Who Is the Chilean Woman That Carey Mulligan is Playing in ‘Maestro’?

Lead Photo: Maestro. (L to R) Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer) in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.
Maestro. (L to R) Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer) in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.
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Bradley Cooper’s new biopic Maestro has two major controversies. Maestro which follows the life of American conductor Leonard Bernstein and his love story with Chilean-American actress Felicia Montealegre, has mainly been soundly criticized for the stereotypical depiction of Bernstein. And Carey Mulligan, who plays Montealegre, has been met with backlash due to her being a British actress playing a notable Latina. 

A part of us does want to dive into the problematic nature of having a white woman once again play a Latina. It’s another instance of our identities being whitewashed for public consumption. In addition, it sidelines Chilean actresses like Leonor Varela, Jocelyn Osorio, and Lorenza Izzo who deserve a chance to play a groundbreaking Latina in a movie that will surely win Oscar praise. And the fact that Maestro seems to be interested more in vibes than cultural accuracy is already a mark against this movie. 

But at the end of the day, we have to make sure we call out the wrongs but also educate as to who Felicia Montealegre truly was. Because she’s more than a famed conductor’s wife and the mother of their children. She was an actress, activist, and woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. And that should be highlighted more than anything.


Born Into a Prominent Family

Felicia María Cohn Montealegre was born February 6, 1922, in San José, Costa Rica. She was then raised in Santiago, Chile in a “multilingual, cosmopolitan household.” Her father Roy Elwood Cohn’s transfer was the cause of the move, with him being the head of the American Smelting and Refining Company. She was also the middle daughter of Clemencia Montealegre, who came from one of Costa Rica’s most powerful coffee families. Felicia was raised Catholic, though she would later convert to Judaism when she married Leonard Bernstein after her move to NYC in 1944 to study drama. 


Was a Successful Actress

Montealegre was a successful actress, with leading roles on weekly television anthology dramas like Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One, Suspense, and the Philco Television Playhouse, among others. She also performed dramatic roles in classic musical concerts, including the narrator in Lukas Foss’s Parable of Death and the title role of Joan in Arthur Honnegger’s Joan of Arc. Also, in 1946, when she was only 24 years old, she made her Broadway debut in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Swan Song. That led her to roles in A Doll’s House, Along Came a Spider, among others.


Path to Leonard Bernstein Wasn't a Straight Line

Montealegre met composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1946 at a party. They were introduced by her piano teacher Claudio Arrau. Soon after they were engaged but broke up in 1947. After that, she spent years in an intimate relationship with Richard Hart, another actor who she’d worked with often. Unfortunately, in 1951 he died from a heart attack.

After reconnecting with Leonard, they once again were engaged. Four weeks later on September 9, 1951, the couple married. She then converted to Judaism but reportedly embraced all parts of her religious identity. And in 1952 she gave birth to her first daughter Jamie. Her son Alexander followed in 1955. And Nina, another daughter, followed in 1962. 


Was a Notable Activist

Montealegre was also an activist who co-founded an anti-war organization named “Another Mother for Peace.” This organization educated women against the war in Vietnam in 1967. She also chaired the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Division, was arrested at antiwar protests, helped run presidential campaigns, and worked with Amnesty International. 

In 1970 she even hosted a controversial fundraiser to help the families of the Black Panther 21, who were Black Panther members arrested for allegedly “shooting at the police and trying to blow up police stations.” Her work also led her to be the primary focus of Tom Wolfe’s notable New York essay titled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Maestro being covered here wouldn’t exist.