Jamie Bernstein Reflects on ‘Exuberant’ Father

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Jamie Bernstein discussed her new memoir about growing up with Leonard Bernstein at the Free Library. | Marissa Stern

When children grow up with famous parents, inquiring minds often want to know: What was it like to grow up with [insert celebrity here]?

Jamie Bernstein has been asked this question a fair amount about her famous composer father, Leonard Bernstein, so she decided to give it a “long and juicier answer” by writing a memoir.

She discussed her new book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, at a talk at the Free Library on June 20 with The Philadelphia Inquirer’s classical music critic and culture writer Peter Dobrin.

“I had a story no one else could tell,” she said in a deep, soothing voice to a moderately full auditorium of Bernstein — both Jamie and Leonard — enthusiasts.

Bernstein, a celebrated concert narrator and radio producer, had thought about writing a memoir for some time anyway, she said. But it seemed the timing was right for the book, which came out June 12, as 2018 marks the centennial year of her father’s birth.

Philadelphia has already started celebrating; the Philly POPS led a Bernstein-themed concert Lenny’s Revolution in February. The National Museum of American Jewish History opened its special exhibit, “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” in March. (The exhibit is open through Sept. 2.) The Philadelphia Orchestra will celebrate on July 18 with a special performance at the Mann Center.

And “tonight, tonight,” the library joined the celebration with the book talk, quipped the Free Library employee introducing the speakers.

Throughout the hourlong program — including a Q&A portion during which her 10th- and 11th-grade teacher made a surprise appearance to an excited Bernstein — she shared family stories, tales of her own triumphs and was asked tough questions, such as if she could describe her father in one word, what would it be?

“Exuberant,” she answered, after pausing to think.

So what was it like to grow up with him?

“He was a compulsive teacher,” she told the audience. “He never stopped needing to share whatever it was he was excited about. … Whether it was the Mahler symphony that he was rehearsing with an orchestra, or whether it was a really good Jewish joke. … Whatever it was, it all had the same quality of reaching out and grabbing you by the sleeve and saying, ‘Listen to this! I have to share this with you!’”

She and her siblings had to be careful about what questions they asked him because they could get an hourlong answer, she added.

Bernstein shared stories about his love for both traveling and spending time at home with his family — though they often came along with him.

He invited them to rehearsals, to go on tours — such as with the New York Philharmonic, which was a “nonstop Wonderland of fun” for her and her siblings. They flew first class and stayed in fancy hotels and were taken to special tourist sites without waiting in lines.

No one enjoyed it more than her father, she laughed.

“One of the reasons our dad loved having us along was it allowed him to re-experience the fun and the VIP-ness of it all through our eyes, because he actually never got over it himself,” she said.  

Her book illuminates just how widespread her father’s influence was. For instance, it includes a story about when his casket was being moved after his funeral, a group of construction workers nearby waved their hard hats and said goodbye to “Lenny.”

She and Dobrin spoke at length about different topics, from his Young People’s Concerts to the late Tom Wolfe’s infamous “Radical Chic” essay about a gathering Leonard and wife Felicia held at their apartment to raise money for the Black Panthers to her father’s evolving sexuality.

She also openly talked about how growing up with him impacted her own professional musical journey as she sought to make her own career.

“This is one of the things the book is really about, was how I figured out how to navigate living in this blinding sun and we were all sort of satellites revolving around this blinding sun, and how you figure out how to be on your own when you live in that intense light,” she said. “It took a long time for me to figure it out.”

Deciding to be a musician made it doubly hard for her, she said. “On the one hand, I was really musical, I have a good ear and I loved music. But it was very hard to make music with my own body and be comparing myself, making those odious comparisons, and always feeling like I couldn’t measure up — which I couldn’t, let’s face it — and it drove me crazy to even be trying.”

Dobrin also asked her to choose three Bernstein works (aside from West Side Story) that explain who he is. After thoughtful deliberation, she chose Mass, the violin concerto Serenade and musical On the Town.

Of course, there are many works to choose from as his pieces blended genres and created long-lasting influence.

“That was his whole thing, was taking down the walls between genres in everything he did,” she said.

In a discussion about Leonard Bernstein and Alan Lerner’s failed musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his own political awareness and involvement, she noted he would be “apoplectic” about the political climate. She lamented he isn’t around see Hamilton today.

For audience members, it was a chance to get a glimpse into Leonard Bernstein’s life from a new perspective.

Susan Levering had heard Jamie Bernstein speak before at NMAJH and was excited to see her again.

“Exuberant would be a good word for her as well,” she said of Jamie. “[Leonard] was ahead of his time in a lot of ways. He was very creative, he made some major contributions to the world — and I just like him.” 

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