Life With Leonard Bernstein

Aug 29, 2018

Jamie Bernstein can't call her childhood a typical one. On any given weekend, she might find Lauren Bacall, Isaac Stern, Richard Avedon, Mike Nichols, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman or Sidney Lumet hanging out at her house. Jamie's father was Leonard Bernstein.

The celebrated conductor, composer of West Side Story and host of television's Young People's Concerts was born 100 years ago, Aug. 25, 1918. To mark the centennial, Jamie Bernstein has published Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, a frank recollection of family life and the struggle to find herself amid the "blinding light" that was Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990.

Jamie Bernstein calls her father "a handful" who could be obnoxious. But she also remembers his warmth, genius, quick wit and the power of his sometimes misunderstood music. From her Manhattan home, Jamie Bernstein spoke openly about her book, why she chose talking about music rather than making it herself, and about her life growing up the child of one of America's most recognizable personalities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Tom Huizenga: Your book makes me wonder if you kept a diary, because you remember all these small details about your life. For example, you spell out the individual word plays that family friend Stephen Sondheim used when playing anagram games with you, your father and your siblings, Alexander and Nina.

Jamie Bernstein: We so prized those words that actually we remembered them. But it is true that I kept journals. They were an invaluable source material for me, because otherwise I would have remembered no more than half of what I have in the book.

Did you decide to keep a diary because you realized your father was the famous Leonard Bernstein?

When I was young, I didn't care that much that he was Leonard Bernstein. I had no sense of duty about preserving his legacy; in fact, my brother and sister and I all went to a lot of trouble to distance ourselves from his legacy and his professional considerations. The whole business side of it was of no interest whatsoever. We just wanted to stay home and be a family and play anagrams. It was only after our dad was gone that we realized that there was this other job to be done and that we had an interest in doing it.

You talk about how you knew your parents weren't quite like other parents. What tipped you off?

My brother and sister and I have this semi-joke answer for this question: It's when we were watching The Flintstones and Betty and Wilma were going to the "Hollyrock Bowl" to hear "Leonard Bernstone" conduct. "Oh my God, he's on The Flintstones? Wow, we must have really hit the big time."

In the fifth grade, you say, you became self-conscious about your father's fame.

The very first inkling must have been when my father appeared on television, which started happening with the Young People's Concerts [with the New York Philharmonic] when I was only 5 years old. Television was the most important thing in life as far as my siblings and I were concerned. So we already knew that something else was going on, but it was a kind of cumulative process. We just wanted to blend in and be like everybody else — this desire to be normal. And it kind of gave me the creeps to not be normal. It made me feel left out.

Finding your own way in life is a thread that seems to run through the book.

It's hard to live in a very bright sun and try to figure out what you're going to be on your own in that blinding light, and it took me a long time to figure it out. Of course, I made everything exponentially more difficult by trying to be a musician myself. I describe it as one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, simultaneously. There was constant conflict, mixed feelings and cross purposes. It was exhausting and neurotic, and it took me all those decades to figure out that I was a much calmer and higher-functioning person if I just didn't make music with my own body. I was a little sad to give it up, but overall, I think talking about music turned out to be a very good compromise.

You talk about how it was hard not to buy into the "Bernstein family mythos." But you also say, "I was, above all, obnoxious like my father." How was your father obnoxious?

He was exuberant, and he just sort of took over in spite of himself; he couldn't help himself. Plus, he was a know-it-all and he had answers for everything, and liked talking at great length and was bossy. So he was a big handful, and I think I wound up inheriting a few of those qualities. I think my brother and sister would both agree that I'm pretty bossy and full of opinions and very sure that I'm right about things — which often I am not. Sometimes I think that it might be a blessing that I'm such a shrimp, because if I were the way I am and I was tall, people would think I was insufferable.

Maybe this is a good time to talk about this made-up word — "elf's thread" — that slips through the book, almost like a curse.

My father's great anagram of "self-hatred," a brilliant one. Self-loathing is a feeling that so many of us have a lot of the time, and each person on this planet has their own little recipe for it, I'm sure. But my father suffered from it tremendously. He struggled with elf's thread, as all artists do.

My personal recipe was that I insisted on trying to be a musician; that just made me feel disgusted with myself. It's really the phenomenon of just having the sinking feeling that you're making a complete ass of yourself, and that was a feeling that would come over me repeatedly and it's what has subsided as I got older. Every now and then I can still have that stupid idiot, elf's thread feeling, but so much less frequently that it's not as debilitating as it used to be.

There's also, I think, a thread that relates to this, which is the idea of a crisis of faith — something your dad grappled with in his music.

And it wasn't just spiritual faith that he was in crisis about, but also in his marriage and being bisexual. I think that generated so many conflicting feelings that he was often in agony about it all.

[Recently] I heard a fantastic performance of his piece Mass at the Ravinia Festival. It was one of the greatest performances of that piece I've ever seen. The piece is such a self-portrait of my dad. There are lyrics that sound as if it's his own inner voice, where he says: "What I say I don't feel, what I feel I don't show, what I show isn't real, what is real I don't know." You could write a whole biography of Leonard Bernstein by tracking Mass itself.

You say about Mass, "With all its flaws, grandiosity, its daring and its tremendous broken heart — it simply was daddy." What's the "broken heart" part of that?

He was just in such despair about the world altogether, and the way we were not repairing ourselves and how humanity was in this constant state of belligerence. He was so depressed about the Vietnam War and about all the assassinations that we had experienced just before he wrote the piece. So that's part of the broken heart.

The other part is that he was in such dire emotional conflict all the time — about his wife and about his sexuality. He didn't talk about it, but I know that it must have been something he really suffered over. I think he suffered over the fact that his marriage and his family were not enough, that there was something else he needed that he couldn't get there. That was very hard for him, and he didn't want it to be true. But it was.

Leonard Bernstein, it's safe to say, was complicated, and that goes for his sexuality too. In the book you say, "It was hard not to feel my father's sexuality."

I didn't mean that his sexual preferences were palpable. Looking back on it, I wish I'd used the word "eroticism." What I meant was that his aura was so sexual, so erotic — because for him, really, music was a form of lovemaking. I think he brought that sensibility right into his music and it just permeated virtually everything he did. And so, you know, if you're his offspring, that's complicated.

Your father was married to Felicia Montealegre for 27 years, until she died of cancer in 1978. What did you think when you first began to realize that your dad was attracted to men in a romantic way?

I didn't have an inkling about it until I started hearing those rumors up at Tanglewood, the summer after I graduated high school. Then in the subsequent years I was in college, it all started kind of literally ... coming out. By the time I was in my senior year he was cohabiting with Tom Cothran, who was helping him put together the Norton Lectures, so by then it was pretty clear what was going on.

My brother and I were kind of going through the process of understanding it together, but as often happens in families, these things are hard to talk about: People didn't quite have the words to talk about bisexual parents. Now, that's a conversation you can have. In those days it was all very muffled. So we didn't sit down and talk about it exactly, but we kind of eased into a mutual understanding that this thing was going on around us.

And your mom? Some people probably don't know that she actually knew what she was getting into, in terms of your father's sexuality, before they were married. There was a letter you found at one point.

There was a letter that was sealed by our father's executor, along with a bunch of other stuff, in a file drawer at the Leonard Bernstein office. Somebody came across it not long ago, like maybe five years ago. It said, "Not to be unsealed until 25 years after Bernstein's death," or something like that. And we thought, "Oh, the hell with it. Let's just open it up now."

So we opened it and there was this letter from my mother, and it was a fantastic find because it clarified everything so much. To know that her eyes were wide open about this marriage and what she was getting into, that was amazing to discover. It said a lot about our mother that she would write this letter to our father and say, "Look, you know I get it. It's complicated. But let's do this because we love each other. Let's make a family and let's just go forward."

In that letter, your mother wrote, "I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the LB altar." But in the end, didn't she do exactly that?

Well, I actually say that in the book. I think that's exactly what happened.

How does that make you feel?

It's very frustrating. I think she bit off more than she could chew. I think it went very well for quite a while, and then it all became sort of unbearable — plus, she got sick. The whole construct just turned sour for her, and then the last four years of her life were ghastly. And it makes me very sad to contemplate it.

You said you felt that you inherited a few things from your dad. What do you think you got from your mom?

I have this needlepoint pillow that a friend of the family gave me. It says, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all." Actually, it makes me a little uncomfortable to look at that pillow. I usually turn it backwards because my mother's ending was so tragic that I don't want to be that person my mother was.

But there are other things about my mother that I'm starting to realize. Like her, I love having a household environment that everybody likes to hang out in. We've hung onto our house in Connecticut, so the family gathers there every chance we get — and I just I love having everybody gathered all together, that's my favorite thing. My mother loved that, too: She loved taking care of everybody and giving everybody a good time, and lavishing [them with] food and having that sense of a group.

In this centennial year, there's been a steady flow of Bernstein concerts and recordings, and some of the critics have been weighing in. There was a piece in The New York Times about Mass and the headline reads, "Is 'Mass' Leonard Bernstein's Best Work, or His Worst?" Even though the article is a positive account of your father's liturgical theater work, do you think that's a fair way to frame it?

Oh, it happens over and over and over: Mass is very polarizing, and people either love it or hate it. Did you see Zachary Woolfe's review of Mass when it was at the Lincoln Center just two weeks ago? He excoriated it. When it first came out, there were all these negative reviews. And yet, at the same time, audiences who attend Mass — and some critics as well — have this gigantic experience where they're moved and stirred and they never forget it. It brings up all these intense emotions that we usually keep a lid on. And it's so experiential that you kind of have to be there. It does have a little bit of that 1960s feeling, but it really quite transcends the period in which it was composed. And now, because once again we are in such a moment of despair in our country — at least, so many of us feel that way — Mass resonates anew.

There was another piece recently in The Washington Post, titled "Too much Bernstein leaves a critic fed up with his music." The article talks about being inundated with Bernstein's music this year, and there's one sentence I want to get your take on: "The excesses of the man are plainly audible in music that, brilliant as some of it is, is constantly trying to get your attention, prove something about itself, make some kind of statement."

I think many of his works made big statements, but not all — so it's a little bit unfair to characterize the whole repertoire in that way. I mean, take a piece like Serenade, which happens to be my favorite symphonic work of my dad's. I think it's one of my father's most satisfying pieces. It's absolutely beautiful, lyrical — and that rollicking last movement and that gorgeous slow movement. I don't think it's proving a thing. I think it's just out there as what it is — just beautiful music.

Do you feel your father's presence in your everyday life?

Well, I sure do this year. There is no escaping the centennial. I'm constantly traveling to attend and participate in as many centennial-related events as possible, even though my brother and sister and I cannot possibly attend them all because there are well over 3,300 of them on our database at the moment, and still counting. So yes, he's very much among us. But one of the reasons I wrote the book was to try and get back in touch with the part of my father that just belonged to us and not to the whole world, so that I could keep that through-line going.

I get the feeling in the book that there were things that you wanted to discuss with him, but never did.

There are things now that I wish I could talk to him about, that I might not have been so interested in back then. The principal one is the politics, and the FBI, and all that mess in the '50s with the McCarthy hearings and his own involvement in all of that. His FBI file is about 800 pages long. And they had been following him since the 1940s, because he would lend his name and give money to any leftist organization that seemed to be doing something worthwhile; he didn't think twice about giving them his name. So J. Edgar Hoover was already tracking him. And when I think about it now, I'm surprised that he wasn't subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee — because, you know, all his pals had to go up there in front of them.

If you could send one thought to your father through the ether somehow, what would it be?

I would say, "Can you give us something to help us get through what we're going through now?" If my father were alive today he would be apoplectic with what's going on with our government. But, you know, he would be out in the streets. He would be making music to benefit immigrant families. He would be doing everything he could think of, I'm sure. We could use his good works and good energy right about now.

Name one thing about you, and one thing about your father, that you hope readers will take away from the book.

What I hope I conveyed is that everything my father did, in any aspect of his life, was always in the context of love. If he could have, he would have hugged every person on the planet — and he kind of did, through his music. So when I wrote this book, I, too, am hoping that I framed everything I wrote about in the context of love. There are a lot of things about my dad that are complicated and sometimes unsavory. He was a handful, to say the least. But I hope that I presented all of that in the ultimate context of love, because that's certainly how he was.

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