The True Story Behind Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein Biopic

Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro has finally hit Netflix, with Bradley Cooper serving as the movie’s director, co-screenwriter, and leading actor. Carey Mulligan takes on the role of Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, while Matt Bomer, Sarah Silverman, and Maya Hawke co-star in the glossy flick.

But how closely does Maestro adhere to the real events of Bernstein’s life? Here, we explore the true story behind Bradley Cooper’s latest movie, Maestro.

Leonard Bernstein met Felicia Montealegre in 1946

Maestro opens with Leonard Bernstein receiving a phone call with the news that he will be conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall that evening, without a rehearsal, as a substitute for Bruno Walter. This would be the conductor’s big break, with the event taking place on November 14, 1943.

As detailed in Maestro, Felicia Montealegre made her Broadway debut three years later in 1946 in Swan Song. She began a relationship with composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein after the pair hit it off after being introduced at a party by Montealegre’s piano teacher, Claudio Arrau, per the official Leonard Bernstein website. Bernstein would later recall that they “fell in love” that very night, according to Biography. Although they initially got engaged the same year, the couple would split and go their separate ways, as reported by The New York Times.

carey mulligan and bradley cooper

Jason McDonald/Netflix

Although it’s not explored in Maestro, Montealegre began a romantic relationship with someone else following her split from Bernstein. Actor Richard Hart and Montealegre were together between 1948 and 1951. However, their relationship ended abruptly when Hart tragically died from a heart attack on January 2, 1951, via The New York Times.

Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre married in 1951

Following Richard Hart’s death, Felicia Montealegre rekindled her romance with Leonard Bernstein, having kept in contact with his family, via The New York Times. The pair would announce their re-engagement in August 1951, and married the following month, via Biography. However, Bernstein’s parents weren’t originally onboard with the couple marrying. In the biography Leonard Bernstein (via Biography), author Humphrey Burton revealed that the composer’s mother said, “I don’t think she is the girl for you; you deserve someone better.”

The couple would welcome three children together. Daughter Jamie was born in 1952, son Alexander arrived in 1955, and daughter Nina was born in 1962, via Women’s Health.

Leonard Bernstein engaged in extramarital relationships with men and women

Netflix biopic Maestro gives viewers insight into Leonard Bernstein’s sexuality, and the relationships he had while he was married, both with women and men. In a 2013 review of The Leonard Bernstein Letters, which collects together the conductor’s correspondence, The New York Times noted the “unspoken covenant” Bernstein had with Felicia Montealegre. “He could have affairs with men, he could lead his ‘double life,’ as long as he was reasonably discreet,” the newspaper wrote.

As referenced in Maestro, Montealegre was aware of her husband’s sexuality, which she wrote about in a letter to Bernstein in 1951 or 1952, via The New York Times. “You are a homosexual and may never change,” she wrote. “Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession… Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect.”

a man writing on a book

Jason McDonald/Netflix

Bradley Cooper’s movie includes only a handful of Bernstein’s affairs and relationships, including his romance with clarinetist and producer David Oppenheim, played by Matt Bomer. But in Maestro, Bernstein’s conflict—between his marriage and his desire for other people—is front and center. It’s also crucial to note that homophobia was rife in the 1940s and 1950s, and Bernstein was urged to marry a woman by other people in his life, in order to quash any rumors about his sexuality, per Time.

Above all, Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre ‘were really great friends’

Maestro explores Leonard Bernstein’s marriage with Felicia Montealegre, but it also touches upon the romantic relationships the conductor had with a number of men throughout his life. However, as Maestro makes clear, Berstein and Montealegre were extremely close.

“They were really great friends and probably that counts for the most in the long run that they could still make each other laugh and tell each other stories that they were each interested in,” the couple’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, revealed during an interview on American Masters in 1997. She also noted that her parents seemed to have less passion for one another as time went on, but they remained the best of friends.

Felicia Montealegre died from cancer in 1978

As well as detailing Leonard Bernstein’s relationships and career, Maestro explores Felicia Montealegre’s life, and her untimely death from cancer on June 16, 1978, at the age of 56, per The New York Times.

The couple’s marriage started to falter after Montealegre was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in 1974, via The New York Times. Bernstein and Montealegre were separated when her cancer returned in 1976, and the conductor was living in New York City with music researcher Tom Cothran, via HuffPost. After learning of Montealegre’s diagnosis, Bernstein moved back in to the family home, and as Maestro shows, he took care of her until her death, with multiple publications citing the conductor’s feelings of guilt.

a person with a necklace

Jason McDonald/Netflix

Bernstein and Montealegre’s eldest daughter, Jamie Bernstein, discussed the film in an essay for Time, revealing that Bradley Cooper read her book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, in preparation for the movie. In particular, Cooper was influenced by Jamie’s account of her mother’s death, and incorporated much of her recollection into the script.

“This was a very tough time to write about, and my memories were buried deep,” Jamie wrote for Time. “Fortunately, I had kept a journal. Forty years later, I found myself reading about the night I sat at my mother’s bedside, having what turned out to be our last real conversation. My mother held my hand and said: ‘Remember: the most important thing is kindness. Kindness, kindness, kindness.’”

Jamie also revealed that the dramatization of her mother’s death was a powerful way of showing the healing that had taken place in her parents’ relationship. “Here was a woman who had known fury, regret, and love—and now, at the end, she was choosing love over all other emotions,” Jamie wrote. “Clearly, Bradley Cooper understood the magnitude of Felicia’s words—and he uses them to tell us that Felicia is forgiving Lenny: that she is loving him to her last breath, seeing his own true heart in all its anguish and complexity.”

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Amy Mackelden is a freelance writer, editor, and disability activist. Her bylines include Harper’s BAZAAR, Nicki Swift, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, ELLE, The Independent, Bustle, Healthline, and HelloGiggles. She co-edited The Emma Press Anthology of Illness, and previously spent all of her money on Kylie Cosmetics.