Books

The 'Famous Father Girl'

In her memoir, Leonard Bernstein's daughter reveals he 'loved words as much as he loved notes'

By Ariana Kramer
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 7/31/19

As the eldest daughter of legendary American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Jamie Bernstein has tales to tell. Coinciding with the centennial birthday celebration of her …

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Books

The 'Famous Father Girl'

In her memoir, Leonard Bernstein's daughter reveals he 'loved words as much as he loved notes'

Posted

As the eldest daughter of legendary American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Jamie Bernstein has tales to tell. Coinciding with the centennial birthday celebration of her father, Jamie Bernstein's "Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein" - first published by HarperCollins in June 2018 - was recently released in paperback.

The iconic Leonard Bernstein is perhaps best known for his role as music director of the New York Philharmonic and as composer of the musical "West Side Story." He was also the father of three children. Jamie Bernstein reads from "Famous Father Girl" Saturday (Aug. 3) at 7 p.m. at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. Pianist Claire Detels and tenor Salman Lee perform songs by Leonard Bernstein as part of the evening.

Tasked with writing from her perspective about her family, Jamie Bernstein read through journals she had kept as a young person, searching for nuggets between the pages that described her family life. Among entries about her romantic interests, she found the details for which she was looking. Bernstein calls her early journals "a tremendous resource."

Bernstein told me another important component to writing her story was to involve her two siblings along the way, showing them every draft.

"I told my brother and sister they had total veto power," Bernstein said. "In the end they were incredibly supportive … that was a huge vote of confidence.

"This story is about a family, and about all the ups and downs - every family has ups and downs. That's just the nature of being human," Bernstein added. "It's just that in our family with this larger-than-life father a lot of the ups and downs were larger than life, too. That's why it was an interesting story to tell. But, I couldn't have told it without the support of my brother and sister."

She writes candidly about her father's bisexuality, and how it affected her parents' marriage. Her mother, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, died in 1978 from breast cancer.

Jamie Bernstein is a writer, broadcaster, concert narrator and filmmaker whose documentary "Crescendo: The Power of Music" is available through Netflix. She told me that after deciding not to be a musician, she used her interest in music to communicate about the art form.

"I had no anxiety about talking about music. It came easy to me," Bernstein said.

Talking on the phone with Bernstein, I was drawn in by her warmth and candor. She is a natural communicator - one who speaks with ease and passion.

I asked Bernstein if she had a favorite memory to share from her book. She recounted the time she met The Beatles in their dressing room after their second appearance on TV's "The Ed Sullivan Show."

"As I kid, I can't even tell you what a Beatlemaniac I was," Bernstein said. "The Beatles were why I woke up in the morning … That was one of the most exciting days in my life."

She added that her father also appreciated the Beatles. "He thought their songs were really inventive and melodic. He thought they were fantastic," Jamie Bernstein said.

It was because of her father's interest in the Beatles that Jamie Bernstein was able to meet them. "He was very taken, as was I, by John Lennon's poetry. He was thinking of maybe setting the poems to music, and that was the excuse that got us all together."

Jamie Bernstein said that decades later her family later moved into the Dakota, the apartment building where John Lennon lived. She said she was there the night of December 8, 1980 when Lennon was murdered by a disturbed man named Mark David Chapman - "I heard the shot," said Bernstein.

Though she has spent her life in New York City, Jamie Bernstein has a fondness for the Southwestern landscape. She makes an almost yearly pilgrimage to Moab, Utah. In addition, her family friend, musician Consuelo Luz, lives in Santa Fe. It is through her connection with Luz that Jamie Bernstein is coming to Taos.

The mothers of Consuelo Luz and Jamie Bernstein were close friends. Both were immigrants from Chile who moved to New York City and studied theater, and both women married and had children.

"Our families stayed close throughout the years," Luz told me over the phone, reminiscing about her visits with the Bernsteins.

"They were a very close family - a very lively, joyful family. I have wonderful memories, throughout, whenever our worlds would touch. I was, as a little girl, kind of in awe of [Leonard] Bernstein - he was a figure who was hovering always with an incredible energy. But it didn't affect the fact that they had a wonderful family life that was warm and joyful. That's what I remember," said Luz.

Jamie Bernstein also commented on the close-knit fabric of her family.

"I think our family glue has a lot to do with humor and hilarity and laughing about things. And, it is very fun to revisit a lot of the memories in which we were just convulsed. There's a lot of that. Our dad had the same kind of relationship with his brother and sister. They were very close and full of in-jokes and family nonsense and they even had a secret language. …

So my brother and sister and I had this perfect template for how to be siblings with each other. And we wound up being very similar. We have all these private jokes and we even have a kind of secret language - not only do we have the one that our Dad invented with his siblings, but also we grew up bilingual because our mother was from South America, so we have all these private jokes in Spanish, too. …. Our dad loved words as much as he loved notes. So we always played word games, crossword puzzles and anagrams and Scrabble. We all have continued to be that way with word games, and loving words and playing with words. … Now we play anagrams and Scrabble with our kids."

I asked Consuelo Luz to comment on what people might expect from Jamie Bernstein's reading here in Taos.

"She's a wonderful, warm, fun and funny person. She has a wonderful sense of humor. She certainly uses that in the book, and I'm sure that will come through in person," said Luz. "People will get a glimpse of what it was like to be a daughter of an icon. That's who Leonard Bernstein is in this country. That is quite something to grow up with. For her to be able to create this testimony in a beautiful way in this book is a feat and an act of beautiful creativity."

Tickets are $15; $12 for members of SOMOS and the Harwood Museum. They can be reserved by calling the Harwood at (575) 758-9826.

For more information on Jamie Bernstein and her "Famous Father Girl," visit jamiebernstein.net.

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