BRIDGEWATER — Jamie Bernstein didn’t really know she had a famous father until she and her siblings as children were watching an episode of “The Flintstones.”
“We have a small joke that we give as an answer when asked when we realized we knew our father (the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein) was a famous person. “The penny dropped big one day when we were watching an episode of the television show `The Flintstones,’ and Wilma was going to the Hollywood Bowl to watch Leonard Bernstone. We still refer to one another as Bernstones to this day.”
If their father was big enough to be mentioned on “The Flintstones,” well, then he indeed must be famous, the children reasoned. And, of course, he was. Leonard Bernstein, a native of Massachusetts who lived for much of his life in New York City, passed away in 1990 at the age of 72. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the U.S. to receive worldwide acclaim. He served a long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducting concerts with most of the world’s leading orchestras, and from his music for such immense hits as “Westside Story,” “Peter Pan,” “Candide,” “On the Town” and “On the Waterfront.” He also wrote three symphonies and shorter chamber and solo works. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard.
New York City resident Jamie Bernstein, the oldest daughter in the Bernstein clan, has offered a look at her father in an intimate memoir “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.” In the work, she candidly talks about growing up with her “larger-than-life father, composer and conductor,” as well as her mother, accomplished pianist and actress, Felicia Montealegre. It has been called an honest and affectionate account of the family and friends, as well as a look at the age during which she grew up in.
Jamie Bernstein will be appearing at the Burnham Library in Bridgewater March 20 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss her book.
Jamie Bernstein is herself an accomplished individual. In addition to being an author, she is a narrator and filmmaker. According to her website, Jamie Bernstein created “The Bernstein Beat,” a family concert about her father modeled after his own Young People’s Concerts, and has also written and narrated concerts for audiences of all ages about Mozart, Aaron Copland, and Stravinsky, among others.
As a concert narrator, Jamie Bernstein has traveled extensively and appeared from Beijing to London to Vancouver. In addition to scripted narrations, she also performs standard concert narrations, such as Walton’s “Facade,” Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” and her father’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish.” A frequent speaker on musical topics, Jamie has presented talks around the world, from conferences in Japan to seminars at Harvard University. In Spanish-speaking locations such as Madrid and Caracas, Jamie narrates in Spanish — “thanks to her Chilean-born mother Felicia, who raised her three children to be bilingual.”
As a broadcaster, Jamie Bernstein has produced and hosted shows for radio stations in the United States and Great Britain. She has presented the New York Philharmonic’s live national radio broadcasts, as well as live broadcasts from Tanglewood in Massachusetts. She is the co-director of a film documentary, “Crescendo: the Power of Music,” which focuses on children in struggling urban communities who participate in youth orchestra programs for social transformation inspired by Venezuela’s groundbreaking El Sistema movement. The film has won numerous prizes on the festival circuit, and is currently viewable on Netflix.
Jamie Bernstein also writes articles and poetry that have appeared in such publications as Symphony, DoubleTake, Town & Country, Gourmet, Opera News, and Musical America. She also edits Prelude, Fugue & Riffs, a newsletter about issues and events pertaining to her father’s legacy.
If you think her book was a while in the making it was. She was in a discussion with a literary agent who said if she wrote the book it would coincide with Leonard Bernstein’s birth centennial. “It was like the urge to write came shot out of a cannon,” she said of the discussion and her decision to launch herself into “a long, and laborious” undertaking. “I always hoped to write a book but I was too afraid of not being able to do it. The agent’s comments pushed me to do the book.”
Many people, including journalists, have asked Jamie Bernstein what it was like growing up with such a famous father and in a often frenetic family life. “Well, it wasn’t boring and the reason the book was laborious is just because of that. It was a challenge to weed out many of my experiences and recollections and maintain a momentum throughout the book. I kept a journal when I was younger and that was extremely helpful to the process.”
She also checked out all details of the book with her sister and brother (Nina and Alexander). “They were very supportive and I told them from the beginning that I would show them every draft and they had veto power over anything that I was going to put in the book. It was important for me to have them feel comfortable with what was in the book and they are.”
Writing the book was a “labor of love” for Jamie Bernstein and also a catharsis, where she discovered much about herself and what makes her inner soul soar.
“It was fantastic ride and this book is not an aggrieved memoir. Every family has its ups and downs and being who we were made our ups more up and our downs more down. But my overall experience with my family was a positive one and I believe that comes across in the book. I made peace with my father and I also found out how I came about making music with my body and doing everything that I have done in life.”
In his examination of the book, author John Guare wrote: “Jamie Bernstein’s compulsively readable adventure tale, Famous Father Girl, tells of her growing up under the seductive spell of her father, the composer, the conductor, the true legend who needed the sustenance of a bourgeois life, upholstered with adoring wife and three perfect kids, as much as he needed the untrammeled chaos his genius compelled him to pursue. For Leonard Bernstein, the chaos won. Bernstein’s jaw-dropping honesty and humor gives us the best example of the ‘growing up famous’ genre since Brooke Hayward’s classic, ‘Haywire.’”
Leonard Bernstein was a complex person in his personal life and at one point left his wife to live with a male lover, although he did return home to care for his ailing spouse late in her life. His homosexuality (at a time when such sexual preferences were not accepted by many and could lead to being outcast from work and society in general) was made public knowledge by the conductor himself after earlier attempts to keep it hidden. It was reported that Bernstein’s personality could be somewhat mercurial, yet he is said to always have maintained the admiration, respect, support and love of his family, friends, and peers.
“I’m incredibly pleased with the outcome,” Jamie Bernstein said of her work. “I’ve done many book talks and the audiences are so curious and enthusiastic. I feel all of the energy springing back to me. These are my father’s core fans. They were there, attending his concerts and enjoying his craft.”
Jamie Bernstein hopes by being honest and open about her family it will make people understand what “a delicious person” her father was. “He was formidable and intimidating with a baton in his hand on stage. But he was also a funny person, warm and whimsical. He was multi-faceted and I hope that comes across in the book.”
The program at the Burnham Library is free and open to the public. Registration is required, as seating is limited. For more information or to register, email email@example.com, or call 860-354-6937.