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Leslie Kandell
Leslie Kandell
Khushbu Shah

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New York Narratives: An Upper West Sider Recalls a Life Influenced By Music

Classical music journalist Leslie Kandell reflects on a life spent defying expectations

Leslie Kandell, 79-year-old Upper West Side resident, pushed boundaries at a time when women's roles in the workforce were limited. An elementary school student of Pete Seeger's and a lover of classical music, Leslie recounts her life as a music journalist, and the expectation-defying decisions that got her there.

Where I live is three blocks from where I was born. We lived in 420 Riverside Drive, which is at the bottom of one of the Morningside Heights hills. My mother would telephone the lobby—remember, there were no cell phones then—and tell the doorman she was coming down the hill with a baby carriage and tricycle, and he would come to the corner and stand with his arms out so when she came hurtling down the hill, he would block her before she tumbled into the street or the river.

My father worked in real estate. His office was at 4140 Broadway. That's about where Malcolm X was shot. My mother was interested in education, and she got her Masters with Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who was working down at the Bank Street School. It was only a nursery school at that time. Every morning my father would drive us all the way down to Bank Street, and then he would go all the way up to 4140 Broadway, so that didn't work, and we rented an apartment on Bleecker Street, so we could actually skip or crawl to school from there.

Before I was there, Jackson Pollock was the janitor.

We moved over to Washington Square; a wonderful apartment facing the park. Greenwich Village, at that time, was somewhere between the great Bohemia of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the druggies of the ‘60s. It was, I would say, the folky time. I remember going out to the arch with my guitar and singing with Erik Darling, Israel Young, and the others. Our music teacher at The City and Country School was Pete Seeger. I don't think he loved children particularly, but he loved singing. He would come to our room twice a week and pass out words sheets, and I would think, "I will never learn this song. I'll never be able to." And we always had it by the end of the session. That was Pete.

Most of the teachers were either Communists or lesbians or both, and it was wild in terms of what you think of now, but everything was very calm in those days. Before I was there, Jackson Pollock was the janitor. Quite the place, but it was just a very little, little school. It's still a very little school.

Washington Square was my home at the time I went off to college at Bryn Mawr. I majored in musicology. I went there thinking I would be the great English major, but somehow, you know, you get one piano teacher or something, and I just found that music was such fun and so easy, and I felt, "Well, this must be cheating." And I went around at the end of sophomore year asking, "Is it okay to major in something you like?" I just couldn't get my head around that. And when I went for it, it changed my whole outlook about exams. I would get all those other ones out of the way and there I was, alone with my music books and notebooks, and all I had to do all day was just read them forwards and backwards with great joy, and go to the piano, and listen to records. Those days were extra special for me.

I thought, "Well, maybe I want to go into this new field, music therapy," and I got a job at the Rusk Institute. At that time, my mother was Dean of Admissions and Placement at Bank Street College, which was one of the arms of the Bank Street School, and they were short of student teachers, and she said, "You come on in, and it would be easy to get a scholarship." I sort of was floating and didn't know what I wanted to do with my real life. So there was no reason not to have a masters in that, which I took while being goaded by my father to get married. It wasn't anything I wanted to do, and they came from a generation where that was what you did. It was disturbing to them, that I seemed to have other interests or didn't want to do what is called settling down.

Leslie Kandell

It was that period in my 20s where people were circulating around and looking for spouses, and I was not. So my father said, "Well, since you don't seem to be getting married," he said disapprovingly, "there are three things that a woman can do." It was amazing that he would say this considering the education he had paid for that I had with these wonderful women doing these great things. So, "There are three things a woman can do. You could be a secretary. You can be a nurse, or you could be a teacher." I didn't like any of those, so he said, "Well, let me help you. If you are a secretary, the good thing is that you might meet a nice boss that you could marry. The bad thing is that you would have to go back to school and learn stenography. If you become a nurse, the good thing is"—Do you think you know?—"that you might meet a nice doctor you could marry. The bad thing is you might have to give injections or change bed pans. If you become a teacher, you'll have less chance of marrying, but if you do, you can always put it aside and come back to it later." So I said, "Well, I don't like any of those." And he said, "Well, then I'll decide for you. You be a teacher."

So I became a teacher, and it was a fantastic experience. I taught on the Lower East Side, and in ensuing years, I forgot about it completely so that it was quite the bombshell when a friend that I had re-met after many years said, "By the way, were you ever a teacher?" And then all of those years came flowing back and I went through boxes and found this photo of these kids. Having turned up the photo, I said, "Oh, wouldn't it be fun to have all these kids come to my house, and we could have milk and cookies and listen to old tapes."

I knew how to draw lost people into a found circle.

Well these people were born in 1951, so figure it out, they didn't exactly look like I imagined them. It was the experience of a lifetime to see how many of them are dead and why. Vietnam, drugs. How a girl marries and becomes a phantom in society. She loses her name. You can't find her anywhere. So I had much better luck finding the boys than the girls, but some girls did very well and had academic jobs and families.

It was a life-changing experience because I began to realize myself as a reunionista. That I liked to move groups of people around and that I knew how to draw lost people into a found circle. Yes, I write about music, but I think, right now, as I enter my final fifth I like the stuff with the bringing the people together.

My husband was a genius. Everybody knew he was a genius. But in high school, he hung out with drippy boys, you know, with the sports jackets and the necktie that wasn't tied right. And they did twirly steps down the hall, and they sat together at lunch and played chess in the air. It was just not my crowd. And when he was in college, and I was still in high school, I would read newspapers on the train on the way home. And there were newspaper articles about this boy who had solved this mathematical problem that nobody had ever been able to solve, and I said, "Oh, I went to school with that guy," and that was all. That was the end of it.

I have spent the last 60 summers up at Tanglewood, about 40 of them as a music critic. I started as a student, and the boy of the article was also a student there, and we sort of ran into each other. We're not at all interested in one another, except that I knew he was this great genius who had solved this great problem and therefore I had to say hello. It wasn't until after college when I found my way into this amateur Gilbert and Sullivan group. He was in there too, but so were quite a number of people, most of whom are dead because they're all older than I; that comes with the territory.


I remember, in particular, the time they did Don Giovanni, and whoever was supposed to sing Donna Elvira got sick, and they asked if I would do it. So I learned that part in 24 hours. I was bleary-eyed for a week. There's this aria where Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant, is telling Donna Elvira, who thinks that she's Don Giovanni's only love, that in fact Don Giovanni has this big address book, which he shows to her. Every town, he's got somebody and she is appalled. And they boy in the article sang Leporello and he sang that aria, and he pretended that he was acting and showing the address in the book when, in fact, he was showing me the place in the score so that I wouldn't have to worry where he was, and I could let my eyeballs rotate around and act shocked. And I could just feel free to emote and be horrified and we saw that we just worked well together as a team.

He was at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study on a Sloan grant. He had worked with [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. He came in for weekends, and we had a little splinter singing group. We would sight read the great oratorios, one on a part, so we got to know each other, sitting around and talking in a small group.

I always said yes when people asked me to marry them.

I was teaching then at P.S. 2 and discovering that I really knew nothing about teaching arithmetic that satisfied me. I would give the next teacher's class music lessons while she taught my class arithmetic. I said, "This is not acceptable. I am going back to the Bank Street School, and I'll take a graduate course in how to teach this to kids." Richard was very impressed, and he said, "I'm in the city every weekend, and I will come to your house, and I will teach you, help you teach." I said, "Oh, no!" You know, the great genius teaching me. I was very leery of that, but we started doing that. And then one time, he told me that he had this Sloan grant and that he was going to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, and he said, out of my blue, he said, "I would like it if you would marry me and come along with me."

I always said yes when people asked me to marry them. That's what you did then. Then three weeks later, I would open my eyes and say, "I'm terribly sorry, I can't see you anymore." I said to this boy, "Let's wait a week, and when you come in next week, either we can pretend this didn't happen or we didn't hear anything, or we can, we can decide that it did happen and take it from there." So he went back to Princeton, and I caught the most terrible cold. I never had such a terrible cold, and I realized, by the end of the week, that that must have been because I was truly upset and, therefore, that meant I was going to say yes. So I married him, and it lasted as long as it lasted. We’re still sort of friendly.

A string quartet I had heard at Tanglewood called the Lenox Quartet was performing at the Bloomingdale School of Music right in this neighborhood. There were 35 people there, and I said to myself, "You know, this is terrible. This wonderful concert, and they're playing this wonderful music. Somebody should be writing about this." It was toward the end of that concert that I had another life-changing moment where I said, "Why don't I write about this? I was at the concert. I know the music, I know the people. If I write about it maybe people will come, and there'll be more concerts."

I wrote about it, and gave it to a local newspaper called Wisdoms Child, and I was very proud of myself. And my mother called and bawled me out, and she said, "You can't have a job and still run a home." So I said, "But it's not a job Mom, they didn't even pay me. It's just this article that I wrote," and she said, "It is impossible to have outside interests and still run a home," and that is something that made me feel that we had reached a point of departure from each other. I then wrote another article.

I was invited to join the New York Times. When they called me, I said, "Oh, you're wasting your time. I already subscribe."

I'd always sung in choruses, and when the big choral contractor for New York, Tommy Pyle, died, all the choral singers and orchestra players in New York, or so it seemed, converged on St. John the Divine, the cathedral up the street here. There was a tremendous convocation and we all sang the Brahms Requiem because everybody knew it. So I wrote about that for The Westsider, and they sent me $10. Oh me! At that time I was really at odds with my mother because I was this millionaire, you see? I was very sorry about my parents, but I realized that I was a music reporter. And that I made music, and I wrote about music, and that's what I was going to do.

I continued to spend summers at Tanglewood with my family, and I would get the buzz there, who was coming to New York. And early on I recognized by the absence of colleagues at concerts of new or contemporary music that this was going to be a clean page for me, and that if I wanted to rise up in my field, which I wanted to do at that time, I'd better hang out in new music places because I wouldn't have that much competition. I would get some assignment for some little paper or something that would be willing to hear about new music, and eventually I was invited to join the New York Times. When they called me, I said, "Oh, you're wasting your time. I already subscribe." He explained what they wanted. I sent them the stuff and then I went down and got the job, and I did very well at it. I was the only music writer outside the culture desk, and I covered music for the sections that represented areas just outside of New York City.

I met my true love, Mike, at Tanglewood because he and his late wife had a house behind Tanglewood and he would walk to concerts, so he loves music. I love music. But prior to that, remember those years I was saying that everybody was circulating around in our twenties? I wasn't really circulating that much because I didn't know what I was doing or what I wanted. My father used to accuse me of, and I quote, "running from the field of battle." But my sister was a pretty little thing and she wanted to please Daddy. She had well-vetted suitors with jackets and it was my job to entertain them while my sister stepped out of the bathtub. I was expected to serve the fruit and keep them talking until she arrived. And Mike was one of them.

My moniker for him in my mind was "guard dog" because he seemed so wary and protective, like a Secret Service agent and I said, well, if she marries him, she'll be well protected, which was not at all of interest to me at that time, but is now, and I am very well protected.

I like the archival journey of things.

Because I had a pretty rotten family life growing up and I’ve lost a child, I have made families of all the people that I have had to do with. I'm trying, right now, to get my grade school class together to see each other as we turn eighty. My summer camp went under in 1970 and somebody who is bent the way I am made a two-day reunion in New England somewhere and believe me, I was there with bells on. They even made a movie about the camp and I sat in that armchair right there and talked about how it was when World War II ended at camp and when we got the word of unconditional surrender from the Japanese.

I remember when the director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, was about to give a talk and he couldn't find his notes and it took him a nanosecond to say, "Well, never mind my notes. I’ll talk about anything," and boy he can. So I'm not Leon Botstein, but I can say some things. Somebody with his initials, Leonard Bernstein, owned these very dishes. That was his breakfast set. That I didn't know when I bought them at auction. I buy things at auction once in awhile because I like the archival journey of things and when Bernstein died, his family auctioned what they didn't and this was 58 pieces of an incomplete set.

I got the whole thing for $200 and it's Wedgwood and that's about what you would pay for two or three pieces nowadays and it has this wonderful history. That charger plate on the wall was also his, and it says in Dutch "In the concert of life, no one gets a program."

Leslie Kandell

New York Narratives is a collection of first-person accounts commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on the lived experience in New York City. Read more stories here.

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