September 16, 2019

Daughter Finds Light in Bernstein’s Shadow

On the cover of “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (Harper), we see a photograph of two people, one of them iconic and one whom most of us have never seen before.  There’s Leonard Bernstein, handsome and commanding, a conductor’s baton in his right hand, a wedding ring on his extended left hand. And then there’s a little girl seated in front of him as he puts an orchestra through its paces. She looks exquisitely bemused by all the goings-on around her. 

The girl is Jamie Bernstein, and she’s the “Famous Father Girl,” as she was dubbed by a classmate when she was in second grade. Although she characterizes the time and place of her childhood as “a Bernstein-heavy universe,” the story she tells is as much about herself and her family circle as it is about her famous father.  

Her mother was Felicia Cohn, “petite and elegantly beautiful, with a long, swan-like neck.” Born into a privileged family in Chile, Felicia traveled to New York to pursue an acting career, and she had enough Yiddishkayt to name her dog “Nebbish,” although Felicia later complained when her in-laws “Yiddishized my name to ‘Jamela.’ ” The household staff was Spanish-speaking, and her parents were known as “La Senora” and “El Caballero,” an irony that does not escape the grown-up Jamie: “As kids, we had no idea that our father’s background among striving Jewish immigrants in the Boston suburbs might be incongruous with being called a caballero.”

While Jamie fully appreciates her father’s place in the cultural firmament, she also recalls the intimate ways in which a child perceives a flesh-and-blood parent. A “characteristic Daddy smell,” as she puts it, “was the blend of cigarette smoke and flatulence.” And she shares the childhood moment when she tried to get her father’s attention while he was sitting on the toilet, smoking a cigarette and poring over a score. “Oh, I’ll be with you in a minute, darling — let me just finish this movement.” When he realized the double meaning of his remark, “he exploded in laughter.”

Hers was a childhood spent in rarefied circles. “Only much later did I realize how extraordinary it was to be surrounded on a regular basis by (let the name-dropping begin) Dick Avedon, Mike Nichols, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Lillian Hellman, Steve Sondheim, Jerry Robbins, Sidney Lumet, Betty (Lauren) Bacall, Isaac Stern.” Looking back, she now realizes that the presence of celebrities in the family home was a symptom of his father’s dedication to career. “[T]he membrane between work and play was, for him, virtually nonexistent.”

The story Jamie Bernstein tells is as much about herself and her family circle as it is about her famous father.

By adolescence, however, Jamie was fully aware of her father’s position and the prerogatives that came with it. She was an early and ardent Beatles fan. “To say I was a Beatlemaniac does not begin to convey the depth of my obsession.” And when John Lennon learned that her father was a fan of Lennon’s book of poetry, “In My Own Write,” Leonard was invited to attend the epochal appearance of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Jamie, of course, came along. The moment when they knocked on the dressing room door for a private audience remains a peak experience: “No actual event in my life would ever be more exciting than the seconds containing that anticipatory knock, on that particular door, on that particular day.”

Some insights took even longer to surface. Her godfather was composer Marc Blitzstein, and she recalls when news reached the family that he had been murdered by sailors on a night out in Martinique. “I didn’t find out for many years that it was a homosexual hate crime,” she recalls, “which must have made the loss even more ghastly for my parents.” And when she describes the much-lambasted fundraiser for the Black Panther Party that her parents hosted in the ’60s, she sees it as the high point in a relationship that would soon go into decline.

“I saw them as they saw themselves in that moment: Lenny working hard, making music, spreading beauty in a tough world — and Felicia, with her passion for social justice, representing their joint commitment to a nation that protected all of its citizens,” she writes. “I could feel how they felt right then: united, aligned, purposeful, loving. They probably never felt quite that good together again.”

As she entered adulthood, Jamie began to understand the backstory of her father’s colorful life.  When she was offered a job at the Tanglewood summer festival, she began to hear “a lot of stories about Leonard Bernstein’s wild youth at Tanglewood — including his amorous escapades with other men.” Much later, Jamie and her siblings learned the truth from a letter their mother had written to their father in the year of their wedding: “You are a homosexual and may never change,” wrote Felicia. “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.”

One recollection struck me as especially resonant. Jamie describes a visit to a disco while on vacation in Vail when she was still a teenager. When the theme from “Zorba the Greek” started to play, her father pulled her onto the dance floor, twirled a handkerchief in the air, and directed her to dance in a circle around him. “What else could I do?” she recalls. “I was trapped: a mortified moon, doomed to eternal orbit around an ecstatic, sweaty, handkerchief-twirling sun.”

And yet, no matter how she experienced her famous father, Jamie Bernstein is the real star of her remarkable and endearing book, a memoir that rings with candor, authenticity and love.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.