It’s the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, a larger-than-life figure in America’s classical and Broadway’s musical world, hence the arrival of this memoir by his daughter Jamie.
Jamie Bernstein was born in 1952, the oldest of three children of Leonard and Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. Her mother curtailed her own acting career to attend to the duties of motherhood and the demands of playing loyal helpmate to her husband, whose career and celebrity blossomed in the late 1950s.
Bernstein became the only American composer/conductor whose celebrity equaled his success as a musician, from such Broadway hits as “On the Town” and “West Side Story” to classical works such as “The Age of Anxiety” and “Kaddish.”
He grabbed his biggest audience through television with his Young People’s Concerts accompanied by the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1972, opening up classical works to many children while revealing his compelling personality and talents as an educator. More fame arrived through his humanitarian and civil rights activities, as well as a controversial 1970 New York magazine article by Tom Wolfe, “Radical Chic,” which satirized Bernstein’s politics.
But what about Jamie? It’s her memoir, after all. Her father’s celebrity, heightened by his bisexuality, was a joy and a curse. Her book describes a child eagerly courting her father’s love and struggling for years to become a professional musician. It seems that Bernstein’s shadow was simply too large to escape and that Jamie didn’t inherit her father’s musical talents.
She eventually changed course, using the Bernstein name and fame to make a career as the narrator of music programs by symphony orchestras, including her father’s score for “West Side Story.” She collaborated on a documentary about youth orchestras in Venezuela, appeared on radio commentaries and became a freelance writer.
Her emergence after the death of her father in 1990 came after years of searching for relationships and careers. Much of her memoir could be described as “Sex, Drugs and Gustav Mahler” or, perhaps, “Too Much Information.”
Her father attracted many famous friends, including Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, Mike Nichols, Lauren Bacall and Jacqueline Kennedy, and Jamie happily basks in their glow, even when it wasn’t always attractive. The Bernsteins’ Connecticut neighbor, novelist William Styron, comes off quite poorly.
But it’s the personal behavior of LB, as she called her father, that perhaps should have been edited. Consider this passage:
“Daddy’s smell was the combination of cigarette smoke and flatulence, which would commence at the breakfast table, once the nicotine and coffee had achieved their combined effect. ‘I’m getting stinky,’ he would announce and soon he was off to the bathroom.”
It’s probably best to end the descriptions there.
Along with Bernstein’s digestive system, Jamie writes explicitly about his increasingly unpleasant and destructive behavior after his wife died in 1978. She details his affairs with younger men, his excessive drug and alcohol abuse, chain-smoking and eventual artistic decline to give us an unflattering portrait of an American icon.
There was a brighter side to that picture, writes Jamie. Although frequently traveling for conducting jobs, Bernstein was an attentive and caring parent when around and shared his enthusiasm for social causes and for music, including the Beatles.
Discovering that her life “began at 50,” Jamie writes that she’s finally shed the weight of her father’s “burden” to achieve success on her own terms. The pronouncement arrives at the end of her memoir — a shame, really, since she does spend too many pages on her famous father’s career and too little on her own accomplishments.
Fans of Leonard Bernstein, while turned off by his personal behavior, will find his daughter’s accounts of gossip and celebrity interesting even she if gets lost in the telling.
Bob Hoover is retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Famous Father Girl
By: Jamie Bernstein.
Publisher: Harper, 385 pages, $28.99.