Book Review: Leonard Bernstein's Daughter Writes Memoir Ahead Of His 100th Birthday

May 11, 2018

Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre, had three children: Jamie, Alexander and Nina. Montealegre died in 1978. Bernstein died in 1990, at the age of 72. 

Their daughter Jamie has penned a memoir, to be published June 12 in celebration of this year's Bernstein birthday centennial. Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein by Jamie Bernstein is, in its way, a love letter to both of her parents.

This is Montealegre:

Bernstein was the dominant personality in classical music — for that matter, in any music (second maybe to Elvis) from the 1940s until his death.

There was nothing Bernstein couldn't do. He was the composer of West Side Story, Candide, Mass, Chichester Psalms, On the Town, Wonderful Town and more.

When not writing his own music, Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic, lionized with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted opera in Vienna, Milan and New York, and returned Gustav Mahler's music to the world stage. 

Bernstein was music director of the planet.

His European debut was conducting Medea at La Scala with Maria Callas. Oh, to have crashed those rehearsals of the fiery diva and the totally confident conductor. Bernstein always said of Callas, "We got on famously."

If Jamie Bernstein and her siblings had a dollar for every time they've heard, "I learned to love music from your father's young peoples' concerts on TV," they would be the richest people in the history of the world. I'd give them a buck myself.

'Famous Father Girl' book cover
Credit HarperCollins Publishers

Yes, Famous Father Girl is a love letter. It is also honest.

Bernstein's homosexuality stopped being the elephant in the room and took pride of place after Mrs. Bernstein passed — not that The Maestro ever hid his "other life." Jamie quotes a letter her mother wrote to her then-fiancee, acknowledging this conflict and learning to live with it.

It was a difficult journey.

"We sensed that Mummy was taking her role of Mrs. Maestro much more seriously ... Even her hairdo from the Kenneth salon seemed blonder, the swept up French twist somehow more regal. When she sat at her desk, one hand holding the phone receiver to her ear ... as she intoned, 'Hello, this is Mrs. Leonard Bernstein,' well, she was formidable."

Meanwhile, The Maestro traveled the world, from London to Israel, conducting and appearing always to cheers and backstage bonhomie.

I love the story of the Bernsteins being entertained in the Kennedy White House. Undaunted, The Maestro seated himself in JFK's famous rocking chair in the Oval Office. "Leonard, get out of there," cried his wife. Nothing doing.

The bonhomie became a problem, with young men, hangers-on, groupies, parties, booze and pills. Bernstein separated from his wife in the 1970s to pursue his other lifestyle. Her death in 1978, after a long struggle with cancer, left a wound of guilt that never healed. The cycle continued: music, adulation, booze, men, music, adulation ...

Make no mistake, Bernstein was not famous for being famous; he was famous for being a supreme musician and a profound thinker. Pick out any one of his hundreds of recordings, made all over the world, and you hear phenomenal sensitivity and musical architecture. He wanted to be equally famous as a composer of serious music.

That never happened, probably because it would have been impossible to outdo his skills as a conductor.

Jamie Bernstein was a child of the '60s and '70s. She became a songwriter and rock-star wannabe, nearly achieving musical stardom herself.

Writing about her own life growing up is the most energetic part of the book. I'm of an age with the Bernstein children. They are all grounded and sensible adults, loving their parents' legacy and memories.

There was a lot of eye-rolling at Daddy's flamboyance and his need to be hip. (How to mortify your children: Try being their peer.) They dealt with a very public father who went his own way, and a lovely mother who lived and died in a great deal of pain. Nevertheless, she seemed to love life as Mrs. Leonard Bernstein.

Kids don't get to choose their parents. Jamie Bernstein shed some tears, had some laughs and made peace. Then she wrote her love letter to her parents.

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.