Jamie Bernstein, Famous Father Girl:
A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper)
In Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Jamie Bernstein, daughter of legendary conductor, composer and overall musical genius Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), sheds light upon how she grew up in the shadow of the legend. In Jamie’s early years, her family looked outwardly conventional, or at least conventional for the upper crust Manhattan milieu in which she and her two siblings were raised. Jamie, the oldest child, was born in 1952; her brother Alexander followed two years later, and their younger sister Nina was born in 1962.
Their mother Felicia Montealegre – “Mummy” throughout the memoir — was a native of Chile and a Roman Catholic from a semi-aristocratic background, a contrast to her American-born Jewish husband from a first-generation immigrant family. Felicia was an accomplished pianist and aspiring actress, an elegant and insightful woman who was highly engaged in the lives of her children and served as the family “policeman” and “stabilizer” (p.100). But Felicia died of cancer in 1978 at age 56.
In 1951, Felicia married Jamie’s father, most frequently referred to here as “Daddy,” but also as “Lenny,” “LB,” and “the Maestro.” Felicia’s husband was already a world-class conductor and composer when they married, and became ever more the celebrity as the couple’s three children grew up. Jamie’s portrait of Bernstein the father and husband conforms to what most readers passingly familiar with Bernstein would anticipate: a larger than life figure who quickly filled up any room he entered; ebullient, exuberant, and eccentric; a chain smoker, a prodigious talker as well as music maker; and a man who loved jokes, spent much time under a sunlamp, and had a proclivity for kissing on the lips just about everyone he met, male or female. The insights into Bernstein’s personality and how he filled the role of father and husband are one of two factors that make this memoir . . . well, memorable.
The other factor is Bernstein’s sexuality. Despite the appearances of conventional marriage and family life, the bi-sexual Maestro leaned heavily toward the gay side of the equation. Jamie’s elaboration upon how she became aware of her father’s preference for other men, and the effect of her father’s homosexuality on her mother and the family, constitute the memoir’s backbone. Although she provides her perspective on her father’s musical achievements, she spends more time on Bernstein as paterfamilias than Bernstein as music maker. Jamie also reveals how she struggled to find her own pathway through life as an adolescent and young adult, feeling stalked by her family’s name and her father’s fame.
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Jamie became aware of her father’s sexual preferences as a teenager. She had landed a summer job at the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival in Western Massachusetts, where her father conducted. People at Tanglewood talked freely about her father and the men he was involved with:
They talked about it quite casually in front of me, so I pretended I knew all about it – but I didn’t. I mentally reviewed past experiences; had I sensed, or observed, anything to indicate that my father was homosexual? He was extravagantly affectionate with everyone: young and old, male and female. How could I possibly tell what any behavior meant? And anyway, weren’t homosexuals supposed to be girly? . . . Yet there was nothing I could detect that was particularly effeminate about my father. How exactly did he fit into this category? I was bewildered and upset. I couldn’t understand any of it – but in any case, my own existence seemed living proof that the story was not a simple one (p.123).
Thereafter, Jamie wrote her father a letter about what she had learned at Tanglewood. When she joined her parents at their weekend house in Connecticut, her father took her outside. He denied what he described as “rumors” that were propagated, he said, by persons who envied his professional success and hoped to jeopardize his career. Later, Jamie wondered whether her mother had forced her father to deny everything. After her confrontation with her father, she began to discuss her father’s sexual complexities with her siblings but never again raised the subject with either parent.
Jamie learned subsequently that prior to her parents’ marriage, Felicia had written to her future husband: “You are a homosexual and may never change . . . I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar” (p.124). Her clear-eyed mother had entered into her marriage knowing full well, Jamie concluded, that she was “marrying a tsunami – and a gay one at that” (p.172). Her parents may have reached an agreement, perhaps tacit, that her father would confine his philandering to the time he was one the road. At home, he was to be very conventional.
But that agreement came to an end in in 1976, when Leonard took a separate apartment in New York to spend time with a young man, Tommy Cothren, with whom he had fallen “madly in love” (p.188). Her father, Jamie writes, was “starting a new life – so he was cheerful, acting exuberantly gay and calling everyone ‘darling’” (p.188). In the rift between her parents, her brother Alexander seemed to be taking Felicia’s side while Jamie worried that she was not being sufficiently supportive of her mother. She was “trying so hard to be equitable. I wanted my father to find his true self and be happy with who he was . . . but I couldn’t help being ambivalent over how gracelessly he was going about it, and how much pain he was inflicting on our mother . . . Sometimes I wondered if I should have been taking sides.” (p.187).
These wrenching family issues became moot two years later, when Felicia died of breast cancer. Jamie notes that her father was quite attentive to her mother as her condition worsened. The loss of Felicia “ripped through our family’s world with a seismic shudder. She was so adored, so deeply beautiful . . . and gone so unbearably too soon, at fifty-six” (p.218). In the absence of Mummy, Jamie writes, her father became “as untamed as a sail flapping in a squall. The family’s preexisting behavioral boundaries were gone; now anything could happen” (p.233). Her father’s “intense physicality and flamboyance had always been there, but now, in the absence of Felicia’s calming influence, it became a beast unleashed” (p.235). After Felicia’s death, Leonard spent an increasing amount of time in Key West, in the Florida Keys, where the sunshine and gay intellectual culture attracted him.
Bernstein himself died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 72, from a form of lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure rather than his life-long cigarette habit (a habit which his wife shared and one which Jamie detested from an early age). The Maestro’s final years were ones where sexual liberation combined with physical and mental decline. He suffered from depression and “hated getting older, hated his diminishing physicality. But the other part of the problem – and the two were inextricably intertwined – was that he was continuing to put prodigious quantities of uppers, downers, and alcohol into a body that was growing ever less efficient at metabolizing all those substances” (p.258). His “decades of living at maximum volume appeared to be catching up with him at last” (p.316), Jamie writes.
At a concert at Tanglewood just months prior to his death, Bernstein had trouble conducting Arias and Baracollees, a piece he had written. “[H]is brain was so oxygen-deprived by that point that he couldn’t track the complexities of his own music” (p.319). When he came out afterwards for his bow, he was “tiny, ashen, and nearly lost inside the white suit that now hung so loosely on him, it looked as if it had been tailored for some other species” (p.319).
One shining exception to Bernstein’s downward spiral in his final years occurred at concerts in Berlin during the 1989 Christmas holiday season, the month following the fall of the Berlin wall. Bernstein conducted a “mighty ensemble comprising players volunteering from various orchestras around the world who, along with four soloists and a local girls’ chorus, gave a pair of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: one in East Berlin and one in West Berlin.” And to make the performances “extra-historic,” Bernstein changed Schiller’s text in the final “Ode to Joy” movement: “now it was ‘Ode to Freedom.’ “Freiheit!’ The word rang out again and again, wreathed in Beethoven’s harmonies, and the world watched it on television on Christmas Day” (p.313). The Berlin concerts were in Jamie’s view her father’s “peak performance,” the “pinnacle” of his lifelong advocacy for world peace and brotherhood, “never more eloquently expressed, and never to so many, than through Beethoven’s notes in that historical Christmas performance” (p.313).
But Bernstein’s progressive political orientation did not always play so well at home. In 1970, Felicia hosted a fundraiser at their Park Avenue apartment which Leonard attended, designed to assist the families of 21 members of the Black Panther party who were in jail with inflated bail amounts, “awaiting trial for what turned out to be trumped-up accusations involving absurd bomb plots” (p.109). The Black Panthers advocated black empowerment “by any means necessary” and were anti-Zionist, making them scary even in liberal New York. No journalists were invited to the fundraiser, but somehow two snuck in, the New York Times society writer and an upcoming journalist, Tom Wolfe (deceased subsequent to the memoir’s publication).
An article in the Times the next day heaped scorn on the event. “Everything about this article was loathsome,” Jamie writes, “and my parents were both aghast. But that was just the beginning” (p.112). The Times followed a few days later with an editorial chastising the couple for mocking the memory of Martin Luther King. The militant Jewish Defense League organized pickets in front of the Bernstein’s building and the couple became the “butt of ridicule” (p.113) in New York and nationally. Then, weeks later, Wolfe came out with an article in New York magazine entitled “That Party at Lenny’s,” followed by Radical Chic, a book centered on the event. “My mother’s very serious fundraiser had become her celebrity husband’s ‘party’” (p.116), Jamie writes.
Wolfe’s works had the effect of setting in stone the misinterpretation and mockery of the Panther event. Jamie contends bitterly that Wolfe never comprehended the depth of the damage he wreaked on her family. Unlike her father, Felicia had no work to back her up in the aftermath of the Panther debacle and grew increasingly despondent. Four years later, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Four years after that, she was dead of the disease. Even when Jamie wrote her memoir, a time when Wolfe himself was near death, “my rage and disgust can rise up in me like an old fever – and in those nearly deranged moments, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to lay Mummy’s precipitous decline, and even demise, at the feet of Mr. Wolfe” (p.117).
Nor did Wolfe comprehend, Jamie further argues, the degree to which his “snide little piece of neo-journalism rendered him a veritable stooge for the FBI.” Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover “may well have shed a tear of gratitude that this callow journalist had done so much of the bureau’s work by discrediting left-wing New York Jewish liberals while simultaneously pitting them against the black activist movement –thereby disempowering both groups in a single deft stroke” (p.116). With the Panther incident, the FBI became “obsessed with Leonard Bernstein all over again. Hoover was deeply paranoid about the Black Panthers” (p.305). But Jamie reveals how, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request for files on her father, the family learned that Hoover had been “obsessing on Leonard Bernstein since the 1940s, when informers started supplying insinuations that Bernstein was a Communist” (p.315). The 800-page Bernstein file “substantially increased in girth during the Red Scare years in the 1950s, when my father had even been briefly denied a passport” (p.305).
Well before Felicia’s death, it was clear to Jamie that her father had become a “Controversial Person – a long, complex evolution from his wunderkind public persona of the 1950s” (p.296). But in addition to her father’s story, Jamie’s memoir also provides her perspective on her own challenges “growing up Bernstein,” the memoir’s sub-title.
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Jamie grew up with so many of the trappings of Manhattan wealth that this portion of the story seems stereotypical, bordering on caricature. Her family lived in fancy Manhattan apartments, eventually the famous Dakota, where John Lennon was a neighbor until he was killed in front of the building (he was killed shortly after Jamie had walked past the shooter, seemingly just one of many groupies waiting to get a glance of the singer). The Bernstein family had a life-long South American nanny, Julia Vega, who was a major part of the family and is a presence throughout the memoir. The three children relied primarily upon chauffeurs and limousines for local transportation. They enjoyed a secondary residence for weekend and summer getaways, first in Connecticut, then in East Hampton. The children traveled all over the globe with their father as they grew up. They attended elite Manhattan private schools, and all three attended Harvard, the school from which Leonard had graduated prior to World War II. Jamie indicates that admission to Harvard brought little elation for herself or her two siblings; they always had “crippling doubts” (p.148) whether they gained admission on their merits or because they were Leonard Bernstein’s children (at Harvard, Jamie’s first year roommate was Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Pakistan’s prime minister who was assassinated when she became Pakistan’s prime minister).
As a young adult, Jamie followed her father into the music world, although her particular niche was more popular than classical music (a niche her father deeply appreciated; he too loved the Beatles). She was hardly surprised that she enjoyed considerably less success than her father. “Sure, I was musical, but I really was a very poor musician” (p.277). She stopped fretting about comparisons to her father when she stopped trying to be a musician herself. “It turned out that if I just refrained from making music with my own body, I was much calmer . . . [M]aking music with my own body had mostly made me a mess” (p.362-63).
Jamie had her share of boyfriends as a teenager and young adult, and she manages to tell her readers quite a bit about many of them. Her first date was with Marlon Brando’s nephew. She smoked a lot of marijuana, experimented with a host of other mind-expanding substances, and spent a good portion of her early adulthood stoned – with her brother Alexander seemingly even more of a pothead as a young man. She also partook of Erhard Seminars Training, aka “EST,” a “repackaging of Zen Buddhist principles for Western consumption” (p.175) and a quintessential 1970s way of “getting in touch with one’s inner feelings,” as we said back then.
Late in the memoir, a few years before her father’s death in 1990, Jamie married David Thomas, a man she had met several years earlier at Harvard. By the end of the memoir, she has given birth to two children, a boy and a girl, and is a devoted mother — but one either separated or divorced from her husband. She writes that her marriage had centered on David’s ability to relate to her father and fit into the family. The thrill was gone after Leonard died. Although the marriage “hung on for another decade,” the “deep harmony we experienced while Daddy was alive never returned” (p.337). After the detailed run through so many boyfriends, readers will be disappointed that Jamie provides no further insight into why her marriage floundered.
Jamie found her professional niche in preserving her father’s legacy by chance, after volunteering to help her daughter’s preschool start a music program. “It was the one and only regular music gig I ever had” (p.336), she writes. Finding that she had a knack for bringing music to young people, a forte of her father, she devised The Bernstein Beat, a project modeled after her father’s Young People’s Concerts but focused on her father’s music. Jamie presented The Bernstein Beat across the globe, in places as diverse as China and Cuba (in Cuba, she surprised herself by narrating in Spanish, her mother’s native tongue). She also co-produced a documentary film, Crescendo: The Power of Music, on a program she had observed in Venezuela designed to use music as a way to reach at risk young people and keep them away from street violence. The film, first presented at the Philadelphia Film Festival, won several prizes and Netflix bought it.
Around 2008, Jamie’s long-time friend, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, asked her to design and present educational concerts for adults with his Miami-based orchestral academy, the New World Symphony. It turned out to be “the best job ever” for her, to the point that she felt she had become the “poster child for life beginning at fifty” (p.361). She also began to edit a Leonard Bernstein newsletter, apprising readers of Bernstein-related performances and events. Preserving her father’s legacy has been a “good trade-off,” she writes: “leading a musician’s life minus the music–making part” (p.362-63).
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Jamie writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style, mixing candor – her memoir is nothing if not candid — with ample doses of humor, much of it self-deprecatory. But without the connection to her father, Jamie’s story is mostly one of a Manhattan rich kid’s angst. The memoir’s real interest lies in Jamie’s insights into the character and complexity of her father.
Thomas H. Peebles
January 25, 2020