“Famous Father Girl”

A MEMOIR OF GROWING UP BERNSTEIN 

Harper Collins, 400 pages, $28.99

By Susan Meister

JAMIE BERNSTEIN, eldest child of Leonard Bernstein and the only one so far willing to tell family secrets, in her witty and deeply felt memoir, does much to enhance her father’s considerable image in his many public incarnations: teacher, pianist, conductor, composer.  

On the other hand, she is unafraid to reveal the other LB, as he is frequently referred to in the book, the one who was at the center of everyone’s life however disempowering it might have been for them, the bisexual, the lover of fast cars that he drove recklessly, the chain smoker (cigarette smoke features prominently throughout the book), the inconsiderate husband who failed to notice that his beautiful Chilean-actress-pianist-artist wife, Felicia Montealegre, was withering under the weight of his relentless life force.

At the core of Jamie Bernstein’s narrative is their ever-present family: LB’s brother and sister to whom he remained close all his life (who had their own invented nonsense language), his three children—Jamie, her brother Alexander, and a much younger sister, Nina—and more problematically his parents. LB’s father, Sam, a wealthy businessman from the Boston suburbs, expected Lenny to join the family business. When instead Lenny early on showed a much greater interest in music, Sam refused to pay for piano lessons. (When asked years later if he regretted it, he said, “How was I to know that he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”)  

There is also much description of LB’s worshipful audiences, especially in Europe, where he was as adored as a contemporary rock star. All of this is background to the real purpose of this book, which is to describe what it was like to be a member of a family in which the patriarch is an active volcano.

Jamie Bernstein grew up in Park Avenue duplexes and in The Dakota, an illustrious pile on Central Park West where “Rosemary’s Baby” was filmed, and where a list of luminaries, including John Lennon, lived. She was surrounded by nannies, cooks, and a collection of world famous friends — Stephen (“Steve”) Sondheim, Mike Nichols, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Lauren Bacall and Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few. Nearly every weekend they gathered at the Bernstein summer house in Fairfield, Connecticut, where they swam, drank, smoked, and played word games with such intensity that some were seen leaving the table in tears. The children, in particular Jamie who would pursue a short-lived career as a singer/songwriter, composed original songs for each of their father’s birthdays, performed in front of the benighted crowd. There seemed to be a nonstop party that followed the Bernsteins wherever they were. They were rarely alone. Only Felicia, with her love of home decorating, seemed most content when hunting for antiques with only her children in tow.  

Summers were spent at Tanglewood where Bernstein famously taught and performed for fifty years. All of the kids had jobs there at some point. There were also trips to Europe on tour with LB or a month here and there spent in luxurious rented houses where their many friends followed. There were rock concerts and jazz nights that LB liked to go to with Jamie—he claimed that was where all the exciting developments in music were happening. Occasionally LB would use his fame to slip backstage to meet the performers, simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing his daughter.

Even as family life grew more and more fragmented when the kids got older, there were the relentless demands of performances, television appearances, lectures and composing. LB’s manager, an unsympathetic but frighteningly efficient overseer who supplied Bernstein with handsome young men in his later years, built a multi-million-dollar enterprise. It required LB to live to the limits of exhaustion. To sleep, he had pills, to stay awake, he had others. There was a special color-coded case in which he carried them. The pace, the pills, the smoking all led to a relatively early death for a conductor. It would not be shocking to learn that he died of lung cancer.

Any young person provided such privilege, surrounded by cultural movers who with a word could make or break a career, might find it difficult to forge a unique path. So it was with Jamie Bernstein. Her extreme nervousness at performing in public left her at a serious disadvantage for a career as a singer. (After many fits and starts, she finally recognizes that she is just not good enough.) She is also living in the shadow of her father’s fame, and expectations are high.  On the one hand, she is deeply attached, especially after her mother’s death from breast cancer at the age of 56; and on the other, she wants to move out from under the straightjacket of being a Famous Father Girl (a name given to her by a grade school classmate). But then, the gravitational pull of LB’s reputation triumphs. By the last section of the book, Jamie Bernstein is fully in the fold of his powerful image. “Alexander, Nina, and I quickly grasped that we’d acquired a new job for the rest of our lives: to carry our illustrious father’s legacy forward.” There would be a newsletter describing events related to him that are happening all over the world, scripts to accompany concerts of his music, broadcasts from the Tanglewood Music Center produced by Jamie, traveling shows, a documentary. It is a full career, and of course it is pursued in the company of her siblings. The Bernstein children are close. For anyone who has wished for a large and fascinating family, this is the book that will vicariously provide its pleasures.

Some will read “Famous Father Girl” hoping for salacious aspects of LB’s lovelife and details of his slow deterioration in which there were times he would in fits of irritation throw lit cigarettes at people around the dinner table. For others, the descriptions of his forceful presence—his raw sexuality is remarked upon frequently—will be even more appealing. Watching Bernstein conduct is to see how that physicality was put to use in his conducting—every part of his body, even his eyebrows, communicated what he wanted to his orchestras and by extension to his audiences. His emotions were laid bare, his passion extreme. There are clips of him conducting Mahler with tears unashamedly running down his face. 

It is common knowledge that Leonard Bernstein was a sublimely gifted musician, but here we learn that he was also a loving father whose daughter—she refers to him as “Daddy” throughout the book—has chronicled both his best and his worst inclinations. If one has to be tethered to an immortal flame, one could choose worse than Leonard Bernstein. Apart even from his classical compositions like Mass, Chichester Psalms, and Arias and Barcarolles, his musicals, West Side Story, Candide and On the Town, could be considered masterpieces. He imprinted 20th century music with his outsized talents.

Who might carry on perhaps LB’s most valuable legacy, that of musical educator? To Jamie Bernstein the answer is obvious: Gustavo Dudamel. With his own brand of charisma, his embrace of youth orchestras—he comes out of and supports El Sistema in his native Venezuela—and his famous generosity, he seems a perfect successor to Bernstein the teacher.

It has been speculated that it was not only the man but the times that made the man. Is there a cult of personality in the musical world that can match LB’s? There are beloved figures, but few who can match his incandescence. Are there the same crowds at symphonic performances who pay for a mere glimpse at the powerhouse on the podium? Likely there are, but the history of 21st century music has not yet been written.

Read Jamie Bernstein’s remarkably candid story of life with her father with informed reverence. He was highly imperfect as a man, but the adoration he knew in his life for all of his accomplishments remains firmly intact. At the Tanglewood celebration of his centenary last year, Bernstein fever was as evident as it was in his lifetime. Few will be able to claim that inestimable honor.