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Leonard Bernstein's Asthma and Heart Failure

Leonard Bernstein was one of America’s greatest composers and conductors. He was a pianist, arranger, educator, author and television personality, and wrote some of our best-loved musicals: West Side Story, Candide, and On The Town. He was the first American-born and American-trained conductor to be appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic and to conduct at Milan's La Scala Opera House. He was married to an exceptionally beautiful woman, Felicia Montealegre, who was born in Chile and was an accomplished pianist, singer and actress, and the mother of his three children. He died at the young age of 72 from heart failure and lung damage, brought on by his excessive smoking, drinking and promiscuity.

Early Life
His father, Sam Bernstein, was a Ukranian Russian immigrant whose goal of becoming a rabbi was destroyed when his family chose to avoid starving to death by coming to America. The family almost starved in America as his father went from being a fish cleaner, to a janitor in a barbershop, to stocking wigs for a wigmaker, and eventually to owning a beauty supply store.

Leonard received his first piano at age 10 when his Aunt Clara divorced her husband and needed a place to store her upright piano. His father refused to pay for piano lessons, but Leonard played the piano anyway and was so good without lessons that his father gave him a baby grand piano for his Bar Mitzvah.

Bernstein went to Boston Latin School and Harvard. I went to the same schools and had many of the same teachers. When my classmates and I complained about how much we had to study, the teachers would tell us about Leonard Bernstein who was editor of the school newspaper and a famous musician and concert pianist and also studied six hours a night. At Harvard he studied with Walter Piston. Edward Burlingame Hill , A. Tillman Merritt, and afterwards with Helen Coates, Heinrich Gebhard, Isabelle Vengerova, Fritz Reiner, and Serge Koussevitzky.

Meteoric Musical Career
In 1937, at age 19, he attended a Boston Symphony concert conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos, played the piano for him on the next day, and received so much praise from the famous conductor that he became determined to be a conductor himself. He then moved to Philadelphia to study with Fritz Reiner. In 1940, at age 22, he was accepted into a conducting class by Serge Koussevitzky who took him under his wing and personally fostered his future.

During World War II most young men were drafted, but Bernstein was not drafted because of the asthma he had developed in infancy. While conducting in later life, his wheezing sometimes could be heard above the orchestra. Being the only young man available, he became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On the morning of November 14, 1943, Bernstein was asked to substitute for Bruno Walter who had suddenly become ill. The next day, the New York Times praised him in a front-page review and he was invited to conduct the New York Philharmonic eleven more times that season.

From 1945 to 1947, he conducted the New York City Center orchestra and many other major orchestras throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel. By then, the news media was reporting that he was homosexual. In 1951, at age 33, he married the Chilean actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre. He told everyone that he loved her and had three children with her, but continued to have sex with just about every young man he met.

His Many Homosexual Contacts
Arthur Laurents, who worked with Bernstein on West Side Story, said that Bernstein was simply "a gay man who got married". At Harvard, he had a sexual relationship with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. After college, he loved Aaron Copland. While visiting Israel in 1948, he had an affair with Azariah Rapoport, a 20-year old Israeli soldier who was his guide. In an effort to understand himself, he accepted psychoanalysis with the Hungarian-born Dr. Sandor Rado, and found out that he could not be"cured" of homosexuality.

In 1973, at age 55, Bernstein met and fell in love with teenaged Tom Cothran, and his wife found them together in bed. He moved out of his marital home with his lover into an apartment on Central Park South. In 1977, at age 59, he reconciled and moved back in with his wife. She died the next year from lung cancer. After her death, he became even more promiscuous and he increased his intake of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. His favorite drink was Ballantine's Scotch Whisky. His cigarette brand was L&M.

Orchestra Conductors Often Have Very Long Lives
Pablo Cassals, Nadia Boulanger, Arturo Toscanini, and Leopold Stokowski all conducted major orchestras into their nineties. Walter Damrosch, Arthur Fiedler, and Serge Kousevitsky conducted into their eighties. Nobody knows why they lived so long, but the very act of conducting may be the reason. When you swing your arms, your arm muscles contract and squeeze the veins near them to pump extra blood toward the heart. When your arm muscles relax, they allow blood to fill the veins near them. This alternate contracting and relaxing of the arm muscles pumps extra blood toward the heart. Your heart then must contract against a greater amount of blood inside its chambers, so it does this with a faster beat and with more force, and this makes the heart muscle stronger.

Why Bernstein Died so Young
Even though he got plenty of exercise as a conductor, Bernstein died at age 72 from heart failure caused by his severe lung damage. It is incredibly sad that such a famous, respected, accomplished and wealthy man could have been so self destructive. Knowing that he had asthma, he should have avoided the behaviors that led to his early death:

Smoking - All asthmatics who are exposed to any air pollution will develop severe lung damage. Asthmatics choke up when they are exposed to irritants such as cigarette smoke, smog, hair spray, fresh paint and even burning something on the stove. Asthmatics are incredibly sensitive to breathing second-hand smoke and they even get lung damage from third-hand smoke from living in rooms previously inhabited by smokers. Bernstein smothered to death breathing out of an oxygen tank when his heart failed from lack of oxygen.

Excessive Drinking - He also drank way too much. Recent data show that there is no safe dose of alcohol. Exceeding two drinks a day increases heart attack risk by directly damaging the heart muscle.

Promiscuity - All promiscuous people have increased exposure to sexually transmitted infections which can directly damage the heart.

This week at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in Dallas, two papers were presented that showed that patients with asthma have a 60 percent higher risk of suffering heart attacks and death from heart failure.

Leonard Bernstein
August 25, 1918 - October 14, 1990

November 23rd, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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