womenshealthmag.com
womenshealthmag.com
Felicia Montealegre: Bernstein's Activist Wife
User avatar
Curated by
eliot_at_perplexity
4 min read
14 days ago
65
Felicia Montealegre was a Costa Rican-Chilean actress and social activist, renowned for her versatile career spanning Broadway, television, opera, and concert stages, as well as her marriage to the legendary composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Early Life and Aspirations

en.wikipedia.org
en.wikipedia.org
Felicia María Cohn Montealegre was born on February 6, 1922, in San José, Costa Rica to Clemencia Cristina Montealegre Carazo, a Costa Rican, and Roy Elwood Cohn, an American mining executive. When she was an infant, her family moved to Chile due to her father's work. Montealegre was educated at a French convent school in Chile and raised Catholic, though her paternal grandfather was Jewish. From a young age, she harbored dreams of becoming an actress in America, despite her parents' initial objections.
classicfm.com favicon
kids.kiddle.co favicon
en.wikipedia.org favicon
4 sources

New York Acting Beginnings

leonardbernstein.com
leonardbernstein.com
At age 21, Montealegre moved to New York City in 1944, ostensibly to study piano with Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. However, she soon enrolled at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research to pursue acting, studying under Herbert Berghof. Montealegre made her Broadway debut in 1946 as the ingénue in the play Swan Song. She went on to have a prolific career in television, starring in leading roles for anthology drama series like Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One, Suspense, The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, and The Philco Television Playhouse from 1949-1956. Notable television performances included adaptations of Of Human Bondage opposite Charlton Heston and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.
ancestors.familysearch.org favicon
wikiwand.com favicon
classicfm.com favicon
5 sources

Unconventional Marriage Arrangement

biography.com
biography.com
Felicia Montealegre and Leonard Bernstein first met in February 1947 at a party hosted by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, Montealegre's former teacher. They quickly fell in love and became engaged a few months later, though they broke it off within the year. After Montealegre's partner Richard Hart tragically passed away in 1951, she and Bernstein rekindled their romance and married that September. Their marriage had an unconventional arrangement - Montealegre was aware of Bernstein's homosexuality and gave him permission to have affairs as long as he was discreet, writing "I am willing to accept you as you are...let's try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession." Despite this, they maintained a strong friendship and mutual respect. The couple had three children together - Jamie, Alexander, and Nina. Though Bernstein engaged in numerous affairs throughout their marriage, Montealegre stood by him until her death from lung cancer in 1978, with Bernstein caring for her at the end.
interlude.hk favicon
biography.com favicon
womenshealthmag.com favicon
5 sources

Activist and Fashion Influencer

wwd.com
wwd.com
Montealegre was a passionate social activist throughout her life. In 1963, she became the first chair of the Women's Division of the New York Civil Liberties Union, focusing on educational programs and fundraising events. She supported the anti-war grassroots campaign Another Mother for Peace, and in 1969 was arrested during an anti-war protest in Washington D.C. Montealegre also co-authored a 1974 report critiquing the New York State parole system. During the political turmoil in Chile in the 1970s, she worked behind the scenes with Amnesty International. Montealegre was renowned as a fashion icon who used her influence to promote cultural events and inspire new audiences. She often gave the first public showing of new designer looks at the New York Philharmonic's season openers, believing "Fads can become serious. Some people may attend to show off their mink, find they enjoy the music and become devoted to the Philharmonic." Her impeccable style and dedication to fashion drew press attention.
en.wikipedia.org favicon
leonardbernstein.com favicon
2 sources

Multifaceted Personality and Influence

Felicia Montealegre was a true chameleon, effortlessly adapting to different roles and social circles. She was a devoted wife and mother, raising three children with Leonard Bernstein while also maintaining a thriving acting career. Montealegre was deeply passionate about social activism, serving as the first chair of the Women's Division of the New York Civil Liberties Union and protesting against the Vietnam War. Yet she also embraced her role as a socialite and fashion influencer in mid-century America. Montealegre strategically used fashion to draw new audiences to cultural events like the New York Philharmonic's season openers. She believed that by showcasing the latest designer looks, she could inspire attendees who came "to show off their mink" to discover a love for music. Her impeccable style and social influence made her a subtle trendsetter in high society. Anecdotes highlight Montealegre's multifaceted personality. When first meeting pianist Glenn Gould, she immediately gave him an impromptu haircut before he could even have a drink. And in a letter to Bernstein after their marriage, she wrote "I am willing to accept you as you are...let's try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession," showing her unconventional approach to their relationship.
leonardbernstein.com favicon
wikiwand.com favicon
en.wikipedia.org favicon
5 sources

Final Years and Lasting Impact

canadianart.ca
canadianart.ca
In her later years, Felicia Montealegre faced a health crisis when she was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to her lungs in the mid-1970s. Despite the grim prognosis, she remained active in her social and family life until her passing on June 16, 1978, at age 56. To honor his late wife's legacy as a human rights activist, Leonard Bernstein established the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA in the early 1980s. The first of its kind, the fund provided crucial organizing assistance and resources to support Amnesty's human rights efforts worldwide. Montealegre's life, marriage to Bernstein, and multifaceted achievements as an actress, activist, and fashion icon have been depicted in various media, including the recent biopic Maestro.
leonardbernstein.com favicon
en.wikipedia.org favicon
leonardbernstein.com favicon
5 sources

Closing Thoughts

Felicia Montealegre was far more than just a "gorgeous woman" married to Leonard Bernstein. She was a gifted actress and multifaceted personality in her own right. Beyond her acclaimed theatrical and dramatic roles on Broadway and television, Montealegre was a passionate activist who used her influence to support social causes like civil liberties, anti-war efforts, and human rights in Chile. While her romantic relationship with Bernstein was unconventional due to his homosexuality, their marriage was built on a deep friendship, mutual respect, and an understanding that allowed Bernstein sexual freedom. Montealegre embraced the contradictions of her life - an independent career woman who was also a devoted wife and mother, an elegant socialite who fought for justice. Her ability to navigate these different worlds revealed her chameleon-like personality and refusal to be defined by societal expectations of American womanhood in that era.
leonardbernstein.com favicon
broadwayworld.com favicon
interlude.hk favicon
5 sources
Related
what was Felicia Montealegre's relationship with Leonard Bernstein like
how did Felicia Montealegre's early life in Chile shape her career
what were some of Felicia Montealegre's most notable Broadway performances