Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'Famous Father Girl': Window into a Legend

Jamie Bernstein: Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein has described her newly minted book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper Collins, ISBN-13: 978-0062641359), as “a love letter to my whole family." It is a love letter filled with candid, disarmingly frank memories: an insider’s view of what it was like to grow up as the eldest daughter of the most influential American musician of the 20th century: Leonard Bernstein, or “LB,” as Jamie came to call him in her young adult years.

Bernstein clearly has inherited her father’s gift for self-expression in words, as well as a goodly amount of his boldness and charisma. She is impressively articulate in her descriptions, not only of family events but of her feelings about everything: from her parents’ relationship with each other, to her relationship with her siblings Alexander and Nina, to her own adolescent angst. Her writing is fearlessly honest; she’s not afraid to analyze her father’s faults, to criticize him, to express her unease at his criticism of her, and of her mother, Felicia. But behind each and every word lies a profound affection for the man she calls “Daddy”—who was so frequently absent from the family abode with his conducting tours that she and her siblings “never felt we got enough of him.”

The love between a father and a daughter is a complex subject that has been examined under a high-power psychological microscope since the time of the ancient Greeks. In Bernstein’s case the complexities are compounded to the power of 40x, by virtue of LB’s stratospheric level of stardom: unprecedented for a musician who was the first American to be named music director of a major symphony orchestra—the New York Philharmonic—not to mention being the youngest ever—and Jewish.

Notoriety is a double-edged sword, and LB’s fame was of mythical proportions. Bernstein acknowledges both positive and negative aspects of her father’s renown, describes how she and her siblings “created a force field…a layer of insulation from the raucous, confusing world” of their parents, with its endless stream of high-status friends and colleagues converging on the Bernstein abode; and how that force field paralleled the similarly insular relationship of her father and his siblings to their own parents, Sam and Jennie Bernstein.

Leonard, Alexander, Felicia, Nina, Jamie Bernstein
Photo, Harper Collins
Bernstein’s anecdotes of that perplexing family cluster range from amusing to cringeworthy. As a 4-year-old observing her parents dressed to the nines for the opening of Candide in 1956, she asks where they are going. “We’re going to see Candide!” her mother tells her. “They were going to see candy?” she writes, and wants to go with them. But when her mother says it’s only for grownups, Jamie doesn’t understand. “Candy—for grownups? Impossible…‘But I want to see the candy!’” she cries, as her parents bustle off, leaving her and her tantrum to their devoted Chilean nanny, Julia.

Jamie, Alexander, Julia
Photo, Harper Collins
Later in life, Bernstein recounts tales of her admittedly “squirmy adolescence.” She expresses her glee at its discoveries (e.g. meeting the Beatles in person) and her painful embarrassment at its discomforts (sex rearing its ugly head). But she delights in her father’s efforts to remain integrated into the progressive phases of her life, and to share in her discoveries. She especially takes pleasure in his fascination with rock music. Whenever a new Beatles album appeared in the household, she writes, “…we’d sit together on his couch to scrutinize the lyrics while the album played.” “Wow, can you believe that chord?” her father says. “So fresh!”

In many ways, Bernstein perceived her father first and foremost a teacher; and reveled in his incorporating what he gleaned from his daughter into his Young People’s Concerts, often showcasing rock musicians as guests. Young Jamie wasn’t old enough to comprehend Janis Ian’s song Society’s Child, but “Daddy completely grasped the power of its music and lyrics.”

The tone of the book turns darker as the family’s secrets and misfortunes come to the forefront. In tandem with a world of glamour lived large, tragedy and unnerving revelations ensue for the young Bernstein. She writes openly about her confusion over rumors of her father’s homosexuality, which for an adolescent was especially distressing. “He was extravagantly affectionate with everyone: young and old, male and female. How could I possibly tell what any behavior meant?” she writes. “I was bewildered and upset…but in any case, my own existence seemed living proof that the story was not a simple one.”

Leonard, Felicia Bernstein
Photo, Harper Collins
Most painful of all was her mother’s illness and tragic death at the age of 56. In the midst of LB’s abandoning Felicia for another man, then trying to reconcile with her, are Felicia’s untold suffering and agonizing decline, expressed with great anguish by her eldest daughter. But when Jamie’s daughter Frankie is born, Bernstein also voices her amazement at the joys of motherhood—her “secret, speechless ardor”—with touching emotion: “I was besotted with the marvel of her; I could not begin to express what happened to me when I smelled the top of her head, listened to her milky whimpers, held her dumpling foot in the hollow of my hand.”

In light of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, and the many celebrations taking place to commemorate his prominence, Famous Father Girl fits squarely into the list of must-see and must-read celebratory phenomena related to this monumental occasion. Compellingly written, alternately humorous and poignant, continually entertaining, the book serves as a window into the core of a quintessentially illustrious, multifaceted man, his family, and the daughter who loves him—not always unconditionally, but with tenderness and deep-rooted affection.

“Nothing conveys Daddy’s deepest essence better than his own music,” Bernstein writes. “When we listen to that music, it’s the next best thing to getting a hug from Daddy himself.”

Jamie Bernstein; photo, Harper Collins

Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein released on June 12.


Photo credits: Harper Collins, Steve Sherman
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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