Daughter offers glimpse inside private world of Leonard Bernstein

by Shelley A. Sackett

Leonard Bernstein, whose global 100th birthday celebration has invigorated his reputation as one of the great musicians of modern times, was best known as a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and humanitarian. With the publication of her memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” oldest daughter Jamie Bernstein shifts the spotlight to his least examined – but to her – most important role: that of father.

Jamie, a writer, broadcaster, filmmaker, and concert narrator, paints a detailed portrait of a complicated and sometimes troubled man, plumbing the emotional complexities of her childhood and inviting the reader into her family’s private world of celebrity, culture, and occasional turmoil.

North Shore Leonard Bernstein fans will have a chance to hear Jamie speak about her book and answer questions at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 7, at the newly renovated Temple Emanu-El, 393 Atlantic Ave. in Marblehead. In addition, there will be a screening of the documentary, “Leonard Bernstein, Larger Than Life,” followed by a dessert reception. The event is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center North Shore Jewish Book Month and International Film Festival committees.

One of Jamie’s goals in writing her memoir was “to answer the frequently asked question: WHAT WAS IT LIKE?!” she told the Journal by email. “What was it like growing up in that family, with that father? The short answer: not boring. The longer answer: read my book!”

In her 400-page memoir, chockfull of spicy details and intimate family pictures, Jamie paints an eyewitness portrait of the 1960s and 1970s she lived. “I grew up in amazing times. They were turbulent and shifting. It was a particularly intense time to be a young woman,” she said. She also dishes about the extraordinary circle of characters that populated the Bernsteins’ lives, including: the Kennedys, Mike Nichols, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Lauren Bacall.

Her two siblings, Nina Bernstein Simmons and Alexander Bernstein, also have been involved in preserving their father’s legacy. Jamie showed them every draft of her memoir. “All along, I told them that they had complete veto power. They were amazingly supportive; I don’t think they ever asked me to take anything out,” she said.

Their mother, Chilean pianist and actress Felicia Montealegre, raised her three children to be bilingual, which serves Jamie well when she narrates concerts in Spanish in locations such as Madrid and Caracas. “Our mother was not only beautiful, elegant, and talented, she was also the stabilizing force for our family in general and [for] our dad in particular,” she said.

Giving new meaning to the phrase, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Jamie communicates her own love affair with classical music through her roles as speaker and concert narrator. She writes and performs the script for “The Bernstein Beat,” a popular and successful program of family concerts about her father’s music modeled after his own groundbreaking “Young People’s Concerts.”

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1970. Photo by Heinz Weissenstein, Whitestone Photo, BSO Archives

“I’m not exactly channeling him [her father], since I’m only doing half of his job – the writing and talking part,” Jamie said. “But I do feel a similar urge to reach out and communicate to my audiences. I love sharing the stuff I’m excited about.”

While on her book promotion tour (“a considerable amount of schlep”), she has talked to many people who experienced her father’s mystique, either through concerts at Tanglewood and the New York Philharmonic or through recordings, TV, and Broadway productions. “It has been incredibly touching. The attendees are curious and attentive and quite emotional. And so many of them have stories!” she said.

Izzi Abrams, president of the JCC in Marblehead, is among those with stories. Her family had an indirect relationship with the Bernsteins through her uncle, Rabbi Israel Kazis of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, where the Bernsteins were members when Leonard was a boy. Abrams also taught a course on Bernstein last fall and winter. “I’ve been excited ever since I heard a couple of summers ago that Tanglewood was going to celebrate Bernstein’s 100th birthday in 2018,” she said.

With over 5,000 events worldwide, Jamie acknowledges that her book is just a small piece of the LB Centennial celebration that she and her siblings hope will remind those who lived in their father’s era of the enormous legacy he left behind.

“We also hope that young people will discover Leonard Bernstein, and be excited to know more about him, his music, and his music-making,” she said.

For information or to buy tickets to the April 7 event, visit jccns.org or call 781-631-8330.

 

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