed with AIDS. He was first diagnosed with lymphoma and then later, he discovered that it was the early manifestation of AIDS. When Tommy was on his deathbed, Bernstein visited him. “Bernstein made a painful visit to Cothran’s sickbed in November 1986. Cothran babbled about his desire to die in Katmandu, prompting Bernstein to ask Charlie Harmon, who was with him, to check out the cost of an ambulance flight to Nepal. But the nurse looking after Cothran dressed him in a T-shirt from Katmandu and said he was there already,” Burton added. Tommy died four months later.

A day after the visit, Bernstein organized a benefit concert for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. The program raised $300,000 for unfunded AIDS projects. The concert was followed by the “Music for Life” AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall, which raised $1.7 million for patient care.

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