Life & Culture

Leonard Bernstein, my wonderful dad

The composer's daughter reveals the joy of being raised by a legend


Saturday September 8 1962
“Today is my 10th birthday and Daddy and I drove to Coney Island together. It was just him and me and we went on all the scary rides. We rode the horses on the Steeplechase, did the parachute jump, went up on the Wonder Wheel and the rollercoaster, and we had Nathan’s hot dogs. We just had the greatest time ever.”

Jamie Bernstein still has the spiral-edged journal that she received as a birthday gift 50 years ago and knows this entry on the first page by heart.

“It was a special day not only because it was my birthday, but because my father and I were the only members of our family who liked scary rides. So it was just us together and needless to say, it was a rare and precious thing to have a day entirely alone with my dad because he was always so busy.”

Leonard Bernstein, the revered American composer, conductor and arguably the greatest musical polymath of the 20th century, died on October 14, 1990, but for his eldest daughter Jamie, his influence and legacy colours every day of her life.

“How could it not?” she asks with unashamed pride. “Music is my first memory of my father. It was always there in the house. In the air. My father and his friends were always playing and talking about music and singing songs. Our very ground of being was musical.”

Jamie says that despite the amount of time he had to devote to his career, her father embraced family life. “He was terrific,” she sighs. “Warm, fun and he loved spending time with his kids. We never felt unwelcome in his presence. He loved taking us with him on tour and spending summer vacations with us and hanging around in our country house by the pool. There was always lots of tennis, word games, hilarity, charades and singing.”

When Leonard Bernstein wrote West Side Story, Jamie was only five. “I was told that I was too young to see it,” she recalls. “It was very intense and too grown-up, what with the stabbing and a sort of rape scene. So definitely not for a five-year-old.”

Though the Winter Garden Theatre in New York was off-limits to Jamie, the soundtrack was not. “I spent hours playing it over and over again on a little record player in my bedroom and learnt the score by heart,” she says, and the sight of Leonard Bernstein’s little girl dancing about to his song I Feel Pretty must have melted his heart.

“Of course by the time the film came out in ’62 I was 10 and just the right age to see it and be enchanted. I distinctly remember coming out and saying: ‘I’m going to see this 10 times’.”

According to her latest count Jamie has seen West Side Story 50 times, which ties in neatly with the 50th anniversary of the film which is being celebrated all over the world. Next week she will be in London to see a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra who will accompany a screening of the re-mastered film at the Royal Albert Hall.

“The commemorative shows have been amazing and in New York, the film’s stars Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris made an appearance which caused quite a reaction,” she says.

It is no surprise that Jamie, who divorced the father of her two children, Francisca, 23 and Evan, 21 eleven years ago is now dating a composer, Jeffrey Stock. Her heritage cries out for such a suitor. But interestingly neither she, her brother Alexander nor her sister Nina were keen to pick up their father’s baton professionally, though Jamie had a brief career in her twenties as a Joni Mitchell-style folk/pop singer.

“But I was overcome with the anxiety of influence and kept asking ‘who am I kidding?’ Comparisons are odious and I was suffocated by it. In some families where the parents are formidable musicians the kids take to it like a duck to water. But that wasn’t us. I never practised and didn’t really enjoy it until I was 16 when I quit piano lessons and started making up my own songs for personal enjoyment.”

In spite of their reluctance to perform, the Bernstein children were in no doubt about the pleasure their father derived from his own musical career.

“When he was a young growing up in Boston the earliest job he had was giving piano lessons,” says Jamie. “Dad had gone to New York to get a job, but failed to do so and didn’t want to go into my grandfather Samuel J Bernstein’s beauty parlour business. My Uncle Burton, Dad’s brother, has told us that neither of them wanted to do that, and they were embarrassed by my grandfather’s beauty supply trucks which had ‘In Boston, it’s Bernstein’ written on the side.”

Jamie describes the family’s religious life as “in some ways irregular. Our mother Felicia (Cohn Montealegre), who was an actress, was raised Catholic even though her father’s last name was Cohn. I believe her grandfather had been a rabbi in San Francisco, but I’m not too certain on the ancestry on her side. Mother converted to Judaism, but as we were growing up we did a little of everything. So we had Christmas with a tree but also Chanucah with a menorah. And we always had a big noisy raucous fun Seder, though that was followed by an egg hunt at Easter. You could say that the Christian stuff we did was not intensely religious and my brother had a barmitzvah.”

The Bernsteins were not regular shul-goers, but Leonard loved Kol Nidre. “My father would always go shul hopping that night, or as he explained it, ‘a little bit of Kol Nidre here and a little bit there’. Together with my brother they would visit a handful of synagogues around New York and even though each one was sold out, they would always find room for Dad. You can only imagine the faces of the chazans when they spotted Leonard Bernstein in the congregation. They must have been trembling in their tallit.”

Though Jamie lost interest in attending synagogue — “I sort of checked out”— when she was forced to sit away from her father at a Conservative service, she was married by a rabbi at her father’s home and because of her father’s long-association with Israel has an abiding love for the country.

“My father was there at the birth of Israel and he never lost that sense of excitement about the place. He took me and my brother there in 1967 when he was on tour with the New York Philharmonic and then again in the 1970s. But visiting was a double-edged sword because everyone felt my dad was their best friend and that his children — us — were somehow related to them. Everyone we met had a long story to tell about their connection to my father. I called it the land of a thousand relatives.”

Jamie’s talk of her idyllic childhood is worthy of its own lyrical Bernstein score and her tales of meeting the Beatles, the Pope, flying first-class and staying in suites at The Savoy are all vividly recounted.

“We were never blasé about any of it and neither was my father,” she says. “He always got a kick out of it and he loved experiencing it through our eyes. Everything was a thrill to him and that never changed through out his life.”

But there was tragedy too with the premature death of her mother at the age of 56 from lung cancer. That it occurred just two years after Leonard Bernstein admitted he was gay and moved out of the family home — though he later returned — may no longer be an issue for Jamie, but there are always more questions.

“My mother’s death was a calamity for our family. I felt as if I hadn’t got to the other side of the stuff that you go through as mother and daughter before becoming wonderful friends.”

As for her father’s sexuality, she was not surprised that he was gay and has admitted being supportive of his attempts to arrive at some truth for himself, though she feels he had a terrible time sustaining a gay lifestyle at the expense of his long-established domestic life.

“I also think my youth prevented me from understanding the effect it had on my mother, who was devastated by what she saw as my father’s abandonment and humiliation of her,” she says.
What remains now for Jamie Bernstein is an enduring admiration for her father’s talent and a commitment to his legacy that has led her to resurrecting his groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts which she now writes and performs as narrator with orchestras across the globe.

“Together with Michael Barrett who had been an assistant conductor with my father, I produced The Bernstein Beat, which is about my father’s music. It was not my intention to pick up the mantle but I love it and I can feel Dad smiling when I do the concerts.”

It is certainly progress for a girl who refused to practise the piano, but as Jamie points out, the easiest way to get close to her father now is through his music.

“I always say that listening to it is the next best thing to getting a hug from him.”

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