The composer's daughter openly talks about her new memoirs
Jamie Bernstein can not describe her childhood as typical. On any weekend she could hang Lauren Bacall, Isaac Stern, Richard Avedon, Mike Nichols, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman or Sidney Lumet at home. Jamie's father was Leonard Bernstein.
The acclaimed conductor, composer of West Side Story and host of the Young People's Concerts of Television was born 100 years ago, August 25, 1918. On the occasion of its centenary, Jamie Bernstein has published Famous Father Girls: A Memory of Growing Up Amber a sincere reminder of family life and the struggle to find oneself in the midst of the "blinding light" that was Leonard Bernstein who died in 1990.
Jamie Bernstein calls her father "a handful" that might be offensive. But she also remembers his warmth, his genius, his quick wit and the power of his sometimes misunderstood music. Jamie Bernstein spoke openly from her Manhattan home about her book, why she decided to talk about music instead of doing it herself, and about her life as she grew up the child of one of America's most famous personalities.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tom Huizenga: Your book asks me if you kept a journal because you remember all those little details about your life. For example, you spell out the individual puns that family friend Stephen Sondheim used while playing Anagram games with you, your father, and your siblings, Alexander and Nina.
Jamie Bernstein: We appreciated these words so much that we actually remembered them. But it is true that I had diaries. They were an invaluable source material for me, otherwise I would have remembered no more than half of what I have in the book. Did you decide to keep a journal because you recognized that your father was the famous Leonard Bernstein?
When I was young, it did not matter to me that he was Leonard Bernstein. I had no obligation to preserve his legacy. In fact, my brother, sister and I have made every effort to distance ourselves from his legacy and professional considerations. The whole business side was of no interest. We just wanted to stay home and be a family and play anagrams. It was only after our father left that we realized that we needed to do that other job and that we were interested.
Courtesy of the Bernstein family
You're saying that you knew that your parents are not quite like other parents. What blew you away?
My brother, sister and I have this half-joking answer to this question: It was when we watched the flints and Betty and Wilma on the "Hollyrock" bowl "Leonard Bernstones' behavior. "Oh my God, he's on The Flintstones? Wow, we really must have reached the big time."
In fifth grade, you say, you have become unsure of your father's fame.
The very first idea must have been when my dad appeared on television, which started with the youth concerts [with the New York Philharmonic] when I was only 5 years old. Television was the most important thing in life for me and my siblings. So we knew something else was going on, but it was a kind of cumulative process. We just wanted to get involved and be like everyone else – this desire to be normal. And it made me somehow scary not to be normal. (19659007) Finding one's own way in life is a common thread that seems to run through the book.
It's hard to live in a very bright sun and try to figure it out What will you be alone in this blinding light and it took a long time to figure it out? Of course I made everything exponentially more difficult by trying to become a musician myself. I describe it as a foot on the gas and a foot on the brake at the same time. There were constant conflicts, mixed feelings and common goals. It was exhausting and neurotic, and it took me all those decades to find out that I was a much calmer and higher functioning person if I just did not make music with my own body. I was a bit sad to stop, but on the whole the on music turned out to be a very good compromise.
Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office
They talk about how hard it was not to buy into the "myth of the Amber Family". But you also say, "Above all, I was unbearable like my father." How was your father obnoxious?
He was exuberant, and somehow he took over in spite of himself; he could not help it. Plus, he was a know-it-all and he had answers for everything and liked to be long and was bossy. So he was a big handful, and I think I inherited some of those qualities. I think my brother and sister would agree with me that I am quite bossy and full of opinions and very sure that I'm right – which I often am not. Sometimes I think it might be a blessing that I'm such a shrimp, because if I were like that and I was tall, people would think I was unbearable.
Maybe it's a good time to talk about this fictitious word – "Elf's Thread" – that almost slips through the book like a curse.
The big anagram of my father's "self hatred", a brilliant one. Self-hatred is a feeling that so many of us have plenty of time, and every person on this planet has their own little recipe for it, I'm sure. But my dad suffered a lot from it. Like all artists, he fought with the elven thread.
My personal recipe was that I insisted on becoming a musician; That just made me disgusted. It's really the phenomenon that you just feel like you're making a whole ass of yourself, and that was a feeling that would come over me over and over, and that's what got lessened as I got older , From time to time I can still have that stupid idiot, elven feeling, but so rare that it's not as debilitating as it used to be.
There is also, I think, a thread on this, which is the idea of a faith crisis – something your father dealt with in his music.
And it was not just the spiritual faith in which he found himself, but also in his marriage and bisexual. I think that so many conflicting emotions have generated that he was often in agony about it.
[Recently] I heard a fantastic performance of his play Mass at the Ravinia Festival. It was one of the greatest performances of this piece I have ever seen. The piece is such a selfportrait of my father. There are lyrics that sound as if it were his own inner voice where he says, "What I say, I do not feel what I feel, what I do not show, what I show is not real, what is real, me I do not know. "I know it." One could write a whole biography of Leonard Bernstein by tracking Mass himself.
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They say about Mass "With all its mistakes, magnificence, boldness and tremendous broken heart – it was just dad." What is the "broken heart" part of it?
He was in such despair over the world as a whole, and the way we did not repair ourselves and how humanity was in this constant state of bellicosity. He was so depressed about the Vietnam War and about all the killings we had just before he wrote the play. That's part of the broken heart.
The other part is that he was in such a terrible emotional conflict all the time – in terms of his wife and his sexuality. He did not talk about it, but I know that it must have been something he really suffered. I think he suffered from the fact that his marriage and his family were not enough, that he needed something else, that he could not get there. That was very difficult for him, and he did not want it to be true. But it was …
Leonard Bernstein, it is safe to say, was complicated, and so is his sexuality. In the book, you say, "It was hard not to feel the sexuality of my father."
I did not mean to say that his sexual preferences were tangible. Looking back, I wish I had used the word "erotic". What I meant was that his aura was so erotic, so erotic – because for him music really was a form of lovemaking. I think he has integrated this sensitivity into his music, and she has penetrated virtually everything he has done. And so, you know, when you're his offspring, that's complicated.
Your father was married to Felicia Montealegre for 27 years until she died of cancer in 1978. What did you think when you started? Did you notice that your father was romantically attracted to men?
I had no idea about that until I heard these rumors in Tanglewood, the summer after my high school graduation. Then in the following years I was in college, it somehow started to literally … come out. When I was in my final year, he was living with Tom Cothran, who helped him put together the Norton Lectures, and by then it was pretty clear what was going on.
My brother and I somehow went through the process of understanding it together, but as so often in families, these things are hard to say: people did not have the right words to talk about bisexual parents. Well, that's a conversation you can have. At that time, everything was very muted. So we did not sit down and talk about it exactly, but we got into a mutual understanding that this thing was going on around us.
And your mother? Some people probably do not know that she actually knew what she knew about her father's sexuality before her wedding. There was a letter you once found.
There was a letter that my father's executor, along with a few other things, sealed in a file drawer in Leonard Bernstein's office. Somebody came across him not so long ago, like maybe five years ago. It said, "Do not unseal until 25 years after Bernstein's death" or something like that. And we thought, "Oh, the hell with it, let's open it now."
So we opened it and there was this letter from my mother, and it was a fantastic find because it made everything so clear. To know that her eyes were wide open about this marriage and what she was getting into, it was amazing to discover. It said a lot about our mother that she would write this letter to our father and say, "Listen, you know that I understand it, it's complicated, but let's do that because we love each other. Let's have a family start and let's just go on. " ,
Courtesy of the Bernstein family
In this letter, your mother wrote, "I'm ready to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing me on the LB Altar." But in the end, she did not do that exactly?
Well, I actually say that in the book. I think that's what happened.
How does it feel?
It is very frustrating. I think she took more than she could chew. I think it went very well for a while, and then everything became unbearable – and besides, she got sick. The whole construct became angry for her, and then the last four years of her life were appalling. And it makes me very sad to think about it.
You said that you had the feeling that you inherited a few things from your father. What do you think you got from your mother?
I have this pincushion that a friend of the family gave me. It says: "Mirrors, mirrors on the wall, I'm finally my mother." Actually, it makes me a little uncomfortable to look at this pillow. I usually turn it back because the end of my mother was so tragic that I did not want to be the person who was my mother.
But there are other things about my mother that are slowly becoming clear to me. I like to have a home environment where everyone likes to be. We hang on to our house in Connecticut, so the family gathers every opportunity there – and I love having everyone together, that's my favorite thing. My mother also loved that: She loved taking care of all and having a good time for everyone, [them with] eating food and having that feeling of a group.
In this jubilee year, there has been a steady flow of amber concerts and recordings, and some of the critics have settled down. There was a play in The New York Times about Mass and the headline reads: " Is & # 39; Mass & # 39; Leonard Bernstein's best work or his worst? "Although the article is a positive account of your father's liturgical theatrical work, do you think it is a fair way to shape it?
Oh, it happens over and over: The Mass polarizes a lot, and people love it or hate it. Have you seen Zachary Woolfe's review of Mass when it was at the Lincoln Center two weeks ago? He scolded it. When it came out, there were all these negative reviews. And yet listeners attending Mass – and also some critics – have this gigantic experience of being moved and touched, and they never forget it. It brings out all those intense emotions we normally keep in check. And it's so eventful that you have to be there somehow. It has a bit of that feel of the 1960s, but it really exceeds the time it was composed. And now that we're back in such a moment of desperation in our country – at least many of us feel that way – Earth resonates again.
Lee / Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
In The Washington Post there was recently another title entitled " Too much amber makes one critic get fed up with his music ." The article talks about being flooded with Bernstein's music this year, and there's a sentence I want to take: "The man's excesses are clearly audible in the music, which, brilliant as it is, is constantly trying to make yours get attention, prove something about yourself, make some sort of statement. "
I think many of his works have made great statements, but not all – so it's a bit unfair to repertoire that way to characterize. I mean, take a piece like Serenade that's my dad's favorite symphonic work. I think it's one of my dad's most satisfying pieces. It is absolutely beautiful, lyrical – and this exuberant last movement and this ravishingly slow movement. I do not think that's one thing. I think it's just out there, what it is – just beautiful music.
Do you feel the presence of your father in your everyday life?
Well, I'll make sure this year. There is no escape before the centenary. I am constantly on the road and participate in as many centenary events as possible, although my brother and sister and I can not all visit because there are currently more than 3,300 of them in our database and still counting. So yes, he is very much with us. But one of the reasons I wrote the book was to get in touch with the part of my father who was simply ours, and not the world, so that I could sustain that connection.
I feel in the book that there were things you wanted to discuss but never did.
There are things that I wish I could talk to him about, that I might not have been so interested then. The most important is the politics and the FBI and all the mess in the fifties with the McCarthy hearings and his own involvement in all of that. His FBI file is about 800 pages long. And they followed him since the 1940s because he would give his name and give money to any leftist organization that seemed to be doing something useful; He did not think twice about giving his name. So J. Edgar Hoover was already following him. And now, when I think about it, I'm surprised he was not summoned to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives – because, you know, all his buddies had to go there before them.  Leonard Bernstein, the conductor.
Paul de Hueck / Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office.