Being the child of Leonard Bernstein was like having a nuclear blast for a dad. You practically had to stand back and wear protective goggles when he came into a room, and even then the gale wind and blinding light were hard to withstand. The aftereffects of Lenny radiation included a sense of worthlessness (or at least that one had little talent), sexual confusion and a certain rudderless direction in life. Still, all three of his children apparently adored him, and he adored them back, sometimes to excess. It wasn’t the worst childhood if you were Leonard Bernstein’s kid, but it certainly could be odd and overwhelming.
Just in time for the centenary comes “Famous Father Girl” by Jamie Bernstein, the oldest of the Bernstein children. It’s a “Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” and well done too. There’s a certain built-in page-turning quality to the story if you know anything about Leonard Bernstein at all. You know that, as you read, you’re moving ever closer to the lurid and tragic last decade of his life. Jamie Bernstein heightens that feeling by telling her story chronologically and revealing details about her father, and mother (the actress Felicia Montealegre), as they became known to her. So the early chapters of “Famous Father Girl” are fairly idyllic, told from the standpoint of a young girl basking in the glow of her parents’ love and success and fame.
Her eyes are opened gradually, just as every child’s are, but Leonard Bernstein was, of course, no ordinary human being. Already hugely famous when Jamie was a little girl, he was also a semi-closeted gay man — Jamie eventually finds out that her mother knew it before she married him — and as Jamie got older it became more and more of an issue, as Daddy became less discreet about it. Once Montealegre died in 1978, there was no one left to control Bernstein’s wilder impulses, Jamie claims, and the long decline began. He lived his last decade like a Roman emperor of the third century. Others have written about it, but here, in Jamie’s book, you get to see it all from the inside, from the family’s point of view. There were drugs, alcohol, incessant smoking, a series of young boyfriends, an entourage of sometimes dubious hangers on, late night parties, and a steady deterioration in Bernstein’s health, mental well being and musical productivity. And there was nothing anyone could do about it.
So, the book has a strong trajectory, and the chapter on Bernstein’s death is swift and devastating. But it’s not really the end of the story. This being Jamie’s memoir, and not a biography of her father, we have been kept abreast of her own life struggle along the way, her musical goals and her love affairs and her attempts to get out from under the shadow of her father. Only when he’s gone is a complete self-realization possible, and, funny thing is, she finds that she rather likes being a famous father girl after all and nurturing his legacy becomes the focus of her life. It’s touching.