Leonard Bernstein Through His Daughter’s Eyes

Jamie Bernstein
The New Yorker

What happens if you are Cinderella and the prince turns out to be your father? Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s firstborn daughter, has written a memoir of her family, a family that her overwhelming dad—loving, inspired, and sometimes insufferable—dominated for decades. The author grew up wriggling inside a paradox, struggling to become a self when so much of her was defined by her brilliant parent. “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (HarperCollins) is unique among classical-music memoirs for its physical intimacy, its humor and tenderness, its ambivalence toward an irrepressible family genius. In the year of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, with its worldwide celebrations, this book is a startling inside view—not a corrective, exactly (Jamie rarely thought her dad less than great), but a story of encompassing family love, Jewish-American style, with all its glories and corrosions. No one lives easily on the slopes of a volcano; Jamie Bernstein has been faithful to her unease. Truth-telling, rather than dignity, is her goal.

As a young man, Leonard Bernstein was prodigiously gifted and exceptionally handsome, and he slept with many men and with women, too. He seemed to be omnisexual, a man of unending appetite who worked and played all day and most of the night, with a motor that would not shut down until he was near collapse. Conducting, composing for the concert hall, composing for the theatre, playing the piano, teaching, writing about music, talking about it on television, suffering over everything he wasn’t doing—he burned the candle from the middle out. From the nineteen-forties into the eighties, he was everywhere, an intellectual American Adonis, our genius—erudite, popular, media-wise, and unstoppably fluent. Many people long to be at the center of attention; Leonard Bernstein was actually good at the center—he routinely gave more than he received.

On the podium, he was so expressive that he embarrassed the fastidious, who thought there was something inappropriate (i.e., erotic) about his full-body conducting style. Using his hips, his arms, his back, his eyebrows, he acted out the music, providing an emotional story line parallel to the piece itself; he was narrative in flight. At some point in his adolescence, Bernstein must have discovered that he could express with his body whatever he thought or felt, a discovery that was just as important as a sexual awakening, though in his case the two were obviously related. Bernstein, one might say, liberated the Jewish body from the constraints felt by the immigrant generation, including his father, Sam, who relinquished his severe, stiff-collar demeanor only when celebrating the High Holidays with the Boston Hasidim. For Lenny, every day was a High Holiday. Most of the audience and his collaborators got used to his turbo-mobile style, or found it beautiful, even thrilling. But how, if you are his child, do you cope with a father whose sensuality enfolded everything?
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