Book review

Composer Leonard Bernstein’s daughter tells all in new memoir

By Johanna DeBiase
Posted 8/22/19

Jamie Bernstein explores the good and bad effects of having a famous father in her memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.”

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Book review

Composer Leonard Bernstein’s daughter tells all in new memoir


Celebrities always hold a special power over the general populace. People are drawn to fame like they’re drawn to the popular girl in high school. We want to be near to them to absorb some of their shine. But what if you have no choice in the matter? What if the celebrity is your own dad?

Jamie Bernstein explores the good and bad effects of having a famous father in her memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.”

She writes, “As soon as Alexander could talk, I realized what the point of a brother was. We became conspirators … Together we created a force field around ourselves, a layer of insulation from the raucous confusing world of our parents. But there was something seductive about that world, too, with its laughter and teasing; its music, theater and books; the screaming parlor games; the elegance of smoking.”

 Leonard Bernstein, the author’s father (who died in 1990), is a world-acclaimed American composer, conductor and pianist most famous for his works “West Side Story,” “Candide” and “On the Town,” among others. For many years while raising his family in the 1950s and ’60s, he is the music director for the New York Philharmonic. During this time, he holds a lot of sway in the music world and is connected to many famous people.

 Bernstein writes modestly of the people in her father’s inner circles. “Our house was continually full of our parents’ friends. 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 … Their luminosity meant nothing to Alexander and me.” Many of those named make frequent appearances throughout her memoir.

Her father’s famous name not only gets him out of speeding tickets but also gets them backstage at the Ed Sullivan show to meet the Beatles. “No actual event in my life would ever be more exciting than the seconds containing the anticipatory knock, on that particular door, on that particular day. The door opened and there they were: John, Paul and George. But no Ringo.” Ringo is taking a nap, but she meets him later.

Bernstein obviously adores her father and writes about her life as if the world centers around him, which hers does. He is fun, spontaneous, creative, loud and exciting. Her childhood is obviously a happy and privileged one.

But there are downfalls to their lifestyle. Bernstein points out all that her mother must give up, including her own acting career, in order to support her husband’s ambitions. Her mother was often moody and depressed, the serious one. She dies young of cancer.

The author also struggles in relationships. “Every girl secretly measures her boyfriend against her father. In my case, I soon realized, this was going to be an ongoing problem. After all, what hope did the average teenage boy have in competing with the Maestro?” Readers learn in detail about Bernstein’s tragic adolescent love affairs.

Another high-class problem includes never being sure if she achieves things based on her own merit or because of her father’s name, such as getting into Harvard and her musical career. “The morass of confusion was obviously not enough for me, so I added more, by succumbing to yet another Lenny-connected, soul-compromising career opportunity … My performance left me feeling uneasy, but I got the part. It reminded me of my murky feelings about getting into Harvard. I would never know for sure whether I’d still have been cast in Mass had I been the daughter of, say, Herman Shumlin.”

And, of course, Bernstein had to share her father with everyone else, “The hardest feat in the world to pull off was to have a little one-on-one time with Daddy. He was always surrounded by the hordes: the entourage, the fans, the fellows.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to feel bad for Bernstein. More likely the reader will tend toward envy. She lives an exciting and envious life of fame and fortune during an exciting era when New York is growing and thriving artistically from the ’50s to the ’70s. This book would be a good read for anyone interested in Leonard Bernstein or Broadway musicals as it captures an inside perspective of that place and time.


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