Famous Father, Talented Daughter

by Pat Launer April 2, 2019


the-bernstein-family-l-to-r-lb-alexander-felicia-nina-and-jamieSecond grade. All she wanted to do was fit in–act like she came from a “normal” family like those on TV. But her classmate Lisa Morrison called her out, dubbing her “famous father girl.”

It was mortifying at the time, but more than half a century later, it became the title of Jamie Bernstein’s 2018 memoir, “Famous Father Girl: Growing Up Bernstein.”

That ‘famous father’ was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), a 20th century icon: composer, conductor, author, teacher, pianist, philanthropist and social-political activist. He was among the first great conductors born and educated in the U.S. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” A prodigy and genius by any definition.

Bernstein (Jamie often refers to him as LB) served a long tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted most of the world’s leading orchestras, and composed in many styles, from symphonic and orchestral music to ballet, film and theater scores (including “On the Waterfront,” “Wonderful Town,” “On the Town”), as well as choral works, opera, chamber music and piano pieces. He was critical to the modern revival of the work of Gustav Mahler.

LB was already renowned when Jamie was born, the first of three Bernstein children. They became “co-conspirators,” a “force-field,” the “three-headed monster” that now travels the world sharing their father’s legacy. This responsibility was particularly intense last year, the centennial of Lenny’s birth.

“I took a year off to be a professional Bernstein,” says the charming, affable Bernstein daughter by phone from her home in New York. She’s been on the road since last June, on a book tour that, thanks to the Jewish Book Council, has included 50 appearances (including the Lawrence Family JCC on April 3).

“There were more than 5,000 commemorative events worldwide. We had to trifurcate,” she says of herself and her sibs. “I never had a year like that in my life. But it was so gratifying, because some of his works really got re-discovered, like ‘Mass’ and the violin concerto ‘Serenade,’ and ‘Dybbuk.’”

LB was educated at Harvard and insisted on the same for his children. That’s one of Jamie’s regrets, especially since Lenny was on the campus teaching at the same time she was there–taking up all the oxygen. She was always trying to set her own course, independent of his influence and she thinks she would’ve done a lot better in a smaller college like Vassar or Barnard. But Lenny was a force of nature, and he got pretty much whatever he wanted. He didn’t just get it; he insisted on it.

Not to say that Jamie hasn’t gone on to her own glory while celebrating her celebrated father. She’s a prolific concert narrator, broadcaster, journalist, poet, radio host and film producer. And a warm, humorous and heartful writer.

But she pulls no punches in describing the “exhilarating and exhausting” experience of being eternally “in orbit around Lenny.”

He was larger-than-life, in many ways. He was flamboyant (even before he began to publicly indulge his homosexual side). He dominated every conversation, every room. He was, she says, “matinee-idol handsome, madly charismatic, a superstar.” Also vain and narcissistic.

He was a perennial teacher. He was even teaching his new bride English grammar on their honeymoon; Felicia Montealegre, “a petite, elegant” actress, was born in Chile. She raised her three children to be bilingual. But it was no picnic being “Mrs. Maestro” all the time.

LB was an inveterate insomniac and had inexhaustible energy (according to Jamie, he had “an engine that would not, could not, shut off”).  He did a good deal of his composing during the night. Jamie could sing the scores of “West Side Story” and “Candide” by the time she was four.

Although he was a natty dresser (Jamie says he had “no visual sense” and often wore “garish outfits, sartorial atrocities that Felicia threw away and dressed him”), he hung around the house in a scruffy, brown wool bathrobe. Every morning, he would “sit on the porcelain throne” for an extended period, smoking, reading, doing “very hard British crossword puzzles” and studying musical scores. The bathroom door was always open. One time, with a score on his lap, Jamie tried to talk to him. “’Let me finish this movement,’ he said, and then burst into a laughing and coughing fit.”

Wit and comedy were a big deal to Lenny: Jewish jokes, vaudeville, radio gags. He and his brother and sister were extremely close, and they loved Borscht Belt humor. Jamie can still use Yiddishisms and tell a good joke herself.

After decades of chronic smoking and bronchitis, Lenny ultimately died of lung cancer at age 72, but it wasn’t even the smoking-related kind; it was mesothelioma, typically caused by asbestos inhalation.

Writing Down Her Memories

Fortunately for Jamie and her delightful memoir, she kept journals most of her life. Her diaries often focused on her various boyfriends, but there were enough details to flesh out a fascinating family history.

The Bernsteins, she says, “weren’t very religiously Jewish,” but they were all, starting with Lenny’s Eastern European immigrant parents, extremely culturally Jewish. One great story goes that Lenny’s father, a beauty supply business-owner, refused to pay for his son’s early piano lessons, calling it “an unlucrative career.” He later defended himself with, “How did I know he’d turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?”

In her book, Jamie recalls explicit aspects of her childhood, especially the early “golden years,” when the Bernsteins were the epicenter of New York culture. She blithely says, “Let the name-dropping begin,” and freely employs nicknames.

Regular visitors in the New York City digs, and the summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, were superstars like director Mike Nichols, photographer Dick Avedon; Broadway composer/lyricist duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green, director/producer/choreographer Jerry Robbins, playwright Lillian Hellman, violinist Isaac Stern, actor Betty (Lauren) Bacall.

After the “monster rallies” (huge dinner parties), LB would sit down at the piano, and everyone would “sing silly songs and make each other laugh.” Funny home movies were created by Steve Sondheim (“he and Daddy were very competitive in playing word games”). “The Lenny Show” never stopped.

Jamie attended LB’s highly acclaimed Young People’s Concerts, but says she was too young to understand them.

She did understand the Bernstein double standard: “Lenny’s ambition was tolerated, but it was not acceptable in the rest of the family.” And she laments “our ongoing inability to express our feelings to each other.” From their parents on down, they are all decidedly non-confrontational.

Her father was often away from home; he conducted all over the world. In fact, her parents missed her debut in a school production of “Guys and Dolls” and her college graduation, among other notable events. But, she asserts, “the biggest waste of one’s life is to stay angry at your parents in one’s adulthood.”

She would have liked “more autonomy, less pressure” when she was growing up, but clearly, Jamie is not angry or resentful. In fact, she thinks that one of the main through-lines of the book is the fact that “LB’s incredible affection and open-heartedness made the rest of it bearable. The love was so genuine.” And his bear-hugs were deliciously bone-crushing.

One of the important elements of her story, says Jamie, is “how I eventually made my own peace with music.” She had tried to be a musician, a singer/songwriter, but every time she began to make her way, Lenny would intervene–sometimes for good, sometimes, not. She would always write funny songs, loaded with in-jokes, for Lenny’s birthdays. Although she admits to being “the indisputable ham of the fam,” she would freeze when she had to perform musically.

“As I was writing the book, I discovered what it’s actually about,” she says. “There’s an unforeseen, satisfying resolution. I can’t play music, but I can talk about it all day. I’m leading a musician’s life, minus the music-making.”

Now, she travels the world giving information (always teaching–just like Dad). One project is called The Bernstein Beat.

“It was deliberately modeled after my father’s Young People’s Concerts. It was initially about LB and his music—as an introduction to the orchestra for young audiences and to promote the catalogue. I volunteered to develop it. I called my friend Michael Barrett, a conductor who was my father’s assistant and said, ‘You be the music guy, and I’ll be the words person.’”

They performed together for years. Michael still joins her occasionally, but now orchestras book the presentation, and Jamie narrates. She does one show on beloved family friend Aaron Copland (“I love his music as much as my Dad’s. It has the same way of getting to me”). When she presented on Mozart, she would dress up as young Amadeus and “portray him as a rascally kid.” At 67, she feels a little beyond cavorting as a wunderkind, but she makes good use of her bilingual skills, performing in Spanish-speaking countries “en español.”

In 2014, she co-directed the award-winning documentary, “Crescendo: The Power of Music,”  about El Sistema, a music-teaching program for struggling inner-city children that originated in Venezuela in 1976 (acclaimed L.A. Phil conductor, Gustavo Dudamel is one high-profile alumnus). The program has spread worldwide. Jamie’s inspiring film (available on Netflix) follows two students in West Philadelphia and one in New York’s Harlem, as they participate in Sistema-inspired youth orchestra programs.

In her role as broadcaster, Jamie has produced and hosted shows for U.S. and British radio stations. She has presented the New York Phil’s live national radio broadcasts, as well as live broadcasts from Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, where her father taught and performed for 50 years.

In addition to writing her own scripts and narrations, Jamie’s feature articles and poetry have appeared in such publications as Symphony, Town & Country, Gourmet, Opera News, and Musical America. She also edits “Prelude, Fugue & Riffs,” a newsletter about issues and events pertaining to her father’s legacy.

Her brother Alexander, formerly a schoolteacher, “put together an amazing, widely-used educational model based on our Dad’s philosophy (artfullearning.org), infusing the arts and the spirit of creativity into every school subject.”

Her sister, Nina, is a chef, who helps inner-city high school students learn about food. Jamie is also proud of her son, Evan, who is “passionate about Japanese culture,” and her daughter, Frankie, who is currently working on a novel at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

In case you were wondering, she did see Hershey Felder’s “Maestro” about her father. “Once I got over the disconcerting fact that he didn’t look like my father – I found it very well devised, and quite touching.”

Among her many other activities, Jamie is an avid Scrabble and tennis player. And Lisa Morrison (the second grader who came up with “famous father girl”) is now one of her closest friends.

Jamie Bernstein talks about her life, her book and her famous father in the Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla on Wed. April 3 at 7 p.m.

Tickets ($10-$15) and information: lfjcc.org.


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