When blond, hazel-eyed Felicia Montealegre first met musical wunderkind Leonard Bernstein in 1946—she was 24, he was 27—she felt they were “destined to share a life together.”
They almost did. For 25 years the Costa Rican-born actress and her composer-conductor husband appeared to have a storybook marriage. Then late last month Felicia tersely confirmed that she and Lennie, 58, had begun a trial separation.
“I saw them just a few weeks ago,” recalls one friend. “I am stunned. There was such a marvelous camaraderie when they were together.” A fragile-appearing porcelain beauty who virtually retired from acting to raise three children, Felicia Bernstein seemed imperturbable, a perfect counterpart for her flamboyant, emotional husband. While Lennie relentlessly pursued his many-sided career, Felicia became a celebrated New York hostess. (His income from his music and plays was more than enough to maintain an active social life.) Together, in their cavernous Edwardian living room in the Dakota on Manhattan’s West Side, the Bernsteins drew together a glittering crowd ranging from radical chic to symphonic celebs.
It now seems as if both parties were playacting a bit. “Felicia has never liked crowds,” says one longtime observer. “She likes privacy. I remember all those parties when she quietly went home before Lennie.” This fall, after an eight-year hiatus, Felicia returned to Broadway playing a supporting role in the recently opened Poor Murderer. “I think it was the ego boost she needed,” says one friend. Meanwhile Lennie was in Vienna to videotape Mahler. He was not among the audience on her opening night.
There were other strains as well, personal and professional. Last spring Lennie’s own return to the musical theater, a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner entitled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, turned into one of Broadway’s all-time financial and critical flops. Immediately after the show’s closing, Lennie undertook an arduous Bicentennial tour with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra throughout the U.S. and Europe.
All is not bleak for the Bernsteins, however. Lennie, who is currently visiting conductor with the Orchestre National in Paris, is due back within two weeks to begin rehearsals with the New York Philharmonic, of which he is laureate conductor. Neither Bernstein would talk about the possibility of divorce. Says Felicia: “We hope to reconcile.” And a longtime friend of both agrees: “I think she means exactly that. I doubt that there will ever be a divorce.”